Editor’s Notebook: Into the blurry ‘after’

Sign for The Local restaurant in Warner
The Local in downtown Warner closed earlier this month after eight years in business. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

“With the coronavirus still spreading rapidly in much of the world and mass vaccination campaigns slow and unequal, experts say the illness will most likely become an ever-present threat.”

So reported the New York Times on May 10. The day before, a Mother’s Day framed by soft sunshine and budding life, I hugged my mom. I could say “for the first time since the pandemic began” for dramatic effect, but it wouldn’t be true. Last summer, in an act not of apathy or recklessness but love and weariness, we embraced. Wordlessly, we told the virus that had taken so much that it couldn’t have everything. And then we put our heads down and moved into the uncertainty of autumn, then winter.

On Sunday, mother and son fully vaccinated, we hugged for the second time in a year and for the first time in this blurry, amorphous “after.” I plan to greet her again on Memorial Day with a hug, but what are plans worth these days?

The future has never been predictable but it was easily imagined. But now, even as New Hampshire begins to emerge from a year of darkness, flush with federal aid, the blurriness is everywhere. 

In the little town of Warner, where I live, restaurants keep closing. First it was Foot Hills, then The School House Cafe. The biggest personal blow was delivered just this month. The Local, home to amazing burgers and my youngest daughter’s beloved sweet potato fries, closed its doors for good after eight years. “It has just become too cumbersome to continue,” read a note on the restaurant’s Facebook page.

I don’t typically become emotional when businesses close, but this was different. During the dark months, we started getting takeout from The Local regularly. It was a routine, but not a mandated routine, and that made it a source of joy. I’m grateful the owners and employees worked so hard to keep the doors open until spring arrived, but it will take the passage of many Thursday nights before I stop missing that place.

In my more optimistic moments, I can see a line of inspired chefs itching to take up the reins of the old Local. Who wouldn’t want to spend their working days in our perfect little postcard of a town? But then, with clear eyes, I see how blurry it all is. Who, I wonder, would be crazy enough to open a restaurant during the “after”? 

The toll the pandemic has taken on restaurants is easy to see, but the toll it has taken on my daughters isn’t.

This summer, I need to set up a tour of the high school for my youngest. That may seem unremarkable, but she’s going to be a sophomore next year, not a freshman. She doesn’t know where anything is in the high school she’s been “attending” all year. How can anyone calculate what’s been lost since she last sat in a classroom? 

The challenge is even greater for her older sister, who graduates next month and then begins a gap year to figure out how to begin writing the next chapter. What advice can her mother and I possibly give her that’s worth anything? What is the value of “before” experience in the beginning of the “after”?

If there’s one saving grace, it’s this: We are all disoriented, together. We may think we can see down the road, but we cannot. My daughters will continue to face challenges my generation didn’t, but they will not be alone. For the rest of their lives, they will have something significant in common with all of their peers regardless of where or how they grew up. Everybody lost something or someone, everybody changed. 

It is human nature to imagine the future, but it’s more important than ever to understand the limits of prediction and the instability of our expectations. Here in the beginning of the “after,” all plans remain at the mercy of the coronavirus.

So I won’t plan on hugging my mom for the third time in a year on Memorial Day, but I will hope.