It was one of those Texas days that started in the low 40s and rapidly spiked to the mid 80s by the afternoon. I was enjoying the view of the early blue bonnets along Highway 22 and reflecting on how much things had changed in the last few and long weeks.
Responding to an invisible enemy, people, businesses, and institutions were adopting measures many of which would very likely define what the “new normal” looks like long after the covid-19 virus was no longer a threat.
I was thinking how much higher education will change as faculty, students, and administrators come to the realization that it wasn’t that necessary after all to attend classes at a conventional school setting to be able to follow a curriculum and complete a full course load. And I am not talking about home-schooling but rather about distant-learning en masse. Or how much less office space corporations will need after they determine that productivity didn’t necessarily decrease by having employees working remotely. Or when we expand our expectations of “ordering out” beyond pizza and sushi to also include steak and wine.
But among the many foreseeable changes in the making, one kept coming to mind as a terrible and unjust casualty: the pandemic could possibly mark the end of the handshake, that brief, warm, and firm expression of mutual acknowledgment, agreement, affection practiced by humans as far back as 5th century BC.
As if to console myself, I wondered how many other similar expressions and customs had also disappeared in the recent past to the dismay of those who had grown up practicing them and then witnessed their gradual phasing out.
I was happy to find Mrs T sitting at her porch with her caregiver enjoying the sun and monitoring the blooming of her mandevillas. At 97 and despite having travelled all over the world, her fondest memories were still of the small rural community in deep East Texas where she grew up and where she met her long gone life partner in high school.
Mrs T told me of a time when all members of the family young and old had specific chores in the house and in the field. Not as a matter of instilling discipline or structure in them, but simply to be able to get things done and keep the place neat in the process. Mrs T and her four siblings, like everyone else they knew, took this as a given and their chores were just part of their daily experience, not a temporary and imposed departure from it. All knew exactly what to do prior to, during, and after gathering around the table for each meal.
As I listened to Mrs T reminiscing about her childhood, her glow brought to mind another thought. Could it be that the need for social distancing with its implied requirement to spend more time at home is also bringing families back together around the table for each meal? Is it possible that in order to get things done and to keep the place neat in the process people are having to recall “old customs” and make them part of the home experience again? If only some of this is happening and one unanticipated consequence of the quarantine is that family bonds grow stronger, saying goodbye to the handshake will not be as painful after all.
The Discretely column by Eduardo Berdegué is published monthly in newspapers throughout the Heart of Texas region.