From inside the cocoon
Paddy Smith, whose work graced these pages, and the pages of a number of national papers over the years, recently put fingers to keyboard again and recorded his experience of the last few months. In a lovely book simply entitled Cocooner – A Lockdown Diary, the Trim man has produced an invaluable record of these times.
Written in diary form, and from the perspective of a ‘cocooner’, the book opens on March 12 with Paddy waiting to collect his grandchild from school as the lock-down began. Chatting to another grandparent on a similar mission he wished her a ‘Happy Christmas’, just in case he wouldn’t see her until the bells jingle. How right he was.
Covid-19 has profound implications for Paddy and his wife, Mary. Both are over 70 with underlying conditions and, from the start, have taken the danger of infection seriously. Carefully following the advice for their age-group they became ‘cocooners’.
Paddy’s diary of their cocooning is laced with humour, frustration, joy, impatience, devilment, loss and love. It is a testament to the importance of family and a touching account of the loneliness experienced when families are separated. It also gives a real sense of the vulnerability felt by older people and those with underlying conditions in the face of a pestilence that refuses to go away.
The Smiths live in Trim, Co Meath. Two of their children, along with their families, live close by in Summerhill and Freffans. A third lives in Perth, Australia with her family. Throughout the book they are referred to respectively as the Freffans, the Summerhills and the Perths.
Early in the lock-down the ailing family dog, Rocco, had to be put down, a difficult experience at any time. Paddy writes touchingly about coming into the kitchen in the mornings and chatting to the dog, forgetting he is not there.
Illustrated with family photographs the diary captures virtual family events that resonate with us all. There’s a lovely description of a Zoom party to celebrate his grand-daughter’s 14th birthday. Later in the book Paddy gives a moving account of his grandson’s end of school ceremony, an online event for the leaving cert class where sadness and a sense of completion competed for attention.
The kindness and generosity of neighbours and strangers is mentioned again and again. Once, while out for a walk he needed a breather and leaned against a lamp-post. A young man he didn’t know, crossed a busy main road to make sure he was alright
Meticulous and methodical in all things Paddy took his temperature twice a day and recorded it in handwritten lists, that feature as a photograph in the book. As an exercise routine he walked around the outside of the house six times day, placing six small stones on the windowsill to keep an account of his progress.
The author loves his food, and many daily entries describe dinners, lunches and occasional treats from the local takeaways. He has a particular grá for a roast beef dinner and his description of its preparation and consumption leaves the reader in a state of salivation.
However, the pandemic is a constant and menacing presence. Its trajectory is carefully monitored by Paddy from the daily news bulletins. Even from this short remove it is easy to forget how dark the figures were.
He speaks about his first foray into a shop describing how he ‘sneaked up’ to the local emporium, dashed in when he thought no-one was there, treated himself to three cakes and - joy of joys - mushrooms. “I was nervous, and I won’t be making a habit of this,” he writes “It was worth it all for the bread. And the mushrooms.”
Both he and Mary have to travel to Dublin regularly for on-going treatment. The descriptions of these journeys paint a graphic picture of ‘Pandemic Ireland’.
Paddy can also laugh at himself. On one of these trips he realises his anxiety about social distancing is going overboard when he catches himself obsessing about the closeness of the cars to one another.
The book maps the way in which the pandemic altered social and community life. The changes to funeral practices, shopping, work and worship are all touched on by Paddy in terms of their real impact on his life and the lives of those around him.
The entries finish on September 15, after the schools have opened and restrictions are not as strict. Ironically, Paddy finds himself longing for the early days of the lock-down, “when life was very simple,” he writes, “Fan Sa Bhaile, Stay At Home. And I didn’t have to make decisions about what was safe and what wasn’t.”
This is a reflective book, reflecting back to us what we are going through. It is a work that will be invaluable to social historians when it comes time to look at how we dealt with one of the great global crises of our time.
Cocooner - A Lockdown Diary by Paddy Smith is published by Meath Co Council and available at Antonia’s Bookstore, Trim or www.antoniasbookstore.com
First published in the Farming Independent, Tuesday, November 24th 2020