Sharing Our Stories: Alumnae Stories from the Pandemic

Vilma Olsvary Ginzberg 48

Vilma Olsvary Ginzberg ’48 graduated from NJC with a degree in psychology and worked as a clinical psychotherapist in Wisconsin for four decades. Now 93, Vilma has published seven small collections of poetry, many of which can be obtained through Amazon, all of which can be sampled on her website, She attended her 40th and 50th Vanguard Reunions and enjoys reading AADC publications to stay informed. She is a consistent donor to the AADC Annual Appeal. Here is her story, shared on September 4, 2020.

I am a native of New Brunswick but now live in Santa Rosa, CA, in a Quaker-inspired retirement community, where I live in an independent-living unit. Since I have lived in this area for the last three decades, this is now where my circles of friends and activities are, and therefore is where I call home. At this time in my life, I wanted community, togetherness, and a substitute family because my daughter and granddaughter live two and three time zones away. I moved to this community four years ago.

Everything here is based on Quaker values of kindness, caring for the earth and simplicity. Many of our residents are retired professionals who have had major accomplishments in their careers in peace efforts, science and literature.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected us, of course; as elders we are considered a high-risk population, so our management has required the most cautious of limitations on us. Our community has been in COVID-19-mandated lockdown since mid-March. Fortunately, no one here among our population of 80 people has yet to be diagnosed with COVID-19, and we are taking precautions seriously. We are not permitted outside visitors, not even family, unless we are dying. We must wear masks when out of our units, must eat alone and manage our solitude, an unexpected challenge in our elderhood. I had to have blood work done recently and was required to self-quarantine for seven days afterwards.

We practice social distancing and wash our hands frequently. We no longer eat together, but we can go to the dining room to pick up a “grab and go” meal. I prefer to cook in my home and still drive to the market to pick up food.

As a group, we can’t watch a movie together, or visit each other in our living rooms; most, if not all, our gatherings have been cancelled or postponed, such as governance meetings, committee meetings, movies, entertainment, social gatherings. Our beloved weekly community meeting where we kept track of the who’s and what’s of our community is now conducted as a mass conference call on our internal phone system where we can only hear and imagine each other. We do gather outside in one of the gazebos in this beautiful location, and people wear masks and observe social distancing.

The way the community is set up allows for the best health practices, and there are no steps to enter and exit our units. Units are situated around a green area called a cluster. Even now, we gather every Friday in our gazebos for a “happy hour,” taking advantage of the California weather and an opportunity to sit outside – six feet apart! We have plenty of green space and a large number of fruit trees here, and the fruit is consumed by the residents.

People here are resourceful in finding ways to focus on their mental and physical health. They take walks. Instead of going to a book club meeting, they read their books and discuss them by phone. I miss poetry sessions that I ran every month for my neighbors with our own poets and outside speakers. Instead, I go to online poetry blogs and look for poems that are relevant to this time, which I print out and share with my neighbors who are interested.

To me, the biggest challenge is the shredding of our social fabric, with fewer shared experiences, fewer gatherings. It is hard not to be in touch – literally – with other people. Touching is a primitive and basic need. One of my friends came up behind me to give me a hug from the back. I couldn’t believe how precious that was – better than gold! The more we come to realize our basic needs, the more we become more grateful for what we have.

The first thing I want to do when it is safe and we can be together again is to hug everybody I meet. Then I want to make a big vat of soup and invite everyone over to sit close together and eat.

I am a retired clinical psychologist, who, in my later years has taken to writing poetry. I offer this poem about our current situation.

Skin-hunger in corona virus times
© Vilma O. Ginzberg 4-4-2020

largest organ of my body
first contact with my mother
outside her watery embrace
taught it what to expect from this world
we were meant to be touched, stroked, held

having learned the many textures of it
the hurtful kind to avoid
the tentative tries of first friendship
the tender passionate strokes of intimacy
the lingering fades of goodbye
dry and furrowed as it may now be
in this dustbowl of aging
it is not prepared for this period of distancing

my dearest friend sits across a vast emptiness
as we blow meager breaths of squeezed intimacy
across the divide
a word of understanding from six feet away
does not a comforting hug make

we trudge bravely through the techno-jungle
of zoom and skype and facetime
for desperate connection
we have been relegated
to the emotional ice floes of our times

I will ask the true and painful question:
might I be putting off the dying of this flesh
while each lonely hour shrivels my soul?

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