Bob Brehl’s parents, Jack and Rita, in “simpler” times.

Bob Brehl: Back-to-the-future pandemic activities

  • May 20, 2020

While in a bulk food store recently, complying with social distancing rules, I was led around by an employee whose job was to scoop out items I wanted and bag them.

As he weighed one spice, we chatted about the times and the weather. Then it occurred to me that our exchange was no different than what it must have been like for my grandfather who ran a general store on the Danforth in Toronto during the Great Depression.

He died before I was born, but I’ve heard stories from my late mother and her sister, Joan, of ordinary folk, and even Toronto celebrities like Gordon Sinclair, popping in for staples and socializing. (It was in this store that my dad’s Aunt Mildred hatched the plan for her nephew to take my grandparents’ daughter out on a date.)

Now — returning to today’s crazy, stress-filled, dangerous days — social media, streaming services like Netflix and other technology advancements have been a godsend for many of us during self-isolation and lockdown.

But on a smaller level, there are many ways COVID-19 has turned back the clock to simpler, happier times. A lot of people are suffering, many grieving loved ones, but it’s not all doom and gloom.

Over dinner the other night, we reeled off many examples of COVID-19 pushing us back to simpler times, including leisurely sitting around the table talking. No one rushing off for an outing with friends, it was family time. We’ve not run out of things to say, either, which probably would have happened pre-coronavirus.

Perhaps your family is experiencing similar things? Here are a few examples we came up with:

Weekly grocery shopping. I remember growing up and Mom and Dad would grocery shop every Thursday night; first at the local IGA on Donlands Avenue in Toronto for produce and then at the Dominion “Mainly because of the meat!” on Woodbine Avenue.

Until COVID-19, my family never did that. I’d just pop in for food whenever we needed things. Now, I go once a week and only once. It brings back memories of going with my parents; staying with Mom at IGA and asking for my 50-cent allowance there and shopping with Dad for the meat at Dominion and asking him the same. (Some weeks I’d get lucky and they’d forget to ask if the other had already given me my allowance so I’d end up with a dollar.)

Speaking of shopping, during the lockdown there have been many campaigns in neighbourhoods and on radio to “shop local” at those stores that could remain open as essential services or restaurants offering takeout service.

Yes, online shopping increased and behemoths like Amazon reported spikes in sales. But more and more people realized the convenience of local retail and I think we’ll support local and not take these businesses for granted and assume they’ll always be there.

Is it possible that for the first time small independent shops actually have the advantage over malls? It feels like small towns and their Business Improvement Associations are getting a break, just like the sea turtles and other wildlife.

Our kids said we’re all doing more puzzles and playing more Scrabble and other board games. My wife and daughter spend hours at the kitchen table putting together 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles, chatting all the while.

Developing new hobbies or honing old ones seem to be on the increase. My wife is working on cutting wine bottles and turning them into decorative vases or candle holders.

Many of us have begun (or returned to) baking bread. People are exchanging recipes across social media for everything from scones to sour dough; and dropping off loaves to neighbours and those in need in the spirit of goodwill and sharing.

Another one that came to my son is that our “climate footprint” has shrunk — we’re staying closer to home. I’ve heard friends say they’re thinking more about their movements and consolidating their trips out. Of course, feeling cooped up has brought back the old “Sunday drive” when you drive around simply for the pleasure, not to get somewhere as fast as possible.

We also seem to be walking more. Almost like Victorian times, a walk outside is often the highlight of our day, taking time to notice simple pleasures around us, like flowers and birds.

I’m sure I’ve missed many examples of benefits pressed upon us by the coronavirus. And, goodness knows, today’s technology has connected and entertained us through this time.

But we’ve also become a little more in touch with the low-tech, quiet pleasures of simpler times.

(Brehl is a writer and author of many books.)

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