The Royal We
On contending with life and death in 2020
From my downtown office, I can see the arched windows of the penthouse suite atop the DeSoto Hotel, where I once spent an afternoon interviewing Arnold and Lorlee Tenenbaum.
Several years ago, an assignment brought me to their art-filled apartment with the skyline view. Arnold sported his signature Hawaiian shirt, while Lorlee appeared in a matching suit set and scarf, smoking indoors, which I found impossibly glamorous.
I felt class-conscious as soon as I’d greeted the doorman, but the Tenenbaums squired me around in my scuffed flats like a prized guest, showing me the painting they’d bought together as an engagement present more than six decades ago, the one that had started their whole collection, which now ranged from Kara Walker to Warhol. In the intervening years, they’d transformed Arthur’s sleepy hometown with their civic and cultural contributions, something they regarded as their duty, thanks to their privilege and position at the head of a family business. Their favorite thing to talk about, though, the achievement that made them most proud, was their four children. Their son’s friend Wes Anderson had even borrowed their name for his famous movie, which tickled them no end.
For Savannah Magazine’s holiday issue, out this month, I was given another assignment: To write their obituary. In March, Arnold and Lorlee were the first people in Chatham County to die of COVID-19. They passed away within days of each other.
By now, the COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. is the size of a small city — my city. As if it could just be wiped off the map.
These days are heavy, as doctors and nurses make desperate pleas, as the hospitals begin to fill up again, as the case counts set new records every day.
They warned us for months it would be a long, dark winter. And now, the winter is here. We watched it coming like a freight train, without getting out of the way.
It’s enough to make anyone feel hopeless.
But my hope does not come from this world.
It’s one of the many strange incongruities of this dark time that my year was also defined by new life. My daughter was born just before 2020 began. She turns a year old this week.
For her birthday party, a picnic in the park which my own brother couldn’t attend, my mother made a banner with a photo of her from each month of her life. It was startling to see how much she’d changed: From a helpless, funny-looking thing in January into a brave and beautiful little girl in December, trying out her first steps and her first words (mostly POOT! and BWAP! and WOO WOO! but also APPle and TRUCK.)
Some of those months were defined by anxiety. I’d lie awake with terror, and wonder if I would be there for her as she grows up.
Even amidst the fear of being a new parent, and a flawed person, a baby represents the ultimate hope. Children, as Elijah Cummings said, are the love letter we write to a future we will not see.
I wondered what I could write about the Tenenbaums at the end of a year filled with too many eulogies. I asked my dad, a pastor and missionary, who has given a few.
“We all have eternity written on our hearts,” he said. “We all want to leave a legacy. Sometimes we think if we only look out for ourselves, that’ll be what makes it happen, but it’s not. Living for others is what leads to lasting change. In a way, we can even celebrate the Tenenbaums as great examples to the rest of us.
Much was given. Much was expected. And they came through. They lived rich lives that will continue to bless others for long after they leave.
That, my friend, is pretty much a clean sweep.”
In any year, let alone this one, there are so many ways we take care of each other. We donate. We volunteer. We listen. We hold space for grief. In 2020, we stay home.
I’d heard of the baby bubble, but this year was next level. My entire universe shrunk down to the size of my household: my parents, my husband, my daughter, and me. This is her whole world. Mine, too.
I’ve realized my sphere of influence might be a lot smaller than I thought it would be. It is not the size of a city, not yet. But this little circle of protection has power all the same.
And in the end, perhaps that’s all there really is: The people whose lives you touch, whether over a lifetime or only for a moment, like a ray of sunshine through a window in the late afternoon.
Photo by Richard Leo Johnson for Savannah Magazine