Memory Banking

M uch as many of us would like to forget, remembering this pandemic has been a priority for some local organizations and residents. The names of politicians, scientists and pundits will surely go down in the history books, but the stories of ordinary people making their way through a global tragedy are important, too.

That’s the way Mary Christ, collections manager at the New Haven Museum, sees it. “Museums understand capturing first-person stories as [a historic event] is happening is invaluable,” Christ says. She points, for example, to the importance today of artifacts like the World War I diary of a New Haven soldier that became the centerpiece of a centenary exhibition at the museum.

Anticipating what will make this historic moment “understandable and relatable to future generations,” the New Haven Museum has been collecting responses from Connecticut residents to an online questionnaire about their pandemic experiences. The questions have been revised as the situation has evolved: What “normal” activity did you miss most during the past year? Did you or any of your loved ones contract COVID-19? What do you want future generations to know and understand about living through the COVID-19 pandemic?

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To date, more than 20 people have logged their responses. Contributors write of being sick with COVID, of loved ones lost and saved, of remote learning and working, of taking walks and doing puzzles. “I have spent the last two months since the virus arrived working on my goal of increasing concern about the mentally ill,” writes author Sharon Cohen of Newtown. “In the meantime, many people are now already suffering from acute anxiety if not PTSD… We are going to have another crisis after COVID-19 is finally gone.” Many submissions offer advice to future Connecticut residents facing crises of their own. “It is important to learn to use their creativity, something that many have forgotten we are born with,” writes artist Corina Alvarezdelugo of Simsbury. “The greatest inventions happen in situations like this.”

Included among the submissions are three videos from Music Haven and all 70 issues of Coronavirus Daily, a blog written by Susan Yolen of New Haven between March 20 and June 2, 2020. The collection also includes folders of photographs taken in various New Haven neighborhoods between March and November. Questionnaires and pandemic artifacts are still being collected. Christ is especially looking for remote learning items such as “copies of assignments, art projects, things from kids.”

Staff at the Hamden Public Library had a similar impulse to collect the impressions of local residents shortly after the lockdown began last spring. Patrons were invited to record their impressions from April to August in 24-page, cardboard-covered sketchbooks provided by an anonymous donor. “We wanted to help people through this trauma with art because [we] have a great appreciation for the healing power of art and also the effect that storytelling has,” says Melissa Canham-Clyne, the library’s director. “When people can tell their story, it makes their story more manageable.”

Some of the 31 Hamdenites who took on the project used their sketchbooks to make small works of art. Erin Ferich drew brightly-colored pictures using alcohol-based markers, including a “quarantine still life” based on a photograph her father had taken of a mask, a bottle of hand sanitizer and a can of Spam, and a drawing of a tiger in honor of what she called the “Tiger King portion of quarantine,” when everyone seemed to be following the Netflix series. Sue Bobbin, who had only just arrived in Hamden three months before the lockdown, sketched the “talking heads” on TV, a practice she found “meditative.” When protests took off following the murder of George Floyd, she found herself “trying to capture the rage people felt and the injustice.”

Patti Klein of Hamden filled her sketchbook with photographs she took over the course of several weeks, documenting public signs and empty parking lots. She photographed the empty cafeteria at Mill Road School in North Haven, where she is the kitchen manager, with its large tables folded up and unused, and colleagues handing out bag lunches to families. “I miss the kids,” Klein says. “I still cook for them… but I don’t get to see them.”

A sampling of more than a dozen sketchbooks is currently on display in the lobby of Thornton Wilder Hall at the library and the full collection, called the Hamden Historic Sketchbook Project, can be viewed online. All have been catalogued for in-library checkout by present and future generations.

A different kind of art project designed to document and process the pandemic is underway at Yale Divinity School, where second-year student Haven Herrin decided vintage handkerchiefs, rather than sketchbooks, would be the vehicle for both personal expression and a lasting communal work of art. “I wanted to engineer and facilitate a process that could be something tactile,” Herrin says. “I think people are very Zoomed out. They want to feel a part of things, they want to feel connection.” With funding from the Graduate and Professional Student Senate at Yale and the Institute of Sacred Music (ISM), Herrin put out a call for people to embroider a provided handkerchief in response to the question, “What must be remembered?” More than 70 people answered the call for the project, titled Kerchief.

Handkerchiefs, Herrin explains, are lightweight, flat, easy to mail and small enough to be “not particularly intimidating,” even to someone who doesn’t do needlework. They’re also intimate, personal items. Once the handkerchiefs have been collected, Herrin plans to stitch them together into a single blanket, dip it in a fabric-hardening solution and form it around their own body—or, perhaps, two bodies with a space between. “It’s like there’s togetherness, but separateness; there’s a little bit of space between, but also we’re huddled underneath this blanket,” they say. Herrin plans to livestream the final sewing touches and the creation of the sculpture on the project’s Facebook page later this month. Kerchief will eventually be donated to ISM.

The creators of these projects feel the need to remember, too. Herrin has a little red handkerchief hung on their wall awaiting design inspiration. It will probably represent changes in family relationships over the past year, they say. Christ of the New Haven Museum hasn’t filled out a questionnaire, but she created a file at home labeled “Historic Stuff to Keep” and has been collecting takeout menus, a mask, letters, care packages, birthday cards, photographs and other mementos of this strange time. Canham-Clyne, of the Hamden library, keeps an old-fashioned “common book,” in which she’s been composing poetry and collecting photographs throughout the pandemic.

All these actions answer the impulse that Herrin felt when they chose to embroider vintage rather than new handkerchief squares: “It’s like entering into a stream of history that is already there.”

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1, featuring Mary Christ with objects from the New Haven Museum’s ongoing “Documenting the COVID-19 Crisis” project, photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 2, featuring some of the handkerchiefs submitted for Kerchief, photographed by Haven Herrin.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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