Leverett, MA. – Portia’s town center.
Leverett, Massachusetts is a rural town of about 1,800 people in the western part of the state. Downtown Leverett, if you can call it that, consists of a church, a post office, and the town hall. You can drive through town without stopping — there are no traffic lights in Leverett. If you need groceries, there’s just one store.
“It’s a beautiful place with not a lot going on,” says Leverett resident Jinny Savolainen. “An exciting moment in town is when the cows get loose and they’re in the road.”
Jinny Savorlainen (JS), Betsy Neisner (BN), Portia Weiskel (PW), and Mary Hankinson (MH)
Host: Now for something a little different — a portrait of a rural town under quarantine.
Jinny Savolainen (JS): I’m Jinny Savolainen. And I’ve been interviewing my neighbors here in Leverett, Massachusetts.
Host: When her small town went into lockdown, Jinny wanted to do something meaningful with her time. She had lost her daughter in 2019. And when the pandemic hit, she lost her job.
So she sent an email to the town list-serve asking people to talk about life during COVID.
Let’s hear some of those StoryCorps Connect recordings now, with Jinny as our guide.
Jinny Savolainen (JS): One of the people I spoke with was Betsy Neisner.
Betsy Neisner (BN): Fear – I don’t do fear.
BN: You know, I’ve had advanced cancer for 18 years, so I have made my peace with uncertainty.
JS: Another person I interviewed was Portia Weiskel.
Portia Weiskel (PW): I heard about people applauding to express gratitude for essential workers. And I thought, ”What are we gonna do in Leverett?” And I said, ”Howling.” It’s a funny moment where you go out there and say, ”Who’s going to howl first?”
JS: Mary Hankinson is our local mask maker.
Mary Hankinson (MH): What I thought would be just handing out 15 or 20 masks, we’ve made hundreds.
JS: Mary is a nurse and she told me what it was like inside the nursing home where she works.
MH: When people get sick, they’re transferred to a COVID unit. You watch them go out the door and you think, ”I’m never going to see you again. I don’t get to hug you while you’re dying.” In all my years there, I have never let anyone die alone and yet we have been forced to. And I remember one woman, she was an old farmer. And she was spunky. I like spunky little old ladies. And she said, ”They tell me I have that virus.” And I said, ”Well, your test is out. We don’t know that you have it.” So, of course her test came back positive. That was the point at which the tears came. You know?
JS: They’re very lucky to have you.
MH: Being a recent widow. I really miss companionship. I’m okay while I’m doing something. It’s when it’s time to take a break and that’s when I go, ”Crap, I wish I could talk to somebody other than the dog.”
MH: And actually I do talk to the dog a lot. And if they ever invent something where they can figure out how to get all the thoughts out of a dog’s mind, I’m screwed. (laughs)
JS: Doing these interviews gave me a sense of purpose and meaning that I badly needed. Just when things seemed so dark, I found some light in the words of the people all around me.
JS: I’m curious if you had advice or words of wisdom?
Ellen: To not hold on to how things were before this and what we’re missing.
PW: I just think that we need to remind ourselves of how amazing it is to be alive at all. I feel that so deeply.
MH: I hope that we do carry the lessons of kindness, because I think we have learned lessons. Even if you’re not able to articulate them all the time, they’re there. We are changed as a people.