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On Survival: My Grandma and I Are Both High-Risk

Oil painting Revelation (1983) by Shirley Winthrope Rivo on display at the Morristown Museum, which depicts an ominous sky over the Brooklyn Bridge pylon. Used with permission from Winthrope Rivo and her granddaughter Julia Métraux.

A few weeks ago, my grandma, who is 94 years old, called me as she regularly does, to check-in—she always makes sure to ask how my “writing on the Internet” is going. My grandma is an incredibly optimistic person, hard-working from overcoming many hardships early in life, but I could hear the concern in her voice when she asked if I was washing my hands and not giving people hugs.

Just a few months ago, I spent my conversations with my grandma discussing our hobbies and common creativity: She's a painter, and I'm a writer. She used to tell me that she wanted to visit me in New York City, where I’m finishing up my bachelor’s degree in Global Studies at The New School. But, then the Coronavirus outbreak struck the United States and put the lives of many people in limbo.

Before this pandemic, I always picked up the phone when my grandma called, and I called her often, as I was already afraid of how little time I have left with her. Seeing the news of outbreaks devastating assisted living facilities and nursing homes—my grandma lives in assisted living in Florida—is a stark reminder of how delicate the lives of people who are considered to be high-risk are right now. This is another thing my grandma and I have in common: We are both creatives, and we will both be considered high-risk if we contract COVID-19.

For the past few years, I’ve maintained a relationship with my grandma mainly by talking on the telephone, which is a point of regret on my end, although it has been for my own health. When I was eighteen (I’m 22 now), I became extremely ill with an autoimmune disease called vasculitis, which causes my blood vessels to become inflamed. I’m still not sure why, but I get very sick when I travel. But now I regret not doing so more, even if it had triggered an autoimmune disease flare, because I don’t know when I’ll see my grandma again, or if I will ever see her again.

Despite the unknowns of Coronavirus and how it will affect my family—none of my relatives have tested positive so far—my grandma seems to have a pretty positive outlook on what is inarguably a negative situation. Her positive outlook right now likely comes from the strength that she used when overcoming the barriers and crises that consumed her childhood and early adulthood.

My grandma, Shirley Winthrope Rivo, was born to an unmarried Polish Jewish mother in 1920s Toronto. Like many during the Great Depression, she grew up extremely poor and had to leave school at the age of fourteen in order to work to support her family. In contrast, at fourteen, I was a costume designer for Weston High School’s theater company.

Regardless of her lack of privilege, my grandma became a window decorator, then a scene designer for plays, and then was finally able to pursue her true passion: painting. She has had a pretty successful art career—one of her paintings hangs in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. There are so many things that intrigue me about my grandma’s career, and I can still vividly picture many of her artworks. But there are two pieces in particular that I keep thinking about in this moment.

My grandma lived in New Jersey when I was little, and in her house hung two abstract acrylic paintings consisting of black and red jags. To my child-brain, these pieces seemed to showcase one emotion in particular: anger. Rage dominates my work and thoughts right now. I am so infuriated by the United States’ response to Coronavirus, and I am angry about how our government’s delayed action has and will continue to disrupt and end people’s lives. When I try to make sense of the indescribable anger living inside me, I envision my grandma's jagged black and red paintings. My grandma has always seemed so positive to me throughout my life, and yet through her artwork she had shown anger that I feel now. It helps me recognize that even the softest people contain multitudes, rage being one.

I am struggling to be productive during this pandemic, even though I have more free time. Now more than ever, I truly admire how much she was able to accomplish, despite what she was up against. For the first time in my life, it feels like there are multiple barriers to expressing my own creativity through writing. This is in part because publications are freezing and killing stories due to budget cuts. Because of this, I feel a huge sense of dread, and question the purpose of writing right now. If the economy is going to go into a recession, the arts will suffer (more than they already have), so what’s the point?

As someone who is high-risk, the idea of legacy weighs heavily on my mind. What if I do catch COVID-19 and do not survive it? Unsurprisingly, the biggest cheerleader of my work right now is my grandma. Although she spends most of her time during our phone calls making sure I take precautions against Coronavirus, she always encourages me to keep writing, saying that my words matter.

I do wish that my grandma and I could just talk about creative endeavors without the gloom of Coronavirus coloring our conversations, but that seems impossible right now. If it were, I would visit my grandma at least one last time, to give her a hug and talk about how much I look up to her. I sincerely hope that this pandemic does not take that visit away from me.

Topics: Family, Writing
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During the month of Elul, while pondering many things:
Keep writing...
Blessings on your grandmother. May she enjoy a happy and healthy new year and have an opportunity to hug her granddaughter.

Your work resonates with me too. I am so happy I got to read this;)) thank you so much for writing it:)))))

Your grandma is right. Your words do matter. Please don't let your concerns about getting your work published stop you. You have something to say and it will resonate whenever it is read. I know because it resonated with me today.

As an older man of 76 I was glad to see
That she is still vital in her 90s. There is a Jewish
Saying till " a hundred and swvasic". 120

Just beautiful! With your delicacy, you cover so much about the consequences of the pandemic. At the same time, you share with your readers the depth and beauty of the relationship between two artists, your grandma and you. Thank you!

How to cite this page

Métraux, Julia. "On Survival: My Grandma and I Are Both High-Risk." 21 April 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 11, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/survival-my-grandma-and-i-are-both-high-risk>.

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