My Dead French Grandfather Helped Me with COVID-19

Image result for deserted roads covid-19

After my mother died on February 7th I gathered her valuables and photo albums and drove home to New York. But there wasn’t enough room in the car for everything I wanted to keep.

There were tchotchkes like a silly white ceramic salt and pepper shaker in the shape of Arab kings. It wasn’t my taste but it had been there my entire life so I wanted it. There was a box of birth certificates and other official documents from her parents and grandparents back in France. Her bike. She bought a wooden chair for five dollars at a garage sale, stripped off the hideous paint and discovered it was early 19th century Shaker; I didn’t want to let that go.

One more trip to Dayton was all I needed.

Her house sold faster than I expected. Closing is in a month. The buyers want to move in then. So I’d have to get my stuff out. My realtor was generous. She offered to pack everything up and store it for me until the end of the coronavirus crisis. But as a rule I prefer to do it myself. Things you care about get lost and screwed up when you leave them to others.

COVID-19 be damned, I packed up to drive from New York to Ohio.

It was going to be a cannonball run. Twelve hours from New York to Dayton, one day to pack, twelve hours back. I’d only need to get gas once each way. If I needed to urinate, I’d do it on the side of the Pennsylvania’s Interstate 80. As Gary Numan noted, the automobile is the epitome of social distancing.

Aside from the possibility of contracting the coronavirus, my plan entailed the risk of being trapped at some checkpoint or forcibly quarantined as lockdowns continue to spread. Ohio has a “shelter in place” order. There are rumors that nonessential travel verifiable by documentation has been prohibited. The White House wants anyone who leaves New York to self-quarantine for 14 days. As of this writing, however, the highways are supposedly open. But will they be on Friday?

I couldn’t sleep last night.

What if I got sick somewhere in western Pennsylvania or eastern Ohio? I wouldn’t have any clue where to go. Would I be able to drive the remainder of the way to Dayton? Would I get stuck there? If I were on my way back, would I be in good enough shape to make it back to New York? There were too many variables to feel good about making the trip.

It’s not like I am particularly risk-averse. I’ve filed conflict reporting, including from Afghanistan. But something kept telling me I was being stupid.

Then my grandfather spoke to me. Not literally. He died over 30 years ago. But I could hear him in my mind, telling me a story for the umpteenth time, so clearly that I re-remembered the timbre of his voice.

The story concerned his best friend.

When France fell to the Germans in 1940, the country was partitioned. The western Atlantic coast and northern France including Paris were subjected to direct Nazi occupation. The center and the south became known as the absurdly misnamed “Free Zone,” governed for the first couple of years of World War II by the treasonous collaborationist regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain. My grandfather and his family lived in the free zone. His boyhood best friend lived in Paris.

A member of the French Resistance, he learned that Jews and others deported to Eastern Europe would never return, that they were being mass murdered by the Germans. He determined to save his friend, a Jew living in Paris.

Using forged papers that could have gotten him shot on the spot had they been discovered, he illegally crossed the line of demarcation into the occupied zone and made his way to his friend’s apartment in Paris.

You and your family, he told his friend as they smoked together, must leave at once. I have arranged forged documents for you. I will take you over the mountains to Spain where you will be safe.

His friend trusted him implicitly. I understand, he said. Then he went to talk to his wife.

After a time, his friend returned to the living room to inform him that they would not be leaving with my grandfather. They had a beautiful rent-controlled apartment, nice furniture. He specifically mentioned a fine china cabinet. Holocaust rumors seemed so over-the-top. Perhaps, he told my grandfather, everything will be alright.

After liberation, my grandfather returned to Paris where he learned that months after their meeting, his friend, his friend’s wife and their two daughters had been deported to Auschwitz. They almost certainly were gassed upon arrival.

The apartment was bare, the door wide open. Someone, neighbors probably, had taken everything, even the china cabinet.

“My friend died over an apartment and some stuff,” my grandfather remembered. He was still angry. “Never die over stuff. Society can collapse in an instant. Accept the truth, pivot and never look back. It’s the difference between life and death. Never risk death over a stupid china cabinet.”

COVID-19 isn’t World War II and driving to Ohio is hardly on par with waiting out the Nazi occupation of Paris. Yet my grandfather’s lesson was pertinent. I nearly risked myself and everyone that I came into contact over stuff.

Stuff doesn’t matter. People matter.

I’m sure my realtor will pack everything up diligently.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of the biography “Bernie.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)



  • alex_the_tired
    March 25, 2020 4:20 PM

    Read it shortly after 9/11. Woman got out of one of the towers, then went back in to get a photo on her desk (this is back when it was quite possible to only have a photo and no negative and no backup). And she didn’t get back out again.
    I used to work in an office in a building that had an alarm routed through the fire alert. If there was a fire, you’d hear the fire drill siren. If a rat ran across a floor when an alarm was turned on, it also went through the fire alarm siren (but didn’t notify the fire department). And every d—–d time, I would get up and leave the building. And it was never a fire.
    You made the right decision Ted. Because this is not the time to be 503 miles from home when your starter motor quits. “What do you mean you aren’t open for repairs? What? You’re kidding me? What am I gonna do? Oh, well that’s nice. Do you kiss your kids with that mouth?”
    If you can’t walk home from where you are, don’t travel there unless you literally have no choice whatsoever.

  • Keep listening to your maternal grandfather, Ted. He obviously had gotten his priorities – both on the importance of (trying to) save his friend, and on the unimportance of stuff – right….


    • alex_the_tired
      March 28, 2020 9:00 PM

      I recall the informative story of Stefan Zweig, one of those great writers almost no one’s heard of anymore. I keep looking for a citation for this, but can never find one.
      Basically, Zweig realizes the Nazis are trouble and not going away. His friends tell him he’s wrong. “Six months from now, no will even remember there were Nazis.” Zweig starts hounding his friends to get their travel documents in order (this is way back; passports took time, booking tickets took time, etc.) Some of them, just to get him to stop pestering them, go to the trouble. We all know how the rest of the story goes. By the time people realized what had arrived, it was too late. You couldn’t get travel documents anymore. (Anne Frank’s father, Otto, wrote letters that survived which clearly show his absolute desperation to get his family to safety. He left it too late. I can’t imagine how much that must have haunted him.)
      And this “moderation” thing is driving me crazy. I realize it’s not your fault, but have you considered resetting the cache on the spam filter? That, apparently, will fix the problem (or is supposed to).

      • Alex, my webmaster and I have been working on it and we have cleared out the cache more times then we could possibly count. The way this is supposed to work is that when you are a trusted poster, you don’t get moderated anymore. You’ve been approved countless times so obviously you shouldn’t be having any problem. All I can say is, rest assured, I come in and check this frequently and I always approve your posts and everyone else’s. So keep posting and the worst that will happen is that there might be a few hours delay.

      • I suspect, Alex, that you’re speaking of Herr Zweig’s Die Welt von Gestern: Erinnerungen eines Europäers (into English as The World of Yesterday: Memories of a European). Having read it in Swedish translation many years ago, I don’t remember it quite as well as I should like, but I do recall him castigating, among others, the intellectual newspapers in the German-speaking lands for laughing at the poor style of Mein Kampf, rather than concentrating on Herr Hitler’s programme. For my part, I can’t but be struck by the similarities with which the neoliberal establishment and its media deals with a certain Donald John Trump….


  • I occasionally think back to a time prior to my thirtieth birthday when I was unburdened by stuff.

    When things got too hot in the low rent neighborhoods I inhabited there was no greater satisfaction than loading up all of my possessions in one car and enjoying the diminishing importance of my immediate past from the perspective of a rear view mirror.

    Learning how to live with little made leaving behind stale life experiences in favor of new experiences less fraught with anxiety.

    The only stuff I might miss now is my personal library.