My year of listening to pandemic stories

Observations from an oral historian

click to enlarge My year of listening to pandemic stories
Amanda Riggenbach

When COVID-19 turned life upside down in 2020, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum set out to capture memories of the pandemic through an oral history project called "Tumultuous 2020."

As head of the project, I spent the last year talking to Illinoisans about their myriad experiences as they weathered one of the most difficult years in recent history. It was an honor to speak to them directly or listen to their interviews with my colleagues.

The stories we collected highlight the strength within people to continue moving forward amid incredible obstacles. I think we can all remember the early days of the pandemic, when it was uncertain how we would manage. But as I interviewed people, it became clear that they faced the pandemic with creativity, courage and even humor.

Take Marlon Young, a pastor from Peoria. His Morning Glory Community Church was seeing an increase in numbers around the beginning of 2020. That all changed with the arrival of COVID. Young and other church leaders suddenly had to figure out the new world of providing online services, conducting funerals safely and promoting sound health policies.

He made it through with his sense of humor intact. Young recounted his decision to set an example for his congregation by getting vaccinated. He called to set up an appointment and was asked how the health staff would recognize him. "I'll be the one with my shirt off! You'll have no question as to why I'm there. Give me my shot!" he responded.

For Bryan Crain, a funeral home director in southern Illinois, surviving meant navigating COVID even when it wasn't clear how the disease spread. To minimize the risk for his employees, Crain committed to personally completing all the bodily preparations for clients who passed from COVID.

Crain considered it a simple choice. As the third generation in his position, he felt compelled to follow in his father's footsteps, who had done the same thing during the AIDS epidemic.

"It doesn't matter what the person dies from, we're going to serve the family. If they want embalming, their loved one will be embalmed where they can have a proper goodbye," Crain said. 

Many businesses had to shut their doors. Starting a new business proved difficult ... but not necessarily impossible.

Marvin Merriweather, a Springfield therapist, had planned to start his own practice. He began purchasing furniture and securing office space with the hopes of opening in spring 2020. Then the pandemic hit. Merriweather decided to push forward and build a practice around online counseling. In this way he reflects the tenacity of many people who adapted to the proverbial "new normal" instead of accepting defeat.

Another person who stands out as having adapted to life during the pandemic is Summer Griffith. She lost her mom to COVID shortly after moving back to Springfield to be closer to family. Griffith then interviewed for a new job even though she wasn't sure if she was ready. She got the job and a few months later was promoted to executive director.

Griffith wept as she shared her experiences, good and bad. It became clear that she never stopped moving forward. Through everything, she persevered.

I think that is what has stayed with me the most as I reflect on my work with the project.

With help from numerous volunteers, Tumultuous 2020 collected over 80 interviews, from the population hub of Cook County to the southernmost border of the state in Alexander, Pulaski and Massac counties.

Their stories demonstrate the strength people can find within themselves. These men and women inspired me with their determination to live the best lives they could, even when it required extra sacrifice or creativity or hard work.

Some continued to tell me their stories even after the recording ended. Sometimes that was when they opened up the most. I think that shows the isolation of 2020 and the need it created to be heard. In this way, oral histories become more than just primary sources for future historians, but vehicles for people to process their trauma.

I've had people tell me they hadn't fully thought about their experience with the pandemic until being interviewed. Some, after the interview was over, found themselves struck by the severity of what they'd gone through.

Only a few people could be mentioned here, but I think they represent the experiences of many others. They highlight the different kinds of strength that helped people during uncertain times – the strength of family, of community, of faith.

The pandemic has not ended. Even when it does, its impact will not fade quickly. I hope these oral histories give individuals, today and tomorrow, a chance to reflect on the lived experiences of 2020. And to realize, with that reflection, they too have persevered.

Amanda Riggenbach served as manager for the Tumultuous 2020 oral history project at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. You can listen to the project's interviews at www.oralhistory.illinois.gov and follow the ALPLM on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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