By Katherine Wood Murphy
We were all at the end of an era, but we didn’t know that yet. At the time, I just knew that we had a February 29th, and it was a Saturday. It felt like a gift. “We have to do something special,” I told my husband, “something outside of our routine.”
That’s not to say that either of us really felt like it. What we usually want on our days off is to stay in, not go out. Working, parenting and keeping the house in some state vaguely resembling order is enough to make life feel full — more than enough, sometimes. But on Leap Day, we drove to Mount Washington instead. This made us feel like heroic, exhaustion-defying super-parents, congratulating each other for choosing to do something special with this extra Saturday. What we didn’t choose, or want, was exactly how special it turned out to be.
First, we strolled up and down Grandview Avenue with our 2-year-old, enjoying the view. It was sunny, windy and cold, one of those beautiful late winter days that feels less like spring than it looks. “That’s Downtown,” we told our son, standing on an overlook and pointing. He gazed out over the river towards the Point, thinking whatever toddlers think, fascinated but still clinging onto me koala-style if I tried to put him down.
Eventually, we made our way to the Monongahela Incline station, bought round-trip tickets and settled into a car, which was bigger and more open than I remembered. All the way down to Station Square, our little dude took in the view with giant brown saucer-eyes, spellbound, as his father and I pointed out the water, the buildings, the hillside, the tracks. And all the way back up, he remained quietly attentive, thinking his own thoughts.
Back on Mount Washington, we walked around on Shiloh Street, checking out the atmosphere and wandering in and out of a few shops. Then we had lunch at Kavsar, a Uzbek restaurant in a remodeled old house on a quiet block. It’s gorgeous inside, richly and colorfully decorated, with complex and opulent patterns everywhere. We feasted on a rich, delicious lunch, watching our son make friends with the server. There was so much food that we ended up taking half of it home.
Walking back to the car, we saw two black-and-white posters in a window with quotes and photos. They struck me so much that I turned around, went back, and took pictures. One featured Kurt Vonnegut, the other Toni Morrison.
Vonnegut’s poster advised: “Go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
Morrions’s declared: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
We went home content — and yes, even more tired. There is no other city where we could have had that family day.
Two Saturdays later, the country was shutting down.
In my head, I go back to Leap Day on Mount Washington over and over. What a gift it turned out to be, and how grateful my husband and I are that we forced ourselves to seize it. It’s the last time we sat together in a restaurant, enjoying a meal and a day. It’s the last time we wandered around a Pittsburgh business district or went into a shop just for fun. It’s the last time we really enjoyed the city and felt “normal.”
Over the months to come, there would be experiments with sourdough, living room dance parties and lots of quirky new hobbies and rituals that my husband and I invented to keep our family sane. I’m not sure any of it qualifies as art, but it is creative and has certainly made life more bearable. And there have been plenty of opportunities for me to remind myself not to succumb to despair, self-pity, silence and fear.
My son is three now, growing up in the pandemic. His earliest memories will probably include masks, video calls and shuttered playgrounds — hardly the preschool years of neighborhood parades, library story times, Light Up Nights, local festivals and playdates that we put down roots in Pittsburgh in order to give him.
What I hope for him, and for the rest of today’s kids, is that when they get to do those things again, they’ll appreciate them more than we did. Maybe our little dude and his peers will grow up to value, build and strengthen community life and institutions better than we have. Perhaps most importantly, I hope they demand and ensure that our communities include, reach and serve all of us, without exception.
And for all our sakes, I hope that when the pandemic is over, some of the healing Toni Morrison promised will follow.