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Social Distancing With My Mother

April 26, 2020
by Delwar Hussain

Anthropologist & Writer Delwar Hussain sent me this latest in his series of pieces, describing his experiences of self-isolating with his mother in the family home in Spitalfields

Portrait by Sarah Ainslie

I left my mother in the garden on slug watch. She had instructed me the precise type of rice flour to go out and buy. There are two kinds apparently. Ramadan is coming and she is preparing to make dumplings for those in the family who will be fasting.

Instead of walking on the pavement, I meandered down the middle of Fournier St. I paced myself, I had all the time in the world. I turned the corner into Brick Lane past the line of hearses that now park there daily. Although the restaurants are shut, some are doing take-aways and, from the number of Deliveroo cyclists waiting outside, it appears there is a big demand.

I waited for a car to pass before I continued on my way. There is something thrilling about walking down the middle of the road. It is not the risk of getting knocked over as much as knowing you are doing what you are not supposed to do, a small yet exhilarating rebellion. I shall be disappointed to return to walking on pavements again once lockdown is lifted.

The gates of Christ Church Primary School were open. The school is holding classes for the children of key workers and pupils with special needs, but the building is silent with none of the usual sounds of play and laughter emanating onto Brick Lane. My sister who works there tells me that most parents prefer to keep their children at home.

At Zaman Brothers Cash & Carry, customers were observing the new etiquette and rules. They wore masks and gloves, and were attempting to maintain distance between themselves. It is tricky, especially between the narrow aisles, full of pulses, spices and pickles, but I found the rice flour my mother needs.

The shop has started delivering to those unable to get out of their homes. Each time, the delivery boy waits while the shopping trolley is packed by a shop assistant before he goes out on another round. He was absorbed in a game on his mobile, scrolling intently with utter concentration, so contented that he looked serene. I had forgotten that I could lose myself in any activity without anxiety, without wondering what is happening around me.

At the counter, one of the Zaman brothers patiently explained to a customer concealed behind a pink scarf that the reason they do not have oori – a dark green bean like a mangetout – is because suppliers cannot send produce over now flights from Asia have been cancelled.

When it was my turn, he asked after my mother. He told me he will miss her kichuri this year. This rice and lentil dish is eaten each day  in Ramadan when the fasting comes to an end. Every year my mother sends large Tupperware boxes of it to the Brick Lane mosque and those who go there to break their fast say they prefer hers to all the others. If my mother were ever competitive, it would be her sport, but this year the mosque will be closed.

I carried the groceries home. After weeks of lockdown, nihilism has overcome me so I bought a large bag of frozen samosas for myself too.

I was in time for my Zoom meeting. As I went upstairs, there was a knock at the front door. We were not expecting visitors. My mother stopped what she was doing, widened her eyes and raised her eyebrows while trying to remain calm. I call this her ‘Oh bugger, the secret police are here’ look. Usually, it is merely the postman but on this occasion it was not. A neighbour wanted to speak with my mother. I told the neighbour that we are self-isolating  – while thinking ‘So should she’ – and that we have both been unwell. The neighbour looked agitated but says it will not take long and she will stand by the door. This is a woman who lives in an abusive household and has had to spend nights at our house in the past. So I left my mother and the neighbour at the door to attend my online meeting.

During a break, I came downstairs feeling a little unsettled. The people I had been speaking with were all discussing the loneliness of self-isolation, their fears about the virus, and their anger at our inept government.

I heard voices and laughter from the kitchen, so I opened the door. My mother and the neighbour were sitting at the table, making rice dumplings. Their hands were covered in flour and they were chatting away without a care in the world. My mother was demonstrating to the neighbour how to tidy up her dumplings and make them less spherical, which she was not managing on her own.

Alarm bells rang but I was uncertain what to do. ‘This is not social-distancing!’ I wanted to say. Despite my mother’s good intentions, the neighbour could be a spreader or we could infect her. Fourteen days since our recovery, we no longer know what we should or should not do. All I could do was to give my own version of my mother’s ‘secret police’ stare, as if to say ‘Can you explain what is going on here right now?’,  but she ignored me and returned to her dumplings.

Later, after my Zoom meeting had ended and the neighbour had left, I got out the anti-bacterial sprays, wipes, hand-washes and the bleach, and began wiping down all the surfaces the neighbour might have touched.

‘Home is not safe for everyone at this moment,’ my mother announced as she washed her hands. ‘It never was before and it still isn’t now.’

‘She should know better,’ I replied.

I know my mother does not enjoy breaking rules in the way I do, especially given the possible consequences of a viral re-infection. Yet as I cleaned the kitchen I realised that she is right, it is compassion – rather than disinfectant – that will save us all.

Portraits copyright © Sarah Ainslie

You may also like to read

At Home With My Mother

In Self-Isolation With My Mother

In Convalescence With My Mother

30 Responses leave one →
  1. Leana Pooley permalink
    April 26, 2020

    What a very interesting, thoughtful and sensitive piece. I do hope that we can read in the near future that all is still well in this household.

  2. Venetia permalink
    April 26, 2020

    So beautifully written. Each detail so rich with life and potential. The silent school, the row of hearses, the busy shop, the absorbed delivery boy, the continuing sense of community despite the restrictions, the continuing abuse and anger that some endure, the life saving compassion of your mother. Thank you Delewar. This is a very beautiful picture of life and community. May God bless you richly. Ramadan mubarak.

  3. April 26, 2020

    I’m very grateful that we continue to have writings from GA and others to read and reflect upon. I’m happy to know that Delwar and his mum are feeling much better.

    I saw my 92 year old mother yesterday. My sister and I met at her house where she has been successfully sequestered. We had things to bring her; I’m the one who brings chocolate and nice biscuits for her cups of tea. My sister brings the sensible items like frozen vegetables and chicken pot pies. We were supposed to have our visit in the back yard for our visit but the wind was too sharp and the sunlight wasn’t strong enough to comfortably sit outside. We sat far enough apart from each other inside and had a nice visit. After I got home, I called my sister to see if she was just as worried as I about inadvertently exposing mum to the virus by being inside her house. It’s truly uncharted water we are all in.

    I always read the comments people post and was very happy to see recently that a fellow reader from Massachusetts had commented after an absence that made me wonder if she was okay. It looks like she is. I don’t know her personally but GA, you really have created a wonderful community with spitalfieldslife! I very much appreciate it.

  4. Marina permalink
    April 26, 2020

    A beautiful piece!

  5. April 26, 2020

    I am glad Delwar and his mother have each other. Stay safe both of you. I think the wisdom of the elderly is particularly precious at present and I am moved by Delwar’s writing and the way he draws us in. I miss my mother and in my weaker moments, when contemplating her 91st birthday for example, am desperate to break the rules although I know staying away is the safest option.

  6. Mary permalink
    April 26, 2020

    I wish your mother and yourself well. I remember walking home (sometimes running to meet my father’s deadline to be home at a certain time) down the middle of Brick Lane in the sixties an eerie experience and not really a safe thing to do, especially if the police were not on the corner of Hanbury Street. I remember feeling safe at being home for all it’s faults. I am pleased the neighbourliness is still there and after all this time and after this Covid threat perhaps society could rid itself and educate the perpetrators of all domestic abuse not to do it. My own family home was Irish, happy, a lot of us and although a slum we were not slum people. Regards Mary

  7. April 26, 2020

    Enjoyed this humane and well written piece hugely. Thank you.

  8. Jo Colley permalink
    April 26, 2020

    Such a lovely piece, thank you! Funny and compassionate.

  9. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 26, 2020

    Another very telling account of his self isolation by Delwar… The throw away line about there being a row of hearses along Brick Lane was especially chilling, and really brought home how tragically the virus is affecting so many people.

    And I agree that compassion wins over disinfectant any day…

  10. Deborah permalink
    April 26, 2020

    Thank you. A poignant piece which describes so well a number of what must be common experiences and emotions right now.

  11. April 26, 2020

    Your mother’s comment about the safety of home is so wise and compassionate, Delwar.

    The pieces you have written during this have been a source of comfort to me and I’m sure to others, you have a knack of capturing the essence of what we’re feeling, I think.

    Ramadan Mubarak


  12. April 26, 2020

    I agree with Delwar Hussain, compassion, generosity, open-mindedness are, at times, much more effective than desinfectant. And they will be much needed when this is over. Please tell him to thank his mother on my behalf.

  13. April 26, 2020

    So wonderful to be able to share this episode of lives being lived in full. With thanks to Mr Hussain and his wise and beautiful mother.

  14. Lesley Harrison permalink
    April 26, 2020

    I love reading this account of our time. As my daughter pointed out yesterday, history books will give us the dates, science and the big story. It is these personal insights and experiences which really give the account of what is happening. Like the labels on evacuee suitcases in a museum, these personal details bring experience closer to home.

  15. Bon permalink
    April 26, 2020

    A lovely story – age and wisdom triumph over endless fear

  16. Helen Holland permalink
    April 26, 2020

    A lovely story. Stress and loneliness will have a detrimental effect on people in the long term as this goes on. We all need love, we need to feel connected, not by tech, but by real human interaction. We are being deprived of this right now as we are constantly bombarded with distressing news, with its mixed messages, on a daily basis. A strong immune system is vital in fighting any disease and a healthy diet and exercise is good but heightened levels of stress will bring the healthiest person down. Your mother’s connection with her neighbour may be considered dangerous during these cruel times but it made her neighbour and herself happy. This could go a long way in keeping their mind, body and souls together. Compassion, love, and positivity, is what we really need to get us through this.

  17. April 26, 2020

    I too have taken to walking down the middle of our roads. We are in Cornwall and would normally be inundated with visitors as the weather has been so good. I’ve just subscribed to your blog at the request of my mother. We love Spitalfields and can’t wait to visit again. Take care, from one shopper to another…

  18. April 26, 2020

    I live half a world away in a country led by someone who shames the nation daily. This blog settles me in a very frightening time. The articles have made me love your neighborhood, its causes, and its people. I mourn their passing, celebrate their victories, and am inspired by their compassion and outlook. Thank you Mr. Hussain for this lovely piece and Gentle Author for extending the scope of my neighborhood.

  19. Sue permalink
    April 26, 2020

    Another thoughtful piece. Wishing them both well.

  20. Ros permalink
    April 26, 2020

    I have been meaning to write to say how beautiful, wise and reflective your pieces about this time out of time with your mother have been, and now I have another chance. They are jewels on a string, and I hope against hope there will be more of them. They are beautifully written, each one of great insight and interest. The photos are rich and lovely too. Thank you so much!

  21. April 26, 2020

    A quieting, absorbing read. Thank you.

  22. April 27, 2020

    Lovely Delwar
    I have experienced a similar situation but it seems we are three weeks ahead from you in Spain. There is a lot to reflect upon it, it seems we could go out for a walk in a week here, so that will come soon for you too. However, the only way to overcome all of it will be through lived moments like that one, smiling uncertainty with love and care, best wishes

  23. suse permalink
    April 27, 2020

    Thanks GA for curating these and thanks to the writer and his mother for being there.

  24. Pam Owen permalink
    April 27, 2020

    I am enjoying Delwar’s musings on life in lockdown. Please keep them coming. I hope Ramadan isn’t too upsetting for your mother this year.
    My daughter lived in Wentworth street for a few years so I know this area a little
    Sending my warmest wishes to you both ?

  25. Meryl Sharp permalink
    April 27, 2020

    A delightful story of mother and son who exude kindnesses

  26. ceri permalink
    April 28, 2020

    Thank you for sharing this tender compassionate moment.

  27. Ruth Campbell permalink
    April 28, 2020

    Please keep writing about your locked-down life with your mother. Every instalment brings a new revelation. It feels like discovering a new neighbour, friend even. Thankyou and Ramadan Mubarak

  28. April 28, 2020

    Nice to read the update and see new photos of you both looking so well.

  29. Richard permalink
    April 29, 2020

    That’s beautiful. Thank you. I feel better now.

  30. Roy Buxton permalink
    May 9, 2020

    Thoughtfully and sensitively written. We can each interpret the scenario in our own ways, which surely is one hallmark of great writing. Anthropologist? Surely, in our time that is a ‘proper’ job. Just as we think we know ourselves intimately, there has never been a better time for someone to explain why we do, act, and think as we do.

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