Ever since I was a small boy, I can remember the grimace on my mother’s face when somebody nearby her coughed. Whether it resembled the ferocious bark of a chained-up doberman or a muted, nearly inaudible “Ahem,” she’d always say, “Ugh, that’s disgusting! They’re gonna get everyone else sick!” If it was her own child, she’d say, “Uh oh, are you getting sick? Stay away from me.”
When my mother rode the Long Island Railroad into the city, she spent the first few minutes of each ride in search of an empty row. If she found one and sat down, and then noticed another commuter eyeballing the seat next to her, she’d take a deep breath, clear her throat, and let out a phlegmy machine gun-like cough, so authentic that Steven Spielberg would ogle. Once her row was securely claimed, she spent the remaining time paralyzed by the fear of bed bugs, or far worse, a sneeze from ten rows up, which would instantly catapult her from the seat to the doorway, where she would stand facing out for the duration of the ride. Once in the city, if a pedestrian blew cigarette smoke within 50 feet of her, she’d hold her breath for dear life until she felt it was safe to exhale.
Little did she know that forty years later, her neuroticism would be validated, and 7.5 billion people would share her compulsions.
Every winter, I remember how the skin on my mother’s hands would crack from all of her incessant hand-washing. Her severe germophobia has followed her everywhere she goes, for her entire life. When dining out, my mother would examine the silverware, plates and glasses before sizing up the waitstaff for any sign of ill health—a runny nose, bloodshot eyes, or even a pale complexion would warrant a replacement.
At the gym, she would wipe down every bike, free weight, and machine with a paper towel and disinfectant before she used it, and while playing tennis, she stared in horror as her opponent held the tennis ball in their germ-infested hands.
At the bagel store, if she noticed the cashier touching the bagels after handling her money, she would leave the bagels, and demand a refund. When she saw her all-time favorite show on Broadway, Cats, her ecstasy was replaced by agony when the man behind her sneezed. For the last hour of the performance, she would check over her shoulder every few seconds.
The advent of self-checkout stations at grocery stores was a godsend to my mother, since it eliminated the cashier, and his or her prospective germs on the plastic bags and groceries. While filling a prescription at the pharmacy, she would refuse to electronically sign with the community pen, instead asking the pharmacist to sign for her. If he or she refused, my mother would pull out a tissue and wrap the pen several times over, before carefully maneuvering the diseased utensil.
In mid-March, my mother, once regarded as overly obsessed with germs, was instantly refashioned as a responsible adherent to CDC guidelines. In fact, the idea of taking everyone’s temperature with a thermometer before they enter a store or a plane is one my mother would have happily signed off on 50 years ago; same goes for a six foot radius and an end to handshakes.
A true germophobe’s germophobe, she has successfully passed down all of her anxieties to her three children. Our family actually has video footage of my younger sister, two years old at the time, pointing to another child who had coughed at a birthday party and yelling, “Sick! Sick!”
I love my 71 year-old, formerly neurotic mother, and am glad that she has not left her house and is quarantined with my younger sister—now no longer a toddler—to help secure the sterile environment.