Mama died in 1990 and Daddy died in 2000. In 2010, I sold the Finney family home of 22 years, moved into a duplex and supervised the completion of a new home south of town. I’m seeing a pattern here — a new decade brings major life changes. Yes, indeed. But wait ... just hold on to your hats! Here’s 2020. According to lexicographer Eric Partridge, this expression may allude to a wild ride on a roller coaster.
How clearly I remember the first (and last) time I rode a roller coaster. I was 21 years old, fresh out of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, teaching sophomore English and senior speech in Collinsville, Okla. Unthinkable today, in 1969 I often drove students in my 1962 red and white Dodge Dart to Tulsa for plays at the Tulsa Municipal Theatre (now Brady Theatre) or to Bell’s Amusement Park on the Tulsa State Fairgrounds. On this particular colorful fall afternoon, Robin and Becky, whose parents seemed to have accepted Miss Owens as their own, joined me for a Tulsa adventure.
During our 18-mile drive down the Mingo Valley Expressway to Tulsa, the girls detailed — above the sound of the radio blaring "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" — the newest attraction at Bell’s Amusement Park. Having opened the previous year, the wooden roller coaster’s name was Zingo, and it was the rage among my students. Robin and Becky squealed in delight as they described the unparalleled thrill of riding Zingo, assuring me it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I simply could not miss.
From the ground, looking up at Zingo’s highest point 72 feet above, I flashed back to the Arkansas State Fairgrounds in Little Rock where Mother commanded the operator to stop the Ferris wheel and release her terrified 5-year-old daughter. The horror of this memory should have kept me off the roller coaster, especially with the knowing looks my two conspirators flashing back and forth as they laughed uproariously, all the while assuring me that Zingo’s train moved slowly and "actually was not at all scary."
I assure you that the 98 seconds I spent strapped between Robin and Becky remain the most bloodcurdling of my life. I cannot tell you how many times Zingo hurled me up, down and around its 2,560-foot path at 48-50 miles per hour, but I can tell you that I squeezed my eyes shut, white-knuckled the crossbar, leaned my head first on Robin and then Becky, and screamed bloody murder, promising God, "If I get off this beast alive, I will never ride another roller coaster."
And I never did — until 2020. As I have often done since my first grandchild was born almost 11 years ago, I flew to Chicago in February to visit my daughter’s family. During my visit, ABC evening news reported deaths in China from a new virus. Near the end of the month, I heard the report that the first confirmed case in the United States was currently in a hospital in Schaumburg, Ill., the very hospital in which both of my grandchildren were born. Of course, this news got my attention and has proven to be a major contributing factor in the roller coaster ride of 2020.
Upon returning home, I listed my house for sale, having been remodeling another in midtown Fort Smith. The house sold in less than two weeks, meaning I had to close and be out by April 6. By this time in mid-March, the virus had been identified as a coronavirus, referred to as COVID-19, highly contagious and affecting those in our state. All except essential workers were advised to quarantine at home; therefore, daughter Lee Anna could not come from Illinois to help me pack. The roller coaster ride had begun, ready or not.
Uncertain that I could accomplish this feat alone, I asked a cousin to come help. Other than her two-day marathon, I packed, switched utilities from one house to another, notified senders of address change and hired movers, who took two days to load and move instead of one day as expected. In fact, the new owners helped me finish packing as their movers unloaded their belongings.
Zingo picks up speed, soaring for the free fall. Two days after moving to the remodeled house, Papa Gary, father of my two children, called to say he was on his way to the doctor. Two days later, I dropped him off at the emergency room. He spent three days in the hospital for a surgical procedure, after which I was uncertain he should stay alone; therefore, I stayed nights at his house, returning each day to supervise the remodeling of mine. Later in the summer, he returned to the same hospital for the same procedure. COVID barred all visitors.
Zingo hurled many of my dearest friends along with me, straight up to the peak of 72 feet before free falling to ground level below — over and over again we went from one uncertainty to another. One friend’s husband transferred for months back and forth from long-term care to hospital to rehabilitation. During this time before his death, she could visit him only through a window or by telephone. Another friend’s brother died unexpectedly in a hospital without family. A third friend’s childhood friend cared for her ailing husband at home until his death, knowing she could not visit him in a hospital. Speaking of uncertainty, a young friend could not be with her husband before, during or after open heart surgery.
From the end of February until Oct. 8, I did not venture further from Fort Smith than Mama’s Place, 55 miles south. I occasionally retreated there, slipping away from the death-defying speed and curves the roller coaster ride of 2020 delivered. Time on solid ground at Mama’s restored peace and renewal.
By the first week of October a break from Zingo was essential. Deciding to drive to Lee Anna’s for a visit, after she approved my spending one night in a hotel en route (because of COVID), I purchased four new tires, had the oil change and the CRV detailed, and drove to Schaumburg. Upon arrival, Lee Anna’s family had not yet returned from an outing. I opened the garage and let myself in. The first thing I noticed inside was a new plaque that read, "When everything is uncertain, everything that is important becomes clear."
Boing! A light bulb went off in my head. Hold on to your hats. The roller coaster ride of 2020 had done exactly that. It had taken away my routine; forced me to stay home and be still, to go deep within my own body, soul and mind; and taught me to depend on my creator for nurture, guidance, direction and perception.
During times of uncertainty I cannot depend on outside events, activities or other people for entertainment, diversion or affirmation. Those factors become unimportant, and as they grow dim, a light from within directs my path. Join me and we’ll walk together.
Louise Owens Finney is a retired secondary teacher and part-time minister in Fort Smith. She can be contacted at LouiseOFinney@gmail.com.