Commentary: For a Generation of Appalachians, COVID-19 Has Delayed Our Dreams. But We See the Light.

Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

This time of year in North Carolina’s foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the weather just cannot seem to make up its mind. Not cold enough to be refreshing, not warm enough to be a relief. Not quite winter, but not quite spring. Just somewhere in between, in limbo. Waiting. 

This time last year, I had my 21st birthday. My partner, Max, and I made what would end up being one of our last “normal” visits to our hometown to celebrate with my family. We then retreated back to Boone, North Carolina, so I could finish out my final semester at Appalachian State University and tie up any loose ends. 

Upon graduation, due to circumstances out of our control, we ended up moving in with my family. Myself, Max, my father, my mother and my two younger sisters have all been living under one roof for almost a year now. The house technically has only two bedrooms, but it includes a parlor we converted into what would be a really cute studio apartment, if it weren’t connected to the rest of the family home. 

With my sisters attending high school, and my parents, Max and I working full time jobs, our schedules are always misaligned. Max arrives home from work around midnight, and some nights my father will head out to work at 2 a.m. The high school has been operating on an A-day/B-day schedule, so my sisters only attend in-person classes on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Although everyone is always busy with something, you’ll hardly ever find yourself alone. 

Olivia Matin. Photo: Sarah Johnson/100 Days in Appalachia
Olivia Matin. Photo: Sarah Johnson/100 Days in Appalachia

In a way, I prefer this cramped, slightly noisy way of living to the confinement of our apartment in Boone at the beginning of the pandemic. A year ago, I would FaceTime my family every evening. Now, I yell goodnight to them from my bedroom door.

Unfortunately, living in close quarters with everyone I love and care for did come with some health concerns during this pandemic. Had anyone tested positive, the whole house would have gone on lockdown. We’ve all had close calls, but thankfully, we’ve avoided any COVID-19 outbreaks in our home. 

Max and I are considered  “essential” retail workers in a town where masks are, for the most part, a suggestion, so every stuffy nose or hot flash sent us into a panic. I landed myself a job as a cashier at a home improvement store in September 2020. I still write as frequently as I can, but any thought of seriously pursuing a career in writing – or using my free time to do anything other than chores or worry – has gone completely out the window for now.

However, I’ve found that my interactions as a retail worker have changed for the better recently. The rude customers will always be rude, with or without the pandemic. But the nice customers have only gotten nicer. I speak to elderly people, for whom this may be their only trip out of the house for weeks at a time. Or young people who are in the same position as me, working to provide for themselves and their families in a job that is different from the career dreams they held just a year ago. 

I worked retail before the pandemic too, and it was nothing like this. Now, I think more people can see that I am a human first and an employee second. I once had an older man show me his military identification card for a discount. He said, “I sure look a lot different now, huh?” I laughed and nodded, the young boy in the photo had long blonde hair, and the man in front of me was completely bald, face lined with wrinkles. He explained that he had joined the army at age 17, right out of high school. “If I could go back,” he said wistfully, “I would have done a lot of things differently.”

In a way, I feel that the pandemic has given young people that time to pause and re-evaluate where we stand and where our goals lie. As a result, I have a gameplan. 

This time last year, I didn’t know where I would end up. Now, I know where I want to be and how I can work toward it. I know I want to continue searching for a job that better suits my skills as a writer and a storyteller. I’ve learned that I may want to go back to school at some point. And that’s all completely fine. Right after graduation, I felt like a fish out of water. Now, I have my footing. And it’s still uncertain, but I’m moving forward either way. We’re all moving forward, together.

Thankfully, Phase 3 of vaccinations in North Carolina included essential workers in retail positions, so I just received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine. Waiting in that line at the doctor’s office, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. Nothing more than a spark, but it was enough. 

My parents are both healthcare workers, so they’ve both been fully vaccinated, and my sisters will both qualify for the vaccine sometime in mid-April. I took Max to get his vaccine yesterday. We feel an increasing sense of relief as everyone in our home gets on step closer to that protection.

Afterwards, walking through the parking lot towards our car, we noticed Evan, a good friend of ours that we hadn’t seen in person since 2019. We almost didn’t recognize him. As many people have, he grew his hair out during lockdown. 

It was a beautiful day out, so the three of us stood in the parking lot and caught up for almost an hour, relaying information that just wouldn’t have had the same impact over a video call. We spoke about our virtual college graduation, online schooling and having to move back in with our parents, only to find out that Evan had been through the exact same things. 

With the three of us having gotten our first vaccine, it seems that, slowly, things are getting better. And as soon as it started, the pandemonium will end. Then we’ll all have a decision to make: to settle back into life as we knew it, or to choose a new path. 

Olivia Martin is a freelance writer and editor whose work focuses on living in the South. She graduated from Appalachian State University in May 2020 with honors and currently resides in Newton, North Carolina. 

She is a member of the Appalachian Advisors Network, a group of Appalachians working with members of the national and regional media to help tell a more complete story about their communities. Members of the media who want to connect with Olivia can do so here. 

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