Even though Covid-19 is still simmering, many of us have mentally closed the book on it. In her newly published collection of essays, Rye’s Alison Cupp Relyea writes about how the virus turned life upside down, and the moments worth remembering.
Back in mid-March 2020, when the pandemic shut down most of the country and the world, Cupp Relyea felt compelled to put pen to paper to capture what was going on. “I had a couple of notebooks and started writing in them every day, at least a paragraph or two, just to record the days because it was such a weird time,” she recalled.
A writer, as well as an historian, at heart — Cupp Relyea is Director of Museum Education and Programming at the Rye Historical Society — it was second nature for her to chronicle the shutdown, which she figured would be pretty much over in a couple of weeks.
As the outbreak spread and the dangers of the virus hit home, she came to realize that home in Rye with her husband and three children was where she would be for the unforeseeable future. Those sequestered days, which stretched into months, became fertile ground for her book, “Soundtrack, Liner Notes from a Pandemic Mixtape.”
While navigating the challenges brought on by Covid, Cupp Relyea found inspiration for the book’s 22 essays in the ordinary moments of life. Through her unique perspective and a profound appreciation for music, she seamlessly weaved her pandemic experience into a tapestry of stories. The pages are enriched with life’s snippets, beautifully punctuated and bridged by the emotional resonance of song—much like stumbling upon a favorite track on tubidy mp3, each chapter unfolds with a harmonious blend of reflection and melody.
She shares how, in the early days of isolation, she tried to make things feel special and create family bonding experiences. “We ventured out for a few hikes and completed a giant puzzle on our dining room table. On karaoke night I put on real clothes. My family cleared out of the TV room during my heartfelt rendition of ‘Gold Rush Brides’ by 10,000 Maniacs, but I didn’t care. It put things in historical context to think of westward-bound women giving birth in covered wagons long ago. Social distancing? We got this.
She allows that the shutdown gave her the time and space to reflect and make sense of this moment, especially during long walks along Playland Boardwalk and through Edith G. Read Sanctuary. “I would replay something that happened during the day,” she said, “and see connections to things that had happened earlier in my life or in the larger history.”
Each essay is named after a song title, and the driving beat behind all of them is the music that Cupp Relyea drew upon to cope with the emotional rollercoaster brought on by the pandemic, she noted.
The book’s second essay, named after a tune by Sinéad O’Connor, drives this point home. “No song got me dancing and unloading the dishwasher faster than ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes,’ and the line, ‘I see plenty of clothes that I like but I won’t go anywhere nice for a while’ could be the coronavirus tagline. Nowhere to go, no one to see. Just me, my family, some writing, my music, and an unprecedented need to dance around my house.”
Lyrics from Sinéad O’Connor, Natalie Merchant, Tracy Chapman, and U2 wafting from Amazon’s Alexa became the soundtrack of her family’s days. Her musical choices sparked curiosity and sometimes ear-covering protests from her children, who took the opportunity to make their preferences known, inspiring new additions.
“It became a connection with my kids, which was pretty awesome,” said Cupp Relyea. “A lot of the songs that ended up in the collection aren’t necessarily songs I knew, but they were songs we had some funny moments around that crystalized that song in some way.”
From “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” viewed during one of their countless family movie nights, they laughed along to the song “Danke Schoen.” “It’s A Hard Knock Life” became the soundtrack for a Covid cleaning party, as her children “splashed around on their hands and knees” washing the floors in their bathing suits.
“Lockdown gave our children a crash course in infectious disease, household chores, marriage, and music from the 80’s and 90’s,” she muses. “But given that pre-pandemic dinners had consisted of the kids and me eating a rushed meal between hockey and theatre practice with Rich out of town or working late most nights, even they found some silver linings in quarantine family time.”
Ubiquitous in “Soundtrack” is the power of music to be an emotional portal. She writes about being in her kitchen listening to The Pretender’s song, “I’ll Stand by You,” the day after her eldest got his first Covid vaccination. From her countertop speaker came the lyrics, “I’ll stand by you. Won’t let nobody hurt you. I’ll stand by you.” Cupp Relyea shared, “And then the tears came — from nowhere and everywhere. I remembered standing next to my son the day before, letting someone stick him with a needle in the hope that it would keep him safe from this invisible threat.”
Another tune brought home for Cupp Relyea how much she missed her siblings, having never gone for a long stretch without seeing them. In the song “Would You Rather,” Pheobe Bridgers sings of her brother, “I’m a can on a string, you’re on the end,” and it strikes a deep chord. “Siblings are tethered to us. They share our story and know what we know in a way no one else can, and when we look at each other we see the person today layered with snapshots from years of yesterdays. We cherish them and can’t stand them but cannot imagine life without them.”
During the two years she wrote the essays, she witnessed the world change before her eyes. The virus sickened and killed millions, essential workers risked their lives daily, and social upheaval in the U.S. came to a head. Her writing captures the reverberations of George Floyd’s murder and the March for Justice, Rye’s Pride Month celebration on the Village Green, and the inauguration of a new president.
At the same time, there were three meals a day to be made, work-from-Zoom to be done, and remote school to be supervised. And, as Cupp Relyea writes in “Soundtrack,” there were precious everyday moments that eased boredom, assuaged anxiety, sparked laughter, and deepened relationships. She took them all with a big spoonful of music.