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first person

illustration by Adam De Souza

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Like many others, my husband and I are working from home currently. I am aware that I am very fortunate to have a job that allows work from home, so I’m not complaining – much. However, my job very much depends on the ability for people to freely enter and exit Canada, so work has been up and down over the past few weeks. My day-to-day was becoming increasingly unproductive as the coronavirus wreaked its havoc throughout the spring. I needed a project.

Baking bread was not a contender, nor was a backyard DIY project, despite the Instagram posts that tried to convince me how satisfying these accomplishments could be. I am certain that all would be disappointed with the outcome of such experiments. With our youngest’s seventh birthday coming up in short order, and no prospect of a party with his friends, we came up with a plan. We would make a pinata – a pinata in the shape of a coronavirus particle. We had no intention of trivializing the disaster that affected so many people; we just liked the idea of children bashing the hell out of this thing that has caused everyone so much upheaval and stress.

I had never before made anything out of papier-mâché, but I was undeterred. With a general mistrust of well-meaning internet advice-givers, I blew up a balloon and set to work to figure it out myself. Precious flour that would never find its way into a loaf of bread was boiled with water, creating a gooey paste in no time at all. Strips of newspaper bearing the depressing headlines of the day were repurposed, covered up and transformed into a sphere that we could blast to smithereens. Ah, the symbolism. We were nailing this.

Three layers of bad news adhered, I left the balloon to dry thinking I’d wake up in the morning to find a hardened, perfectly formed orb. Alas, it was still sopping wet when I prodded it, coffee in hand. That’s okay, I can adapt and improvise, I told myself, just like the real virus is teaching me to do. I popped the balloon and watched it turn into a cratered moon as it collapsed. A hair dryer (sort of) did the trick (used on and off for a mere four hours) but its mottled appearance now gave it away as endearingly homemade.

Our pinata was now going to need stuffing. Here, I planned to shine. I wasn’t going to fill it up with run-of-the-mill candy for them to sit around and eat while cooped up in the house all day. Mentally nourishing trinkets like mini books and wooden science kits from the local independent bookstore were the ticket. However, I left nowhere near enough time for such supermom antics. Perhaps Walmart would suffice? Nope, the three-block-long lineup was too much to endure. The grocery store would be just fine. I left with half-price Christmas candy, packs of Mentos and Jell-O powder. For good measure, I stopped at a local bakery and bought the only two wrapped treats they had. More savoury than sweet, I knew they would not be popular, but felt I should do my part to support local business, however small the gesture.

During a video call that evening with family across the continent, my brother-in-law recommended we reinforce the top of the pinata and weaken another area so that the innards would actually fall out, avoiding the disappointment of the whole thing falling to ground after one swat. An engineer, he had honed his pinata-making skills while hosting annual Cinco de Mayo parties that conspicuously involved no children – they take their grown-up kid-style parties seriously in San Francisco. A coat hanger, cardboard and tape were strategically affixed the next day, the candy encased with more bad news and homemade glue. The pinata was now heavy, oblong, unsightly and moist. Was this really going to work?

My husband suggested we let the mess dry outside, in the sliver of sunshine we enjoyed that day after weeks of rain. It sounded like a good idea at the time. Unfortunately, the next morning we awoke to find that opportunist squirrels were undeterred by the multitude of COVID-19 warnings broadcast all over the pinata, leaving a damp hole in our masterpiece and candy wrappers stashed in all our plant pots. Muttering expletives, I began round three of papier-mâché adhesion to patch the hole, now enclosing just half the amount of candy originally planned. The headlines affixed to the craft were not getting any cheerier.

Two days later, the misshapen lump was fairly dry. We now turned our mind to aesthetics. How were we going to make the spiky bits of the virus particle? What colour was it going be? In the spirit of collaboration, I let my husband’s ideas prevail after some tense debate. They turned out to be good ones. Accepting advice often gets better results. I knew that rationally, but sometimes control is hard to forfeit – a lesson the past few months have only highlighted for me.

Our coronavirus pinata was completed just in time for the actual birthday. We Zoomed the grandparents to display it proudly, including them in the party as best as possible under the circumstances. They would have preferred a hug, but they appreciated the diversion and the story of the pinata to impart to their friends on their respective upcoming video calls, sharing the anecdote across continents.

We e-mailed a few neighbours with kids, suggesting they come to the nearby schoolyard that afternoon with their own bat or golf club in hand to take a swing while safely physically distanced. We had a few takers, and met on the soccer field, eliciting a few smiles and even a cheer from a few others out for their walks or runs around the track. It felt good to be making eye contact with strangers and sharing something with the community outside of our household, even if from a distance. With a swift and decisive blow, our eldest broke through the pinata, leaving the show-stopping explosive final wallop for the birthday boy.

Candy flew everywhere, to the delight of children and adults alike. The vanquished virus was left limp and spinning, cracked and enfeebled. The pinata was no longer the focal point as attention shifted to the candy below – a welcome reward for the time, effort and commitment it took to understand and then defeat it.

Our pinata forced our resourcefulness and co-operation. Invaluable advice from our international community (all the way from San Francisco) was key in making our efforts stronger and more effective, which is proof of the power of collaboration. The project took a lot longer than anticipated, and the process was more involved and complicated than we expected it to be. We demolished it together, turning a birthday party expected to be clouded with misfortune into an experience that we will remember fondly forever. Ah, the symbolism. We nailed it.

Christy Jones lives in Toronto.