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Illustration by Chelsea Charles

I’ve kept my hands scrupulously clean since earliest childhood. “Dur-ty!” I would bawl from my stroller, stretching out my palms for a wipe the moment a fleck of something landed on them. My mother must have found it really annoying because she was still grousing about it when I was in my 50s.

The habit didn’t wane. On my wedding day, kitted out in a little white silk confection that barely covered me – it was the sixties – I issued my first wifely decree: There would be no gardening duties on my side of the conjugal ledger. Too much dirt.

It got worse in the decades my husband John and I spent overseas: Whether in the Cordillera of the northern Philippines or in the remote highlands of Ethiopia, accessibility to water was always paramount. No water; no me.

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You could say I’m an updated version of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, without the unfortunate murder and guilty conscience. But now that hand washing is a COVID-19 safety issue, and Lady M has become a meme, my proclivity is starting to pay off handsomely.

John and I are pandemic vulnerables, so we leave home for groceries just once a week, loaded down with masks, sanitizers, wipes, water and sandwiches. We have clean hands but deep misgivings.

Since there’s nothing inherently unsanitary about driving to town, I take the opportunity to scratch my nose, wipe smeared mascara off my eyelids, thumb a few text messages and try to stretch the ear loops on my mask so my ears don’t stick out (why am I the only person around that looks like Yoda when I’m masked?). I do all this with gusto – twice – just to purge my system before getting started.

Once in the supermarket parking lot, anxiety sets in: I know the shopping carts have all been disinfected, but I still feel there are microscopic virus creatures pulsating on the handles and breeding like rabbits. Since my chief objective is to keep my hands off the handle and germ-free, I find an orphan trolley separate from the rest and, using my clothed forearms, steer it into the store, my waist hovering nearby in case the cart should suddenly run amok. Believe me, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

The store’s glass entrance doors part automatically so they don’t jeopardize my well-being. But the fruit and vegetable sections do: I don’t know who the sadist was that invented those thin plastic produce bags but if they didn’t open in healthier times, they definitely don’t open now that we can’t lick our fingers. I can report, however, that there’s moisture available under the broccoli. And if you plunge your fingertips beneath the bunches, you can then work up enough friction to unseal the bags. I did once stick both hands simultaneously into the ice to clean them, but the odd looks I got weren’t worth the effort, especially without soap.

There’s soap nearby though, in what I think is currently the only unlocked bathroom west of Corner Brook, N.L. I whack the electronic door opener with my trolley-propelling forearm, enter and head into a stall. For hygiene and privacy purposes, I lever the door inward with my right foot, avoiding the lock that is bound to be tainted by a previous occupant. As a precaution, I hunch forward, one arm extended defensively in case some frantic customer should suddenly burst in, accidentally catching me mid-performance. (Ever noticed that even when you’re the only person occupying a toilet and the other 19 are empty, someone comes in and automatically makes straight for yours?) Then I pivot around on my right leg and flush resoundingly with my left foot. I’m very cautious: A slight leg wobble, a loss of balance, and I could wind up touching the wall, the door, or worse, the toilet seat and floor. If that happened, there wouldn’t be enough soap and water in the country to get me clean, and I’d just have to amputate both hands at the wrists.

Finally, my ultimate destination, the sinks: I flail my hands near the tap and if I get lucky, both soap and water emerge. The dryer, of course, is out of bounds because I now know it shoots virus bits around the room and then directly up my nose; and the paper towels can’t be extracted without pushing down on the contaminated activation bar. So with hands dripping, I give the electronic door opener one last elbow bash and follow John and the groceries to the car. I insist on sanitizer for John who has his hands wrapped firmly around the trolley handle. Try as I might to persuade him, he’s just not comfortable with my forearm technique. Then we roll down all the windows and open the sunroof, and it’s tuna al fresco on whole wheat.

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Fortunately, my hero, top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, says we no longer need to let the groceries linger in the garage for 24 hours, and we don’t have to wipe down every item. But he hasn’t commented on disinfecting the car.

So after John’s carried all the bags indoors and I’ve washed my hands thoroughly again, I go back into the garage with my wipes and clean off the steering wheel, gear shift, the entire radio and air conditioning consoles, both parts of our seat belts, the inside doors and handles, and the sun visor I pulled down for my smeared mascara. I realize that was on the outward journey, but you can’t be too careful. When the inside is done, I attack all four exterior door handles, and give the trunk latch a little swish for good measure, even though we always use the remote. Then I lock up and close the garage door, knowing everything’s been 99-per-cent disinfected according to the label on the wipes (where do you think the remaining 1 per cent goes?). I clean the keys and garage door remote inside the house, and then the front and bathroom door handles, as well as the taps and flusher. We’re back in our safe place.

Another day; another brush with death averted.

Alena Schram lives on Amherst Island, Ont.

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at

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