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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Julia Sweeney on being ‘Quaranteened,’ her family in L.A. and missing Spokane and Mom

Julia Sweeney, her husband Michael and her daughter Mulan attend an Ohio State football game last fall. Mulan is a student at Ohio State. (Courtesy of Julia Sweeney)
By Julia Sweeney For The Spokesman-Review

My mother is living in an assisted-living facility near Sacred Heart Hospital, it’s called Emilie Court, and I love this place so much I could move there myself. But, now, with the pandemic, they’ve put a stop to all visitors, and the residents are pretty much confined to their rooms, getting their meals and meds delivered by masked and gloved aides. It breaks my heart because I’ve spent a lot of time there, enough to know how much the residents rely on the interaction with each other – and the fun activities, the singalong especially. They also have nature talks and movies in the afternoon, and, of course, morning Mass and my favorite – afternoon rosary followed by Happy Hour. I love everything about it.

But now all those activities have ended. My mother, whom I speak to daily – “Our 2-minute call!” – is doing pretty well and always says how happy she is to be at Emilie Court instead of at her condo where she’d have to figure out meals herself. Still, it haunts me. I think of every face there confined to their rooms. Surely the loneliness also is a health threat. Even though I agree with all the precautions the facility is taking, there’s something about knowing this place is shut down in this way that has become the image of the pandemic for me.

I think about Spokane all the time. I was born and grew up in Spokane, and I’m there all the time to see family. I imagine the city with only necessary activity and empty streets. Do those ornery wild turkeys go everywhere they want to now? Will Spokane wake up to an explosion of turkeys, as if they’ve orchestrated this disaster so they can take over?

I was supposed to be filming my comedy special in Spokane at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on April 2 and 3. All of it is postponed until further notice. But a lot of work was put into filming that show, and now it’s all on hold and it’s breaking my heart. Instead of filming my comedy special, I’m cleaning out kitchen drawers and cabinets and organizing my bathroom. And trying to stay in a good mood. It’s a lot of work.

I’m in Los Angeles and at home with my 19-year-old daughter Mulan (yes, like the movie, she came with that name from China at 18 months) and my 64-year old husband Michael. Michael and I joke that we are “Quaranteened.”

Mulan flew home from Columbus on Wednesday night where she attends Ohio State University. Her classes are all online from here on out, and as a dorm resident she was asked to leave. Some of her friends live in apartments, and they could stay. Obviously. Much talk ensued before her return about whether she could find a room in an apartment so she could stay in Columbus, a city she loves, in the college town where she’s found herself, where she’s thrived. I went to a Mother’s Weekend her sorority had in February. (My L.A. friends were aghast that there was something called a Mother’s Weekend – so binary!) Mulan had volunteered (VOLUNTEERED!) to organize the entire thing, which meant we had to attend all the bonding-fun-mother-daughter-activities, every single one. Four sessions of candle-making, four sessions of cupcake decorating. She’s even organized mother-daughter ax throwing. Yes, you read that right. It’s a thing. I said, “Are you sure it isn’t ax-grinding? Because I’d excel at that.”

Anyway, Mulan checked off people’s names, interacted like an adult with the proprietors and, incredibly, paid for it with the sorority’s credit card. This was Mulan fully realized. She’s great at this kind of thing: managing, explaining, being in charge of a group. She’s at her happiest in a thousand simultaneous conversations where she’s having to manage something. Last summer, she taught computer programming at a children’s summer camp at UCLA, and I’d never seen her so happy. Needless to say, I would have killed myself before I would have done any of these activities, much less volunteer for them. It might seem like I’d be good at this since I’m a stage performer and comedian, but the truth is I’m actually an introvert. I always say I’m a comedian-introvert. If I have to be with a large group of people, I need them to stay far away from me in the “audience area.” Maybe my whole draw to the stage is about getting people to stay away from me.

So, Mulan is home. Her summer camp job will likely be canceled. Her college classes are all online. She has had to move back in with two old introvert-y elderly parents, and we don’t leave the house unless we have to get groceries. She’s unhappy about this. She’s a people person. She loves a lot of people activity. This is literally her nightmare. And ours. Except of course it’s not. We also are pretty good together. I’d classify us as “functional.” We laugh a lot. But, you know, we’re also people. Which means, “AGHHHHHH!”

We’ve all had the talk about cheeriness, about the effort to get along, about agreeableness. This is an unprecedented situation. We’ve made dinners together; we’ve watched a bit of TV together. Michael and Mulan play ukulele together. But tempers can flare. One recent afternoon when I asked Mulan a question about a dance she was supposed to go to with a boy she’d mentioned, she stood up and growled, “I’m social distancing myself from you right now!”

Everyone says this is going to last a couple of weeks, but my guess is that this is way off. I think it’s going to be months. How are we all going to make it?

Michael has just retired and moved to L.A. (we were living in Chicago for 10 years). I used to tell my friends: “At home I have a retired husband with no job and no friends!” Then I’d flare my eyes and force a fake smile. “It’s so great!” But now he couldn’t see friends if he had them here, and yes, now, I am his only friend, and he is my only friend. George Eliot has a great line in “Middlemarch” about marriage: “There is something even awful in the nearness it brings.” Fortunately, our house, while on the small side (1,400 square feet), has a lot of places to hide. And, of course, being in California, that includes being able to be outside even in March. So, we spend a lot of time in our separate rooms – me in my office in the backyard, Michael in his office in the garage and Mulan in her bedroom social distancing herself from us and social connecting herself to her friends.

In the afternoons, I’ve been rewatching a class on “The Great Courses.” Do you know about this incredible thing, “The Great Courses”? You can get classes streamed taught by professors in various topics. I’m addicted. I have been for years. They aren’t paying me to say this, but for $180 a year, you can have access to almost all their classes at

The class I’m watching is “The Black Death” taught by Dorsey Armstrong of Purdue. I watched it a few years ago, and I would say I’ve always had a fascination with pestilence. It might not seem like it, but the class has calmed me about this pandemic. Things have been so much worse. Things could get so much worse, but humans seem to push forward. It helps to take a long view. Especially when you’re stuck in a house with two people for whom the nearness of it all is almost something awful, even though it’s also beautiful and profound.