Jesse Speed of Bangor is helping replenish supplies of a rare commodity these days: smiles.
Speed has used puppets to help bring joy to his 12-year-old son Milo, who has cerebral palsy and can only say a few words. And now, Speed is taking those puppets to the streets (along with social distancing practices) to help other children smile during this isolating time of coronavirus.
“I tried to make Milo’s world bigger,” Speed said about his son in a March 27 story in the BDN.
In regular times, those touching words would pull on just about any heartstrings, person or puppet. They strike with added power right now, when everyone’s world is feeling a little bit smaller with the social distancing and accompanying isolation that have become necessarily ubiquitous during the coronavirus pandemic.
The impact of this coronavirus, or COVID-19, can feel unescapable. Here is Maine, it has closed schools, canceled events, shuttered workplaces, upended entire lives — sadly, even taken lives.
That is a bleak reality, and it has meant many bleak news stories from this and other publications over the past several weeks. But among the steady pile of alarming reports and grim prognoses, there have also been stories of hope and joy — like that of Speed, his son, and the power of a few friendly puppets.
“All morning he’s like, ‘Is it time yet? Is he here?’” said Meaghan Duffey, whose 5-year-old son Palmer has enjoyed the puppet visits from their doorway after not being around other children for a while to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“Talking to the puppets is like talking to another kid,” she said.
All of us, children and adults, don’t stop needing social interaction just because society has stopped moving at a normal pace. Inspiring efforts from Speed and others, along with innovative uses of technology, provide bright examples of people connecting and communicating with each other while still following public health guidelines to stay apart.
Last Thursday in Orono, for example, teachers from Asa Adams Elementary School greeted their students with a parade from their cars.
“I think it did as much good for the teachers as it did for everybody,” Principal Darren Akerman told the BDN after the two-hour parade. “I think we all needed it in some ways.”
Family, friends and even complete strangers have rallied around those celebrating birthdays amid the distance and uncertainty — sometimes with video conference parties using platforms like Zoom, sometimes with birthday parades that include local first responders joining in the fun.
When Sam Freeman asked people on Facebook last week to meet up for a parade in Orrington celebrating her godson Noah’s birthday, she got a bigger response than expected.
“I was just amazed at all the people I didn’t know,” Freeman said. “I wish I could have run up and hugged every single one of them, but I just had to say thank you from my window. That’s small town Maine: They just all wanted to help him have a birthday not locked in the house.”
Maine places of worship have moved to online services and drive-thru confessions. Maine authors like Chris Van Dusen have started online story hours. Community Facebook groups are keeping neighbors in touch. It’s very encouraging to see people across the state look for ways to stay connected and help others.
Jesse Speed has done that with puppet shows in driveways and on sidewalks. During a recent performance outside Meaghan Duffey’s home, Speed brought out Cranston, a yellow bunny puppet, for her son Parker to see.
“Hey, how you doing, partner?” the puppet said to the boy.
“It’s good to see you,” Parker said.
Most of us don’t get to say those five words as much as we’d like to right now, at least not in person. Thankfully, technology, creativity and good will from others has helped bridge the gap.
For now, we may not be able to see and interact with each other exactly as we’re used to. But stories like these give us some hope, and a blueprint for how we can stick together during a time that requires us to spend time apart.