Focus On: Cheryl Bliss

Cheryl Bliss has lived in Westport for 40 years. She moved here with her husband, Michael, and together they raised their three children Erin, Lindsay and Tim.  She was past-president of Westport Museum when it was Westport Historical Society. A professional banker turned educator she returned to the classroom after her husband’s unexpected death in 2005. Cheryl spent eight years on the Board of Education including serving as vice-chair and secretary. She was secretary of the Westport Women’s Club from 2017-2019. A trained archivist, Cheryl is also currently serving as Westport Museum’s chairperson. 

“I became vaguely aware of Corona Virus on February 26th when my brother who lives in town told me he was not going to commute into the city anymore. He was concerned about taking the subway to his job in midtown. I think I didn’t realize how serious it was until the schools were closed on March 11th.  

I think the biggest change in my daily life now is adjusting to a new lifestyle which basically focuses on staying in my house. It been hard adjusting to not doing things that I used to do on a regular basis. I have tried to establish a routine which focuses on walks, getting coffee, limited trips to a grocery store or pharmacy. I think not seeing my children who live within an hour of Westport has been an adjustment. I have seen two of them recently but they stayed outside of the house. My daughter, Erin, is a surgeon at Hartford Hospital who has had to work on COVID patients from time to time. When she does, she has to wear something like a space suit.    

I retired from the field of education four years ago. So, now my focus is on volunteering in the community and helping take care of my three granddaughters in Westchester. Of course, that has come to a standstill with COVID-19. I am an alternate member of a commission in Westport which has cancelled in-person meetings. My granddaughters have adjusted to my not being with them as their parents are working out of the house now. 

I have had contact within town by walking in my neighborhood, talking on the phone or seeing [people] at the pharmacy or grocery store. From what I can see the people seem to be coping. Because they are older, my friends especially, are trying to abide by the restrictions as established. 

I think losing my husband suddenly 15 years ago turned me into a person who can survive anything. It gave me the tools necessary to put up day after day with this new lifestyle. I know I am strong enough to cope with this crisis because I have already been challenged.  

I think my greatest fear is that many people are not going to survive this crisis either with the loss of a loved one or financial ruin. I think so many people were not prepared for something like this. My greatest hope is that maybe this crisis will make us come together as a country. I think the country as a whole has been divided for so long on so many levels. Maybe people who survive this crisis will develop a tolerance towards those who they don’t accept.” 

I know I am strong enough to cope with this crisis because I have already been challenged. 

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To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: CLASP

Since 1976, CLASP group homes, headquartered in Westport, creates and supports family environments for people with autism and intellectual disabilities. Latravia Cox and Tiffany Scott are the manager and assistant manager, respectively of the CLASP home at Kings Highway South, which has been in operation since 1983 and is home to five adults.  Providing meaningful and enriching lives to residents CLASP is a 501c3 nonprofit dependent on charitable donations. We hope you will support their work by clicking this link

 “The house is co-ed, with two women and three men. All are adults with intellectual disabilities.  Some may also have other physical and emotional conditions as well but their primary diagnosis is intellectual disability.  

Jeff age 63 wants to live the American dream with a house, fast car and a wife. 

MC age 42 is totally and completely into video games and rap music. 

Tom age 60 is a very nice guy who loves to help. 

Sheri age 47 works competitively and loves to follow popular culture and TV 

Martha age 44 is a homebody who loves hearing from and seeing her mom. 

The hardest thing for our residents about social distancing and the need for caregivers to wear Personal Protective gear is that long-standing practices and schedules have been broken. For example, every Tuesday was going to Dunkin Donuts. Some people were used to seeing family every weekend or on some other regular schedule and that’s not happening.  This was a very social bunch.  Also, everyone at the house had a day program or job.  This provided much of the routine human interaction with people from the cafeteria lady to the person in the seat next to them at work—the kind of interaction and routine we all need. 

The worst part for our residents is not seeing their families.  This is not only hard on the residents but hard on the families too.  It’s also hard trying to explain why all of these measures are necessary without going too far and terrifying people with the idea that they might die.  

A good thing is that some people are getting more personal attention at the home than they would at their usual day programs.  The staff to resident ratio is 1 to 5 at home.  It is usually a much higher resident to staff ratio at day programs. 

We like to stress inclusion in the community at CLASP so now we are like a turtle pulled inside our shell. Just like for everyone else this has been a very strange time. For the first few weeks it was exciting and different. Now, not so much. Our staff have been phenomenal by working long hours to minimize the number of people who have to come in to the home– thus minimizing the contact risk. 

What has been surprising is how we have been able to find ways to use technology in innovative ways to both conduct our business and keep our residents and clients connected. 

We’d really like followers of this project to know that we’re part of the neighborhood, part of the community as much as anyone else. In a civil society we all have a responsibility to one another we will all get through this together—and when we do, we need a BIG party!” 

we’re part of the neighborhood, part of the community

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To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Lisa Laudico & Family

Lisa Laudico has lived in Westport for 13 years with her husband and two sons. She is a Metastatic Breast Cancer survivor who volunteers helping others who are struggling with the disease. 

“I am a clinical social worker and so we as a family are always checking in with each other to make sure we take care of our mental health AND our physical health during this time. Given I have had to be careful with my exposure to germs in general for the past 2.5 years given my stage 4 Metastatic Breast Cancer diagnosis, our family is used to ‘germ/virus vigilance’.  

I work as a volunteer now for a few foundations dedicated to helping those with Metastatic Breast Cancer (The Cancer Couch Foundation and Share Cancer Support) – this work has not stopped and we are working on new ways to connect and support. My husband Tony is working remotely and is able to for the most part – he is enjoying not having to travel! Our two sons (one a college senior and the other a college sophomore) are doing their remote online classes. We all have our ‘work days’ and we have a “Corona” job jar that each of us tackle each day. We are doing a family book club where each week we have a different book nominated by a family member. Lots of dinners together and game nights at least twice a week. We have been doing global zoom dinner parties with friends all over the world and wonder why the heck we didn’t do this more often before! We have decided that zoom dinner parties with just 4 people works really well. If you go bigger – it is a little more chaotic. 

We are social people and certainly miss seeing friends in person. My husband is in a band and they have not been able to practice together for over a month. Having both of our sons home for this long stretch of time is very different and also lovely. Our eldest would come home for visits for only a week at a time even in the summer (he lives in NYC) and so to have all of us together is very special and something you get when you organize a big family vacation but those have become exceedingly rare with the schedules of our two sons. What a gift! 

Our community is very special and there are many active, caring members of our town who are out there making a huge difference. I was saddened to hear that there had been some negative comments in the beginning of the crisis when we, as a town, benefited from another country’s efficient and fast testing of COVID 19 alerting us to confirmed exposure when it had been in our town for many weeks unconfirmed and untested. But the goodwill in this town always rises to the top. I know of many teenagers and college students who have been extremely respectful of the social distancing guidelines – not all kids and parents have been stretching the rules. Westport is a very special place and this time confirms that again. 

I am less worried for my own health even with my condition since I am currently stable and on oral chemo (thank goodness!) but more concerned for my husband given how poorly men seem to be doing once they contract the disease as compared to women. I am now asking our sons to do any errands so my husband can reduce his exposure outside. My greatest fear beyond our own family is with my many friends with MBC who are even more immunocompromised than myself and who have additional health issues that need continual care at hospitals.  

We are all very aware that when/if triage decisions need to be made in overwhelmed ICUs, someone with a stage 4 diagnosis like mine will not get a ventilator so that someone with more of a shot at a longer life can live. I hope that this does not happen to anyone. I pray and hope that we do not lose people and that the projections will be wrong. In the end, though, we are a family of hope and I do see so much opportunity for hope – in how we as a town pull together, in how our faith communities look to new ways to support and connect with individuals in need, in how our society overall will look to the helpers in our life at the pharmacy, the supermarket, the postal worker, the teachers, the delivery workers, our nurses, doctors and hospital workers of all kinds with more respect and gratitude.  

…we are a family of hope

I hope that we may look at our society and see that an overhaul of our healthcare system is the right humane thing to do and that paid sick leave is something for the greater good. That this kind of social upheaval gives us a chance to see where we need to do better to be a society that takes care of its vulnerable since we now see that each of us can be among the vulnerable at any time. That we can look at how we as a society need to reconstruct how we support those who support us but who do not always get such a fair deal. May we not lose or forget these important lessons. 

We are so privileged to live in such a beautiful community that shows its love inside and out. I have so much gratitude for living in Westport and we feel so blessed to have our relative health as we shelter at home. It is a scary time to have this invisible enemy impact our lives but may it be a reminder that we have choices on how we get to live this life. Never let an existential crisis go to waste! Let’s not waste a second. 

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Kelle & Jeff Ruden

Originally hailing from Texas, Kelle Ruden has lived in Westport for 20 years with her husband Jeffrey, who grew up in Westport and graduated from Staples High School in 1982. Many around town know Kelle as an avid gardener who is a past President of the Westport Garden Club and for her previous work as the Programs Director at Westport Library. 

“We are both able to work from home and we are enjoying taking breaks together for a meal or a walk to the end of our road, checking on friends and family and catching up on the latest news. I am also coordinating volunteers to shop for members of our congregation and participating in services and classes via Zoom. 

Jeffrey is Managing Director and Senior Commercial Banker for Fieldpoint Private, I work part time as Lecture Coordinator for Shankar Vedantam, host of NPR’s Hidden Brain. Jeffrey has been working from home since March 12 and his work has been busy because of the reduction in interest rates. Both of us have worked with clients who are anxious about the coming months and the uncertainty of these times. 

Mastering Zoom, upgrading WIFI speed and navigating canceled events dominated the early days. Of course, as the days went on, worries about friends and family became paramount. My brother is deemed “essential” in Houston and had been working without a mask or gloves but he now has them.  Jeff’s mom suffers from Alzheimer’s and cannot really communicate and we cannot see her.  We have concerns for friends whose businesses are suffering and our town, our nation and those who are struggling to get by or are losing their livelihoods and their lives. 

We had heard a bit about the virus in China in January but the reality that it would come to us all struck when we were on a cruise from Feb. 1-15 in the Caribbean. Halfway through the trip- on Feb. 7, the ship was in port in San Juan and the crew began enacting virus protocols- the entire library, board games and puzzles were removed, menus were shrink wrapped after disinfecting, and all on board were asked to refrain from handshaking and to wash hands frequently. And, of course, the ship was cleaned rigorously and constantly.  

At home, after the initial “denial” phase, people seemed to hunker down and show real concern for their neighbors. Our town leaders have been incredible during a very trying time. A huge shout out not just to our first responders, medical folks and clergy- but to our pharmacy workers, grocery store clerks and food service workers who are seeing us all through this. 

A huge shout out not just to our first responders, medical folks and clergy- but to our pharmacy workers, grocery store clerks and food service workers

COVID forced many of us into a “hard stop” and presented an opportunity to step away from a frantic pace that did not allow for time to rest and recharge, to think or to dream. Of course, many workers have not had the luxury to stop during this time and my hope for them is that they stay well and are celebrated and well compensated for all they have done. We are grateful for this amazing community we live in, and our incredible neighbors.  

My family settled in Texas in 1840 and as Dan Rather once said: “Always marry a woman from Texas. No matter how tough things get, she’s seen tougher.” But more seriously, we are both at an age where we have experienced loss and hardship and had the benefit of the wisdom of family members who have lived through worse: hunger, war and deprivation. This is a challenging time with great loss of life, but historically our country has been through even worse and has come out stronger. 

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Bob Mitchell

Bob Mitchell is a former chairperson of Westport Museum (Westport Historical Society). He’s lived in Westport with his wife, Kathy, for 22 years.  

As with most people, I am spending a lot more time at home, basically alone. (My wife is an invalid.) I go out for basic errands, and to walk – my principal source of exercise. I am taking advantage of the extra free time to work around the house. I’ll be pretty embarrassed if the many overhanging chores are still undone after life returns to normal. And, I am resuming hobbies and avocations – writing, genealogy, music, scientific analysis – for which I found little time recently in my busy life. 

I am retired. However, I am very active with the Y’s Men of Westport/Weston, and our many face-to-face meetings and activities have been replaced by Zoom, conference calls, and emails. I am responsible for arranging speakers for our weekly meetings, and now am engaged in preparing podcasts, video meetings, and other ‘socially-distanced’ modes of providing camaraderie and involvement for our many home-bound members. 

I was always raised to follow the rules, and to think about other people, so living under the COVID strictures fits right in with my mentality. I also was always more an internal person rather than an external person, so being at home more is not so strange to me. And my wife is not well, so I have long lived a somewhat solitary life. But I still do miss being with other people.  

I miss the lack of direct personal contact. Electronic means are not the same. I thank God that our technology is such today that we can associate with each other in one form or another that was not available until recently. But it is not the same. You cannot hug friends over Zoom. 

 I miss institutions – principally The Library, WMHC, MoCA and others where one could hang out and participate in activities with other human beings. And bookstores, which have always been a place of comfort for me. One positive change has been the impetus to overcome social distancing with social reaching out. I have spoken on the phone with more distant friends and relatives in the past few weeks than in the past several years. I just hope the impetus to keep in touch does not fade when we are back together with our local friends face-to-face. And, as I said before, I have never walked so much in my life since I left New York City in 1993, where I walked everywhere. I see friends, at a distance, explore areas of town I hardly knew, and keep healthy. I even see my neighbors, believe it or not. Thank goodness the virus did not hit when it was 10 degrees out.

I just hope the impetus to keep in touch does not fade when we are back together

I think Westport is doing a very good job with this. Most people are following the guidelines; those businesses that are still open are being very sensible; and the Town government is doing its usual great job. I’m sorry they had to close the beach parking, but I understand that some people, particularly the younger ones who can’t imagine that they could ever catch this ‘old-folks disease’, might well succumb to the temptation, especially as the weather gets nicer. 

I would hope that we learn some lessons about helping each other, thinking before acting, and being generous. I hope that people develop a greater appreciation for the important things in life – family, friends, social activity, healthy fun. I would also hope that our government would take to heart the lessons about not being adequately prepared, in readiness for the next one, whatever it might be. My greatest fears are the growing instances of totalitarian governing in response to the need for strong executive action during the crisis. This crisis will pass, but the changes in our various societies may not. This too shall pass! 

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Westport Third Selectperson, Melissa Kane

Melissa Kane is Westport’s Third Selectperson. Raised in Manhattan she spent summers in Westport as a child in historic houses that her parents rented which she calls “magical places that made Westport a very special place for me. Spending summers in Westport is what I looked most forward to all year.” Kane, her husband John and son George, now 21, moved to Westport when her 2nd child, Lily was born 17 years ago. 

“I’ve not physically been back to Town Hall since March 12. Working remotely, I’ve been a liaison between the community and the administration with a focus on making sure people have access to the information they need at all times and that they are able to direct their concerns where they need to go and the opportunities to channel their energies into something positive. 

So, I’m focusing a lot of my time on putting together town-led volunteer efforts. So many people want to be doing something right now. I think that at a time like this, when you lose control over everything, there is a sense that if you can just grab onto one thing and be helpful–whether that’s people making masks or working on feeding workers on front line—it allows people to gain a sense of, if not control, some accomplishment. I personally feel this as well. You feel you are moving the ball forward a little bit when you feel helpless otherwise. 

At state level, one of the projects I have been working on, is trying to get better guidelines and regulations for food safety working with organizations like the CT Food association and CT Restaurant Association. I’m also advocating to the governor for these guidelines and regulations to be put out with executive orders and working with Mark Cooper at the Westport-Weston Health district about setting up to have Chamber of commerce field calls about citizens’ concerns about safety when they go to the grocery store or any stores that are open—where there is no uniform way that safety is handled it’s not uniform in any way . Even though there are state regulations, methods vary and that makes people uneasy so I’m working on how you create some uniformity at the state and town level.  

I’m also working on something really cool with our Department of Health & Human Services which has an incredible list of resources for people who are having a hard time practically and emotionally right now. It is really important to talk about the concept of grief that people are feeling now—grief for a life that has been lost. There is so much to unpack around what grief is and what we judge as grief, and what people should be “allowed” to grieve. For example, my parents are 85 and 88 and at risk and scared. I think about them and seniors everywhere who are worrying if they will be spending the end of their lives so isolated. What can we do to alleviate this fear and the grief that comes with it?  

I do believe we will all come out and hopefully there will be a future and it will be really wonderful but it is going to be a changed world and people are realizing that normal will be different. 

people are realizing that normal will be different

I feel extraordinarily lucky to live in this incredible community which has had sickness and will have more, but we have roofs over our heads and we care about those who don’t and we want to help. It feels good to work with a municipality working so hard to keep people safe.” 

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Chef Matt Storch

Chef Matt Storch, owner of Match restaurant in SoNo and Westport’s own BurgerLobster was born and raised in Westport. He graduated Staples High School in 1995 and currently lives in Fairfield with his wife and nine-year-old twin boys. 

“When I was growing up, Westport was that true small-town community with small businesses that supported everyone–neighborhoods did block parties. My family is still rooted to the area. My parents still live here, and my sisters are in the area. Throughout the years of people leaving and coming and starting my own business and moving out, I observed the town became a little disconnected. It started to have a hoity toity feel and that made me irritated. Now, through this crisis, Westport is displaying those old characteristics which makes me proud and happy and more willing to be part of the community. A lot of people are stepping out to do the right thing being friendly, generous, showing their true colors. 

I observed the town became a little disconnected…Now…Westport is displaying those old characteristics which makes me proud

There is a calm that has settled over the area. Not everyone is rushing around, getting to the train and going out. It’s extended family time and I think it’s hitting home with a lot of people, and they are realizing, again, that this is a small community. It’s touching, and I didn’t think Westport had it in it. Even though you can’t see each other, you feel the love. 

Business is ok. We’ve had some great weeks and we’ve had some mediocre weeks, but our staff is employed and we’re keeping them busy. Staying relevant is important and keeping your name in every body’s ears is important. We are doing curbside at both restaurants and have just started Match Provisions where we sell groceries for pick up. We just started and on that first week we immediately got 75 orders. We open orders on Mondays at and close the store on Thursday, pick up is the following Tuesday at the train station parking lot.  We’re selling milk, eggs, butter, gloves, toilet paper, a mixed produce box (CSA style), frozen pasta, shrimp, meat, fresh and shucked clams and oysters from Copps Island Oysters (Norm Bloom & Son) and a new product we’ve created called Copps Casino, which are shucked oysters with a topping that are baked and frozen to reheat. We also sell beer, wine and liquors. 

It’s truly going to be that the strong survive. It’s going to be survival of fittest and whoever is the smartest marketer is going to be lucky here–and I do think it’s luck. I truly do. I think unfortunately some of my fellow restaurateurs made the mistake of not staying open and not trying. I get it—they didn’t feel safe. I think we figured out the safety part—we don’t let anyone in restaurants except staff.   

I strongly believe that I think the restaurant industry is the best industry this could happen to because we are already sanitary. It is what we were trained to do. So, we add a mask—ok, big deal. It’s an inconvenience but it’s not that side of it that is the issue, it’s the hospitality side. That’s what I love about this business– it’s about making people happy. My fear is that the restaurant industry is not going to look anywhere like it did prior to this. I think it’s going to take a long time to get to full dining back with that fun, safe, entertaining, wholesome feeling. It’s sad. I don’t know what’s going to happen. If I can’t walk around my dining room and make people happy it will suck.” 

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Westport First Selectman, Jim Marpe

Ohio Native, Jim Marpe and his wife, Mary Ellen, have lived in Westport for 31 years. Previously an executive at Accenture, Marpe served on Westport’s Board of Education and on state-level education boards. Active members at Green’s Farms Church both Marpes serve on multiple non-profit boards. Marpe is also an avid wine collector who says “sampling the collection of excellent wines in my wine cellar is a pleasant way to end a challenging day.” He shares his thoughts on being at the forefront of the COVID-19 crisis management on April 30, the original proposed end-date for social distancing measures. 

“As the First Selectman, I have been working seven days a week to help lead Westport through the COVID-19 crisis. Unlike most of my fellow residents, I haven’t had the opportunity to enjoy the “new normal”. Most of my time is spent working virtually from my office and Zoom studio at home. A typical workday now begins at 7am and rarely ends before 9pm. At least some traditional evening meetings are being moved earlier in the day because of greater resident availability and flexibility. 

Mary Ellen spends a significant part of her time working as member of the Westport Country Playhouse to help the Playhouse manage through this crisis and plan for future re-opening and fund raising. She is also playing a lot of virtual Mahjong with her friends. 

As the chief community advocate for social distancing, I’ve gotten used to it and find it surprisingly natural now. We’ve been able to slow the spread of the virus throughout Westport, and this is the way to do it. We’ll need to stay disciplined about the distancing into the summer months as we begin to open public facilities. My personal style is to meet with people “in-person” as much as possible, so I’ve had to shift my communication approach to deal with many more telephone conferences and Zoom-based meetings. My observation is that Zoom forces a more disciplined and efficient meeting; making them more productive and less contentious.  

I’m very pleased with the way the majority have responded with our request to stay inside as much as possible and to socially distance and facemask as much as possible when in public spaces. Most have taken to the motto. “You’re not stuck inside, you’re safe inside”. As always, there are those who don’t want to follow the rules, but for the most part are willing to if confronted politely.  

We are fortunate to have experienced, professional, Town department heads, deputies and employees who are leading the various dimensions of the Town’s response from first responders to public health officials to human services social workers. Our seniors are surprisingly resilient given their vulnerability to COVID-19. It is interesting to see how part of the community is ready to “open up” right away and other parts are wary of opening too soon and, in fact, continue to encourage me to place more social distancing rules in place. But most of all, the great thing about Westport is the creative ways people have found to volunteer and help their neighbors as well as find alternative and creative ways to pass the time. 

All of my skills, experience and beliefs have been called upon to lead the Westport community through this life-threatening event: 

  • faith in God to give me the strength and inspiration I need more than ever 
  • quantitative and analytical skills from my schooling and professional career  
  • leadership experience throughout my professional and personal life 
  • respect for experienced professionals and the ‘chain of command” 
  • trust in my team and support of my family  
  • listening more and speaking less  
  • motivated to act  
  • no “analysis paralysis”  
  • planning for the return to the “new normal” as well as for tomorrow  
  • need to inspire  
  • speaking with confidence and empathy  
  • dealing with my own fears and anxieties while speaking with confidence and positivity 

My hopes are that we come through the next weeks and months with a limited loss of life and that this terrible journey ends as quickly as possible; that we learn the lessons of preparation for such events in the future and that we take what we’ve learned about operating government and business in a more efficient and technology based manner and apply that to future productivity and cost savings; that we learn to pay more attention to those among us that are having challenges of all types and commit to helping them; that we learn to be satisfied with a simpler lifestyle and realize how much less “stuff” we need to make a difference.  

My biggest fear is that we “re-open” too soon without the necessary testing, contact tracing and personal health condition ID information, which results in going back to the current situation or worse. My biggest long-term fear is that we don’t learn the lessons noted above and rebound to our previous collective lifestyle. I also fear that in our rush to get back to “normal” we may forget the enormous environmental challenges that our planet still faces, and which have had to take a back seat to our battle with the Coronavirus. 

It has been a privilege to be placed in the position of trust and responsibility that my leadership role has placed upon me. I appreciate their words of support and encouragement and their willingness to participate positively in the greatest mass discipline effort we will likely ever know. I don’t have all the answers, but we are fortunate to have the experienced professionals who are our Town employees who do know the answers or know how to get them and execute them. I have been energized by the responsibility and believe we will emerge as a better community when we’re at the point where we’ll look back at this as a major historical moment and that it was our finest hour. 

I don’t have all the answers, but we are fortunate to have the experienced professionals…who do

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Sara Scully and Family

Sara Scully and her family have lived in Westport for four years. She is a high school family consumer science (Home Ec) teacher. 

“I’m teaching my classes online, or at least trying to because I teach Home Ec, so it’s kind of difficult because I can’t teach them cooking right now. We’re creating cookbooks and we’re learning about different types of produce. And we’re talking about how the shutdown of everything is impacting the farms and how they’re having a lot of waste because people aren’t buying it. And then all the crops that they planned for like restaurants, so the farmers are having to change because people don’t want to buy like gooseberries and microgreens. They want like lettuce and green beans.  I found it interesting! The children that I’m teaching… they answer my questions but I’m not sure they find it as interesting as I do, but I try to make it exciting. We watch videos too. I get videos from like Alton Brown and the Culinary Institute of America and I show them how to make things through video. But I don’t know what people have, so I can’t ask them to cook. 

I make cakes so I’ve also been making a ton of birthday cakes for all the poor quarantine birthdays. And I’ve been sewing masks to give to friends, family—whomever asks. 

Homeschooling my own children and trying to teach my class at the same time takes up a lot of time. My daughter, who is 12, FaceTimes or SnapChats with her friends, so she’s okay.  

My 10-year-old really looks forward to his class Google Meets so that he can see his friends. 

He is dyslexic so he needs a lot of help and he has a lot of energy, doesn’t want to sit at the computer all day. So, we go for walks and I’ll show them different plants outside. And they don’t know they’re learning. We talked about how the full moon made the tide really high and really low and stuff like that.  

I used to go to work and that was my work time. I planned my day. I did my work. I planned tomorrow. And now I don’t have time to plan and do work because I’m homeschooling and the laundry is here, the dishes are here. It’s terrible. So, I find myself staying up until 11 o’clock at night because that’s when I need to plan or correct papers. 

My kids have not left the house except for walks. They haven’t gone to a store since that Wednesday when school got canceled. The other day I was going to the grocery store and my son asked “Can I come with you?” I had to tell him “You know, actually you can’t.” He said “What do you mean?” and I had to say it’s only one person per family. He looked at me very strangely, I think it took him all that time to realize, oh something’s going on now. 

“Can I come with you?” I had to tell him “You know, actually you can’t.”

Hopefully this is a once in a lifetime thing. I guess you can compare it kind of to the hurricanes that we had that trapped us at home. But that was only because we couldn’t get out because the trees were down and there was no power. But I don’t think that has prepared us for this.  

Hopefully it won’t happen again and we all get through it safely and happily, because I know being trapped at home with your family can be very difficult and very hard on relationships.  

For my students, I know some of them don’t come from a happy place, and they come to school to get away. And, I feel like telling them, “I’m sorry we had to send you back there.” 

I’ll ask them how they were doing with some of them. Some of them say they are okay but are really bored. Some of them are say they’re going crazy. I tell them I’m always here to talk. I mean, I wish I could help them more. One of my very good students hadn’t turned in three assignments in a row. When I emailed her to check in and see if I could help, she said she and her mom both had COVID-19. Her mom worked and her mom worked for a hospice. So, it’s just really hard. 

And then all my seniors, they’re so sad because you know, they’re missing out on internships and prom and graduation. Some of them haven’t even picked their colleges. On spring break, they were going to go and drive around and see where they wanted to go to college and make a decision. 

Overall, I think we’re doing a really good job here in Westport. Whenever we go out everyone has masks on. All the stores are complying with how many people should be inside and I think it’s great. I’m really happy with what they’re doing. And I think because of the party we wrapped our heads around it real fast and went on lockdown. I feel like in a lot of other towns, it’s not like this. I go to Norwalk for the grocery store and I feel like they don’t even think anything’s wrong. Some people have masks on, some people have gloves on. But people are standing way too close and they don’t seem to be caring… so I think our town got it real fast. 

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.

Focus On: Chef Bill Taibe

Chef and Restaurateur Bill Taibe, is the mastermind behind the beloved Westport restaurants, Ka Wa Ni, the Whelk and Jesup Hall.  He lives in Weston with his wife and two boys who are 15, and 18—a sophomore and a senior in high school respectively. 

We pivoted very quickly to change operations as soon as schools in Westport closed– about a week before the mandate to close restaurants came through.  That Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, we had limited seating and precautions for all staff.  That Saturday I had a full 80-person virtual staff meeting, saying that I believed we were just going along in that way, and then an hour later I told everyone we were shutting down and going to delivery and curbside pickup. It was just my gut reaction to do that. Restaurants are important pieces to the social epicenter of the town and I thought it was our responsibility to do our best for our town, by getting ahead of this thing.  

We are still open and we have 36 employees fully working between three restaurants. I had to send 30 to 40 employees to unemployment and we are trying to do our best to help take care of them. We get nice gratuities from delivery and pick up and we Venmo money to people on unemployment as a donation because even with the extra subsidies, it’s just not enough.  

Sometimes I feel bad that we are doing relatively well under the circumstances. We are in a tremendous place and I would not want to do what we are doing in a different place or different town. We are trying to feel normal and help our customers feel normal and we’ve been fortunate to continue doing what we do best– creating great food. 

It’s funny, my brain works really well when there’s chaos. In fact, I might have been patient zero for ADD back in high school. When I’m kind of cornered and put in a situation to solve, move and pivot—that’s when everything fires away. This has been exciting for me–obviously, not in a good way– but in terms of problem solving and adjusting. Internally, these circumstances make us realize we get a sense of who and what people are. I have 36 employees thrilled to come to work and happy for that opportunity. I know other restaurants that are struggling because employees are happy to stay home and collect unemployment even if the work is there. 

Aside from the fact that lives are lost and people are dealing with serious things like this, we can have a social reset that is important. I would never wish this on anyone but I think it’s been a way to figure out and prioritize what’s important. 

I think [the pandemic has] been a way to…prioritize what’s important 

We are the center of a community. In my four restaurants, we’ve seen a lot and heard a lot and pulled people together. In terms of gathering and needing time together, this puts things in perspective. As a community I think we are picking and choosing those things that are important. For example, maybe we’ll come out of this thing and that party we want to have doesn’t need forty people but only fifteen who mean the most to us.  

I really think that there’s this sort of a beautiful awkwardness to the whole thing. It’s not right but there’s a lot of good from it. I am thrilled with how my children are dealing. I can promise that at 15 and 18 I wouldn’t have been dealing. We are not talking about that enough—their resilience and strength. Seniors won’t have last year of playing sports, won’t have a graduation or a senior prom. They will never get that back; these kids and people are complaining about not sitting at a bar? 

I know, too, my perspective is coming from a person who has not been in quarantine. I have worked more in the last month than in last five years. I had to lay off 40 and had to pick and choose and have been dealing with situations and decisions I never thought I’d have to.  

People are learning to care about others. I closed on the Saturday after schools closed not trusting people to do the right decision and make the right choices. I think what is crazy about COVID-19 is not necessarily how it can affect me, but the just as likely chance it does nothing to me, but that my making a poor decision could affect someone else. I take that seriously because I can’t carry that burden if someone comes into contact with a carrier in my space. 

I think we will come back stronger but I don’t think that will happen soon—I don’t think you’ll be sitting at my restaurants any time soon for probably 12 months. I’m preparing for that. We all should.  

When I think what I’m getting out of this– me personally—it’s that I can see who is helping each other and who is not, I want to be around the people who are helping and less around those who are not.  

In the early days of this, we were the first restaurant involved in Food For the Frontlines which was put together by Nicole Strait, an old dear friend whose daughter is part of Westport EMS. She wanted to do something for those workers that could also help restaurants make a little money. We put out 50 meals that first Sunday but we haven’t done another since—not because we don’t believe in but because we are doing relatively well under the circumstances and have received tremendous support from the town. I’d rather step back and let restaurants that need the income more have a chance. What we have been doing instead is a rotating meal to the police department, fire department and EMS locally on my own dime so we can help out hyper-locally. 

 I have built my own confidence to stand my ground on my belief, on my gut, and the sense that this was serious. When I listen to the nonsense of people joking through the process and making fun, I think that’s a malicious approach. If you don’t learn from this and get better through this and figure out new ways of living, you are a fool and you missed a chance. At the end of the day if we get through, and if this gets back to normal, I wish and hope that in our restaurants we will be better, my staff will be better, the town will be better. My feeling is this town is strong and committed to itself. I wouldn’t trade our customers for the world. 

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.