Focus On: Diane Benke & Family

“We have lived in Westport 10 ½ years. I am a stay at home mom & amateur triathlete/swimmer. My husband works in finance in NYC. He is working from home. 

We’ve settled finally into a routine after 5 weeks. My biggest challenge is keeping my two boys 1) academically engaged/challenged with the homeschooling, 2) having them physically active and 3) preventing them from spending too much time on video games! Managing a household and maintaining “order” with everyone home is a challenge – my work has increased in terms of parenting, rule and chore setting but also keeping everyone in good spirits, etc. 

I feel like folks are managing the best they can. Some are giving back by setting up donations to Gillespie Center or making masks and distributing them, collecting for food banks etc. Others are helping their neighbors in need (who are vulnerable and can’t leave their homes). Folks are trying to reach out to one another with zoom calls, and small acts of kindness (just checking in on how we are doing) etc. Like anywhere else, situations like this one can bring out the best and worst in people. I try to look for the good. We’ve participated in birthday drive-by parades for my children’s friends.  

My father is a holocaust survivor and my mother grew up in Slovakia under communism so I try to keep perspective that this situation could be way worse. Seeing bare shelves at the supermarket gives me a sense of what it was like for my mother growing up with limited produce and grocery options. I try not to complain because my father told me he was under house arrest for two years (only able to get out once a week for two hours). I am trying to teach my children resilience, perseverance and gratitude by example. I’ve learned how to dig deep from endurance sports and the long-distance races I’ve participated in. There is a moment in the training or race where it gets tough, and you get through it. Life is a roller coaster. There is hardship and suffering, but experiencing the lows, make the high points that much richer. 

Life is a roller coaster. There is hardship and suffering, but experiencing the lows, make the high points that much richer.  

My fears are that our lives will never be the same – that we won’t be as social or interact with one another as much as we did before. I fear that the new norm will be life behind a computer screen, phone, face mask and closed doors. I mourn less travel and larger group events like concerts or Broadway shows. I don’t want to lose what is special about the human experience – connecting with each other on a personal and deep level. My greatest hope is that we learn from this pandemic in multiple ways. I hope we learn to be more present, to treat the environment and one another better. I hope we practice gratitude and come out of this stronger, better prepared to deal with adversity. 

I am grateful that we have made a home in Westport and it is a true community. During this pandemic and stay at home order, we’ve been able to connect with our local friends, support local restaurants and businesses. I believe that what you put out in the world comes back to you — and the relationships we’ve made in town are helping us get through this together. Westport has so much to offer from its beaches to its cultural and educational resources – much of this still exists but in a different format. I am grateful for my children’s’ teachers and the daily assignments they’ve created (how quickly the Westport education system prepared for this!).” 

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

Focus On: Michelle Murphy & Family

As I write this, we are in week six of social distancing. Although I have less fear than six weeks ago, I am still wary of the unknown and what the future looks like. The lead up the week schools closed knowing it was coming but not knowing how long it would last and what social distancing “looks like” was a bit daunting. I still don’t understand the right answer to that, which is tough. I do think (and hope) there are responsible ways that we will be able to visit with family and friends as we come out of this quarantine, but in the meantime, we will just wait and see. We are fortunate that the weather is warmer and hopefully sunny days will allow for outdoor social distancing. 

The biggest change for us has been to be able to sit down to dinner with my kids every night. I had started traveling a fair amount for work before this started so between that, volunteer work and other social commitments I was always on the go. Time is something that we don’t get back and I look at this chapter of our lives as a gift because I am able to slow down and spend time with my children that I wouldn’t otherwise have had.  

Professionally, I have shifted my work hours to accommodate the needs of my family but fortunately I have the flexibility to do that. Socially, I am still able to connect with family and friends thanks to technology so it is not as isolating. And to some degree there are people I “see” more now than I did before we were told to stay at home. The other big change is school! I come from a family of educators so I have always had an appreciation for teachers and their roles in the development of children…but this takes it to a whole new level. The older kids (7th and 9th grade) are more self-sufficient but working through 4th grade learning is tough so a big thank you to all the teachers out there working hard to keep our kids on track. For the kids, I think missing the routine of school, friends and social activities is tough. We were looking forward to a spring of baseball, lacrosse and dance. 

I think that everyone is doing the best they can and that is all we can hope for. This is unchartered territory for all of us – town leadership, educators, first responders, small business owners, parents, children, even pets! All we can do as a community is look out for each other and have empathy. Everyone handles stress differently and we have to accept that without judgement, which is easier said than done. Town leadership has been very communicative from the beginning and I feel that has helped alleviate some of the unknowns, along with the many resources available. Watching the community come together for organizations such as Westport Food Fund and Food for the Front Lines has been heartwarming and inspiring. We need to help our neighbors because we never know when we will need them to help us. 

All we can do as a community is look out for each other and have empathy

Becoming a divorced mother of 3 when my kids were under the age of 7 forced me to accept that which we have no control over. I learned that I could feel all the emotions that one has, going through traumatic experiences, but I couldn’t marinate in those feelings as I needed to be present for my children. Every day I reminded myself it could always be worse, and that is true in today’s current environment. We can’t let fear bring us down, we need to stay strong and positive and take comfort in knowing that we are truly all in this together. I was taught a long time ago and try to instill it in my children now to find something beautiful in every day. Just because there are clouds, it doesn’t mean the sun is gone. When people ask me now, how I am doing, my answer is always – I am healthy, my kids and my loved ones are healthy, I am still employed with a roof over my head, food on the table and for the most part I am still sane. I have nothing to complain about. 

I hope that a year from now the country is in a place where we have the vaccinations and immunities needed to combat this virus. I hope that families that have lost loved ones during this time find peace. I hope that my children remember this period of time fondly albeit challenging. I hope when they think back, they remember the gift of time they got to spend with family. I hope that we all come out of this as better people. It is amazing how quickly this pandemic has changed the way many view the world. Things that used to seem so important no longer are. It’s all about perspective and I hope that people remember that. My hope is that hope beats out fear. My greatest fear is not knowing if I am doing enough to keep my kids safe both mentally and physically, or something happening to me that would prevent me from being there or being able to provide for them. 

I recently did one of those “what does your birthday month say about you” gimmicks and the message for mine was: “no matter how tough life gets you have a way of always keeping hope alive for yourself and your loved ones. You smile, even when you’re sad because you will never give up, even when the going gets tough.” I think this is very apropos to who I am not just today, but every day. Hang in there Westport – we are strong and we will get through this together. Sending a big virtual hug to you all. 

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

Focus On: Laura Tucker & Family

The Tuckers, Laura, David and their three kids Lili, a college freshman; Avery a Staples sophomore and Eily a 3rd grader at Long Lots, have lived in Westport just over 7 years. They celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary on April 22nd

“Today is our 20th wedding anniversary.  We are on on week six of quarantine. 

David and I were planning to celebrate our anniversary in Amsterdam, where we first met in 1994. Instead, we are home in Westport. I am disappointed that we are not able to go on our anniversary trip, but if I have to be quarantined somewhere, Westport is a nice place to do it. We are lucky to have a house with enough space for five people. We have a backyard and we are trying to spend as much time as possible outdoors. We are planting a garden, hiking and enjoying the sun when it is not raining (we have had way too much rain!). Westport is a beautiful town to ride bikes and walk our dogs.   

I think our family is reasonably well prepared to cope with this situation. We have lived in different places/countries and have adapted to many new situations. This is just another new situation. We also lived in New York City on 9/11. My first child was born 6 days before that awful day. I learned quickly that things can change in an instant and sometimes you have to change as well to get through tough times. 

Every family has their strategies for getting through this. What do the Tuckers do to survive? We get more animals! We have two dogs and they bring us so much happiness.  They have been great quarantine companions! We added a hamster to our family and we are getting a puppy on May 16. The kids are begging for chickens too! If quarantine doesn’t end soon, we are going to end up with a zoo! 

There have been lot of changes to our daily lives. Our kids are now homeschooled, there are food and toilet paper shortages, we have to wear masks in public, we are only seeing our friends and family over Zoom…and the list goes on. I think I am handling most of our “new normal” pretty well, but I must admit I am having a hard time with all the disappointments. Everything we were looking forward to has been cancelled. Lili has to complete her freshman year of college at home. Avery made it to the World Championships for cheerleading, and now that isn’t happening. Eily worked for months to be in her school play and it was cancelled two days before they were supposed to perform. We were going to visit my husband’s parents in Australia this summer, but now it will be postponed until next year. The Australia trip is probably the hardest one for our family to deal with because my kids have not seen their Australian grandparents in a long time. A lot can happen in a year and the thought terrifies me.  

I am usually a very optimistic person, but I have found the longer we are in quarantine, the more I worry. I fear the aftermath of the quarantine is going to be worse than the Great Depression. I look at our beautiful downtown and almost everything is closed. How are we going to come back from this? If we do, how long is it going to take? The longer they stay closed, the more likely the stores will not re-open. What will happen to those people who own or worked in those businesses? Will they be able to keep their homes? Will they be able to feed their families? So many people are losing their jobs. Not everyone can work from home. I love the idea of Westport’s slogan “You are not stuck at home, you are safe at home.”  This is true for many, but what about the people who are not safe at home? We can’t forget about all of the other problems in the world just because this virus reared its ugly head.  

There have been many beautiful moments that have made me proud to live in Westport. I am impressed with the way the community has come together to help others. So many people are volunteering and donating to local causes. Unfortunately, there have been some ugly moments too. I have seen people fighting in CVS (over which direction to walk), shaming others on social media and in person. Someone screamed from their convertible at my teenagers (she thought they were riding bikes too close to each other). We should not be turning against each other in this time of crisis. When this is over, we still have to live in the same town. These are our neighbors, our friends and their their children. 

I am impressed with the way the community has come together to help others

We were listening to the “Dear Evan Hansen” soundtrack while making dinner the other night”(music written by Staples grad, Justin Paul).  

The words to the song “Anybody Have a Map” really hit home.  

Does anybody have a map? 

Anybody maybe happen to know how the hell to do this? 

I don’t know if you can tell 

But this is me just pretending to know 

So where’s the map? 

I need a clue 

‘Cause the scary truth is 

I’m flying blind 

And I’m making this up as I go 

None of us have been through a pandemic before and I think we are all doing the best we can. We don’t have a map or any kind of instructions to follow. Everyone is struggling with this in their own way. So many are experiencing some kind of disappointment and fear. I think if we show kindness to one another, it might ease some of the pain. If we show compassion toward our neighbors, hopefully our community will come out of this more connected.  

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: Netta Levy & Family

I am a PTA volunteer (Staples high school PTA President) and a marketing consultant. I’ve been able to still do most of my work from home so from that perspective my life hasn’t changed that much but getting time during the day to get stuff done with everyone around has been a real challenge! 

At the beginning of all of this, I was reading too much searching for answers: news, social media, etc. I found that the more I read, the more questions I had, the less I slept. Once I made a conscious effort to limit my social media and consume less news, it had a big impact on my physical and mental wellbeing. Now, I am definitely less neurotic 🙂 

Not being able to see family has been a real challenge. We are very close with our relatives–my parents are both elderly, and not being able to see either of them for so long and knowing they’re all alone has been very hard. But we’ve found ways to do Friday candle lighting every week on zoom (once they figured out how to use it) as well as celebrate my son’s 13th birthday online (we had to cancel his bar mitzvah and are trying to figure out when we can do it). Technology has been a big help in all of this, in helping us all to stay connected while being isolated. 

This community is amazing. I have the best neighbors and friends in Westport. When there is a challenge most of us rise to that challenge. We help those around us. That is what has kept me going through all of this: our resilience and our strength as a community always shines through during times such as this.  

I think that my generation (I am 46) has the coping skills to deal with this. My greatest hope is that my children think back to this time we all had together and remember more good than bad.  

However, as you look at some of the younger families and people in communities such as this one, they’ve never had to deal with any adversity in their past—and this tests us all. My next door neighbor who is 89 is a good guiding light for me during times like this – she is always so calming, optimistic and helps keeps things in perspective. She’s become part of our Westport family. 

Times like this are a good reminder to be kind to one another. It’s always true that you never know what someone else is going through. During difficult times such as this it’s even more important to remember that simple fact. Go that extra mile. Take that extra step. Ask your neighbor if he/she needs anything. I may not be in control of how long this will last or what other people will do, but I am in control of my own attitude and actions. And hopefully my kids are watching and learning from my husband and me. 

Go that extra mile. Take that extra step.

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: 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. 

Explore More of “Westport In Focus”

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