Jan. 15 marked a day of joy and relief for Portola Valley resident Sue Crane. It was the day she finally received her first of two Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine doses.
Crane, 88, has mostly been confined to her apartment in The Sequoias retirement community in Portola Valley since the pandemic sparked San Mateo County to institute its shelter-in-place order.
Before she moved into The Sequoias, Crane, a former Portola Valley mayor who's lived in town for 57 years, had heard stories about the difficulties of norovirus outbreaks in 2006 and 2011.
"I thought, 'Oh, thank goodness I never came when something like that happened,'" she said. "So when something like this happens — that, oh, 'Tomorrow, you will not go to the dining room,' that's the first way you hear about it — you think, 'It's going to be a day or so.' You have no expectations. And it goes on and it goes on and things get canceled."
Since the pandemic began, six of The Sequoia's' 315 residents and 34 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, said Rob Hays, executive director of The Sequoias, in a March 1 email. Of those cases, one person was hospitalized and there have been no deaths.
The pandemic was a particular shock given that the year had started off completely normally. In March 2020, Crane organized a group of Sequoias residents to visit Ridge Winery in Cupertino, which she co-founded — before selling — with her late husband, Hew, in the 1950s. The group planned to taste wines, including her favorites: cabernets. But the excursion never happened.
Instead, residents of The Sequoias faced restrictions. They were not able to gather, although they were allowed to walk together outside, 6 feet apart, outside. Residents received COVID-19 tests at their front doors. Mail and meals were also delivered to their doors.
Crane, who moved into the community six years ago for social interaction, considers taking meals by herself to be the most difficult part of the restrictions at The Sequoias.
"Every day I hate eating alone," she said. "I just don't like it."
Weekends feel particularly lonely for Crane, a time when she has few meetings scheduled.
"If I'm lonesome, I usually don't call somebody and say I'm lonesome," she said. "I stay away from people. ... Now, I might, a few days later ... I can talk about it — but I did not help myself. I did not help myself when I was lonely. And I find a lot of people do this."
Still, Crane is happy to be at The Sequoias during the pandemic. She fears she would feel lonelier living in her own home.
"I walk outside my apartment and I bump into people," she said. "You're never alone."
As separated as she's been from family this past year, she's also come to rely on them in new ways.
Her son Daniel, who lives in the Portola Valley house she called home with her sons and Hew for many years, drops off groceries from Trader Joe's. Daniel said his parents were very self-sufficient, so it's actually been nice to be able to take care of his mother recently.
Daniel's partner, Harriet Bell, said that after almost a year they really know what Sue likes. Graham crackers or dark chocolate almonds are on Sue's list of favorites.
"I know she likes this cheese more than that cheese," Bell said. "The relationship is different than it was. There's a different level of intimacy. Other than not being able to actually see her, it feels like we talk quite often."
On Thanksgiving Crane made the decision to spend the holiday with Daniel, his daughter (who took a COVID-19 test before attending the gathering) and Bell.
"The minute I walked in the door, I forgot about the pandemic," Crane said. "I must have kept my mask on for a while. I didn't hug anyone at first. I think when I left, I did hug somebody, my granddaughter. I was in a familiar place. I felt wonderful."
Bell said Sue took note of some new photos on the wall.
"It makes you realize how long it had been since she had been in the house," Bell noted.
The pandemic has not come without its share of silver linings. It's helped Crane to grow personally. Looking back, she is proud of the resilience she's displayed.
"Going with the flow was difficult," she said. "But I can look at it now and I think I was up to the job. That surprises me. I did my share of complaining. But you know, I'm not the worst for it. I know a lot of people here who are much for the worse of it."
Crane has been able to offer support and comfort for others who are not feeling as resilient.
"I don't know I'm doing it when I'm talking, but then they'll come back and say, 'Thank you. I really appreciated you saying that,'" she said.
Crane's confidence has also increased during the pandemic, the continuation of an evolution that she's been on since her husband, who was a key figure in the design and construction of banking automation, died in 2008.
"I had a good marriage. (But) I was not as independent," she said. "I took a backseat. He was at SRI and he was called a brilliant man. When people talk(ed) about us owning the vineyard, they talk(ed) about the men owning it. I mean, I always had to fight to be noticed."
Through the pandemic, her council work and pottery, Crane has gained a certain confidence.
"I have become a much stronger person," she said.
In recent weeks, many restrictions at The Sequoias have been lifted because of the vaccinations. Residents are now allowed to go shopping, go to the bank, get their car washed, attend a church service, eat outside at a restaurant with family or friends, play tennis, golf, swim, visit family and friends' homes and visit with up to five other residents in their apartments. Masks are still required and frequent hand-washing is encouraged.
"Spirits have visibly lifted," she said.
She planned to eat corned beef and cabbage with Daniel on St. Patrick's Day and said she enjoyed seeing a different set of faces at the Alpine Tennis and Swim Club earlier this week.
"There's a lightness I just felt to drive and look at the trees," she said.
A trip to Trader Joe's with her family made her realize how much she'd missed the last year. The COVID shopping restrictions felt foreign to her.
"I realized how caged up I've been in not being able to have a normal life," she said. "We don't allow ourselves to know when something is being taken away from us."