This is the second virus to shrink the physical boundaries of Sunnie Baron-Freeman’s life.
She was 8 and vulnerable when polio struck. Her parents were terrified.
Her brother contracted the virus, and he, Sunnie, their sister, and their parents were quarantined together for eight weeks. Sunnie was scared for her brother. She missed her friends and school — no one brought assignments to her. She sat on the front steps of her Wynnefield rowhouse hoping someone would say hello.
“There was a sticker on my front door, a yellow sticker that said someone inside had polio,” Sunnie remembers. “Nobody would talk to me. They would see that sticker and walk far out into the street.”
Young Sunnie had no control over any of it.
She was 89 and vulnerable when COVID-19 struck. Her children were terrified.
“Our biggest concern was that she would still want to go out, go shopping, and live the life she loves to live in Center City,” said daughter Suzy.
But Sunnie, who has asthma and was hospitalized twice in 2018 with sepsis, did what she has done throughout her adult life: assess the situation and determine how to make the most of it.
After high school, she had hoped to be a fashion designer, but two weeks in New York City taught her she wouldn’t earn enough to support herself and pay Fashion Institute of Technology tuition. She returned to Philadelphia and became an assistant buyer, then a buyer, at Lit Bros. department store. Sunnie gave up nights and weekends for the job until learning a man doing the same job made $200 more per week prompted her to quit.
Sunnie excelled as a doctor’s office manager. She did not plan on getting married, she told the handsome former serviceman named Marvin who proposed on their first date. But Marvin, an entrepreneur who studied engineering and Mandarin, kept asking in his mellifluous voice. After a month of noes, Sunnie said yes on New Year’s Day. They married in September 1955, the same year the polio vaccine was introduced.
Marvin and Sunnie had three children: Suzy, Jane, and Lewis. Marvin spoiled them and Sunnie guided them. Her strictest rule: Everyone had to eat dinner together.
In her late 40s, Sunnie earned a degree in special education. She loved working with special-needs children, but in the early 1980s, she and Marvin were injured in a car accident and her employer dismissed her, saying she would no longer be able to restrain a child — something she had never once needed to do.
So Sunnie took a computing course and soon was working for herself, training offices full of people moving from typewriters to PCs.
Her children grew up and launched their lives. Suzy and her husband, Dan, live in Riverton, N.J., with a son, Malcolm. Lewis and Debbie live in North Jersey with their children, Maya and Ben. Jane, whose husband, Darrell, died two years ago, lives in Maine.
Sunnie and Marvin spent as much time with their children as possible, and traveled as much as they could. When PC training was no longer in demand, Sunnie got a real estate license.
Marvin died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1993. Family, friends, work, and her 85-pound royal poodle, Teddy, got Sunnie through her grief. When Teddy died, Sunnie no longer needed a yard and moved into the Center City co-op to which she had steered several clients.
“I had to start fresh,” Sunnie said.
She made new friends. She dated. And then a friend in her building asked if she would mind talking to another resident who was struggling to regain his footing after his wife’s death. Sunnie knew bereavement work. In 1983, after her brother died from suicide, she had helped found the support group Survivors of Suicide.
She met with the man, Gordon, a few times and then one day he told Sunnie he missed eating out but did not like going to restaurants alone. Sunnie would join him, she said, so long as there was no hidden agenda and no argument about splitting the bill.
“He had a hidden agenda,” Sunnie said. Gordon was a patient man. On daily walks, they discovered they loved talking to each other and began dating. A year after that, they moved into a larger apartment in the same building, in part so both could keep their art.
They argued politics and walked in the Wissahickon. They listened to classical music at the Curtis. Gordon and his late wife had not had children, and he fell hard for Sunnie’s family, especially the grandchildren.
Two months before Gordon’s 95th birthday, Sunnie went to lunch with her daughters and returned to hear the shower still running. Gordon had died suddenly.
Sunnie grieved another huge loss then resumed her favorite things: Gathering with friends and family. Trips to the Arden and the Curtis. Shopping, especially at J. Crew. Tending to her balcony window boxes. Daily walks on Walnut and Chestnut Streets, where the window shopping and people watching are excellent.
She went to lectures and plays, joined her building’s art group and a writer’s group.
When COVID-19 came, Sunnie knew she was at risk. No one knew when a vaccine would bring back normal, but at least with this virus, everyone soon knew how it spread and what steps could prevent that. With those things in mind, Sunnie established a semi-quarantine routine:
Suzy and Janet, Sunnie’s part-time aide, are in her bubble and the only people who have frequented her apartment since March. Suzy’s husband and son have joined her there a few times. Grandmother and grandson play masked games of Minecraft.
Sunnie did see all of her children once, when everyone gathered in the outdoor safety of Suzy’s yard with a multitude of fans blowing their breath away. That gathering, plus one trip to the drugstore, have been Sunnie’s biggest outings.
With Janet along, she does continue her cherished daily walks — although on less busy streets. She tends seven window boxes of purple petunias and a large crop of houseplants. She shops the J. Crew website, attends Athenaeum of Philadelphia’s Socrates Cafe discussions online, and looks forward to University of Pennsylvania’s free humanities lectures.
It’s better than getting sick, Sunnie said, but it’s not easy.
She really misses hugs.
As Sunnie’s 90th birthday approached, Jane and Lewis said they were coming for the day, which sounded crazy to Sunnie. It would mean a two-week quarantine for Jane. And Lewis was moving the day before — he would be exhausted. Traveling and togetherness were not without risk for any of them.
As Sunnie lay in bed one night, the answer came to her as clearly as the virtual discussions she attends.
“I want to have a Zoom birthday,” she told Suzy the next morning.
And so at 3 p.m. on her late-August birthday, her kids and their spouses and children appeared on-screen from homes in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maine. Janet brought out the strawberry shortcake she had hidden and everyone sang and talked and laughed.
“Just to see my kids was overwhelming,” said Sunnie. “I got to see my grandson who is in college in Upstate New York. I got to see my granddogs.”
Flowers arrived during the call, and Sunnie opened pre-delivered presents: An Alexa. A set of landline phones. A comfy balcony seat from Jane she calls the narcoleptic rocker.
But thanks to some behind-the-scenes work by Suzy, the party was just getting started.
“My nieces and nephews popped up, and their children, and my friends,” said Sunnie. Folks checked in from Colorado, California, North Carolina, New York, Massachusetts, Florida, and an island off the Vancouver coast.
In all, 33 people joined the Zoom celebration and four without the technology called with birthday wishes — so many more than could have attended a party in person.
“It was just a wonderful celebration,” Sunnie said, “and I didn’t have to clean up afterward.”