Susan Reslewic Keatley ’99’s children explore the Maryland countryside.
Susan Reslewic Keatley ’99

Susan Reslewic Keatley ’99 is a freelance science writer and aspiring medical-thriller author. She has a Ph.D. in chemistry, and her interests include computational biology, genomics, and drug discovery.
Susan Reslewic Keatley ’99
Life deals us the unexpected, and in 2020, the dealer was busy. As a scientist, I knew a pandemic was likely in my lifetime, but I did not expect it to arrive in the early months of 2020. I did not expect our homes to become schools and workplaces, and simple gestures like a handshake or a hug to become fraught with danger. I did not expect to attend 2020’s version of our dear friends’ annual holiday party on a video-conferencing platform called Zoom, an occasion that would lead my husband to don a suit for the first time in nine months. I certainly never expected that my family would leave New York City and live on a blueberry farm for six months, from March to September. Almost a year later, those early days of the pandemic are vivid in my mind. 

Even as we packed the rental car outside our Manhattan apartment in mid-March, the farm wasn’t our destination. We planned to ride out the pandemic with relatives in Washington, D.C., at their spacious home with a large yard. But we stopped about 60 miles away, at an Airbnb on a blueberry farm in rural Baltimore County. We thought we’d stay a week. Even though it wasn’t blueberry season, it would be a good adventure for the kids, we reasoned. Like a vacation — the vacation we were supposed to take that week during the kids’ school break — with space, fresh air, and an entire farm to explore. “Might be some farm activities” was included in the description of the farmhouse and property. As the mother of a 3-year-old boy obsessed with machinery, this sounded like good news. 

One week at the farm turned into two, which turned into staying through Memorial Day, which turned into staying through August. As the spring months thawed and the days elongated, the bare branches of the ghostly blueberry bushes transformed into harbingers of the harvest, dotted in white flowers the shape of bells. The fox we got to know had babies, and we saw it chase eagles away from its planned dinner. We determined that the odd sloth look-alike was a groundhog; we found its babies one morning crouching along one of the paths. Our daughter spotted a blue heron almost daily. We saw snapping turtles in the pond, feeding on the fish that our kids had been feeding with worms they found. Herds of deer tore through the yard in the morning. Bunny sightings were akin to those of pigeons in the city. The days got longer. We picked farm blueberries and wild black raspberries. We tore open the strange green spheres at the base of the walnut tree and stained our hands orange finding the precious nut inside. Curtains of spider webs draped over us when we ventured into the woods. Our jackets carried a smoky smell from sitting around the fire pit the night before. 

Before we found the farm, I thought my kids could play independently because in our two-bedroom apartment they always could find something to do during the 15 minutes of downtime we typically had before some activity or outing. The first April day we sent them outside to the backyard, they stood motionless and forlorn as if dropped into a forest in some cruel child-survival reality-TV show. They got the hang of it, and by August they were running out the door at 9 a.m. and had to be called in repeatedly for lunch, having already feasted on rosemary and mint from the farm’s lush herb gardens. “Can you eat too much (insert herb)?” became a com-mon Google search for me. 

We slowed down and sped up. We figured out how to work from home when everyone is home: Do it whenever you can, wherever you can, however you can. I drafted an article on computational biology in the laundry room, using the dryer as a desk. My banker husband worked in the bedroom with the window open, on call to save us from farm misadventures, like our daughter’s first bee sting while playing Marco Polo in the blueberry bushes. We figured out how to exercise without a gym: Run up and down hills. We realized, as cheesy as it sounds, that home is where you make it. We all still laughed at the same things and still loved the same things in a world 180 degrees from our Manhattan one. Without our belongings, our routines, and our friends, all of which we deeply missed, we were still the same people. 

Keatley’s children, June and Robert, checking blueberries for ripeness with their dad.
Susan Reslewic Keatley ’99

As the summer drew on, we re-entered the world — albeit a different one. Our children went to day camp where, after temperature checks, they observed caterpillars and slugs. We joined another family at a lavender farm, in masks, for a socially distanced bluegrass concert. We became regulars at the blueberry farm’s Saturday-night program of pizza and live music. Six months after we ate dinner with three other couples in a yurt restaurant on the Lower East Side, my husband and I had a date. This time we dined outside of an old horse barn. A draft IPA and a crab cake never tasted so good. 

When we left the farm in August, we did not renew the lease on our Manhattan apartment. Instead, we found a new place to rent — a house in Baltimore County. While we missed parts of our old life, too many aspects of our new life worked. The beauty of nature, the freedom in unstructured time, and the richness of being together were all things we valued before, but had become increasingly out of reach, drowned by the currents of our city life. Here, surrounded by cornfields, we can make our own currents. Good vaccine news has primed the world for reopening. I sometimes fear we will ricochet back to a frenetic life, like the one I described in a journal entry dated Dec. 14, 2019. On that day, I took my daughter to an 8 a.m. skating lesson, took myself to a 10 a.m. exercise class, scurried downtown with the family on multiple buses to meet another family for dim sum in Chinatown, then raced uptown with my daughter for a classmate’s birthday party, before heading out to the suburbs that evening with my husband for a holiday party. This year, that party was held on Zoom.

I do yearn for concerts and karaoke and parties, dining without worry, and visits to elderly relatives. But I will hold the lessons of the past year close, as a guidebook to turn to when once again events seize our calendar’s empty spaces. Someone will have a meeting when a child has soccer practice and another child has a piano lesson, and afterward there will be two birthday parties and a really great music festival we all want to attend. That will be when we need to say no to something, when we need to think back to the days in 2020 when our children made up games in their rooms for hours, we got our cardio by hiking in the woods hunting for animal tracks, and a bike ride to a nearby brewery was the weekend’s only outing. 

We will remember the time when, away from everything we knew, we were able to tap into what we valued all along. To think, it all started when we pulled off the highway and into a blueberry farm.