Remembering NM’s COVID-19 victims

Jennifer Rautman adds black flags daily to remember those New Mexicans who died of COVID-19. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

To help children understand the concept of a very large number, teachers often tell them to bring to school bottle caps, twigs or other items equal to that number, and then spread them on the ground so they can get a visual picture of just how big and real it is.

The front yard of retired teacher Jennifer Rautman’s home in the 3700 block of Vermont NE, is visual and real in that same sort of way.

Since early December, she and her daughter, Gretchen Rautman, have been planting small black flags in the yard – one for each COVID death reported in New Mexico.

As of Thursday, there were 3,658 black flags fluttering in the wind.

“I saw an article in Time magazine last November in which a woman in Texas had done something similar, and she had this huge area with a sea of red flags,” Jennifer said.

Jennifer Rautman stands in the front yard of her Northeast Heights home, contemplating the significance of the more than 3,600 black flags she and her daughter, Gretchen, have pressed into the ground. (Roberto E, Rosales/Journal)

“I have a gravel front yard with paths forming a labyrinth, and people can, and occasionally do, walk it. So we began to place the black flags along the edges of the labyrinth. It’s very sobering to walk the labyrinth among all those black flags,” she said.

When the two women decided to go ahead with the project in early December, they shopped online and ordered 2,000 flags, selecting the black because it represents mourning. At the time, there were about 1,300 COVID deaths in New Mexico. They soon realized they didn’t have enough and ordered 3,000 more.

“Fortunately, we have not had to put all of them out there, but every day we check the news and find out what the current day’s total is and then we add flags,” Jennifer said.

Neighbors “have universally been very supportive and very touched by it,” she said.

One neighbor said a flag represented a brother, another said the flag was for a cousin. “One guy said the display was so powerful that he brought his 80- or 90-year-old mother to see it,” Jennifer said. “People walking with their children stop to explain to them what it means.”

Neighbor Alan Duhon said he was so moved “that I volunteered to help plant some of the flags and hang a banner.”

And there’s nothing ambiguous about the message on the banner, which says, “Remembering New Mexico COVID-19 Deaths.”

“Who hasn’t been affected by COVID?” Duhon said. “It has disrupted everybody on the street as far as being able go about their normal routines and in their daily interactions with the other neighbors.”

Gretchen, who has a disability, said she is active online with others in the community of people with disabilities, a population that has pre-existing health conditions. She immediately agreed to do the flag project with her mother.

“I thought it was a good way to make the number real, because it’s a big number,” Gretchen said.

While she and her mother talked about concluding their display on March 11, one year after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a public health emergency, they are now entertaining the possibility of continuing longer.

“I want people to grasp that this is not some random or abstract concept that’s being forced on us to make things uncomfortable,” Gretchen said. “Each of those flags is a person who was loved and had a life and passions. And they’re not here any more. They are dead.”

And while that’s a very “difficult and ugly reality,” Gretchen said, “we need to remember those people and not get sucked into arguments, like whether or not to wear a mask.”

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