How Valyria Lewis juggled work, family, music and grief

  • Vee Lewis poses in a jacket she made out of kente cloth from Ghana, as her boyfriend looks on. ALLI FAM—NHPR

  • Vee Lewis (right), her mom, Bettye Billard and Lewis’ dog Chuckles are reunited after over a year of the COVID-19 pandemic. ALLI FAM / NHPR

Published: 6/20/2021 10:35:34 PM

For Valyria Lewis, the music didn’t go away when she wasn’t able to perform in public during the pandemic. She’s always sat at her piano to sing, practice and play.

“Being on stage is great and having the light and the energy from the audience is awesome,” said Lewis, who goes by Miss Vee when she’s onstage. “But sitting at my piano at home is just as great.”

Lewis lives in Berlin and the pandemic made almost all aspects of her life more complicated. She needed to balance music with work, staying healthy and parenting.

She’s one of millions of women who have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has made all the labor women do inside and outside of their jobs more apparent.

‘A Forever Mom’

One of Lewis’ challenges was additional caregiving responsibilities. Her younger son already lived with her, but he took some time off from school. And her oldest, who is autistic and was living in Arkansas, moved in with her during the pandemic.

At first, he had a hard time finding work, and Lewis struggled with how much to help him as he searched.

“I’m what’s called a forever mom,” she said. “I will always be in parenting mode because I have a child with a disability. So that part was very disheartening in that he couldn’t get a job.”

He eventually landed a job at Walmart. But as she was adjusting to this new life with her sons, Lewis didn’t just have to worry about them. She had to take care of herself, too.

‘I just moved very differently during the pandemic’

Right before the pandemic, Lewis was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, which made her more at risk if she caught COVID-19.

“Like, that’s the last thing that I need ... and then especially as a singer, because of the impact on the lungs that you have, so I just moved very differently during the pandemic.”

She had to make those lifestyle changes while grieving the loss of her own grandmother to COVID. Lewis is originally from Arkansas, and her family is still there.

“I couldn’t even go to the funeral,” she said. “I didn’t want to take that risk. At that time, a lot of my family members had COVID.”

Lewis has been living in New Hampshire for four years. As she kept up with her community outside of the state, she felt like she was living in two painfully different realities.

“I have a couple of Facebook pages, but (on) what I call my Black people Facebook page, it was like seeing people die every day. There was another announcement,” she said. “My niece lost two grandmothers within a span of a couple of weeks. My pastor from the church I used to go to in Arkansas, he died of COVID. So it’s just like, I could name a number of folks,” she said.

“I’m looking at my family members die, my friends … and so to them I appear fear-mongered or scared for nothing. And I’m like, no, this is very real for me.”

A return to the stage

But a few things did work out for Lewis.

She took a new job based in Oregon right before the pandemic. She’d been living in an apartment there, and she thought she was going to have to move to Oregon permanently. But as the pandemic ramped up in the spring of 2020, she didn’t want to stay.

“I’m like, I can’t do this anymore. Can I please go work from my home in New Hampshire? I mean, working from home is working (from) home,” she said.

Eventually, her supervisor authorized her to work from New Hampshire through July. Nearly a year later, she’s still working remotely from Berlin, living in the house she owns and loves.

And the immediate stress of the pandemic has slowly started to lift.

Lewis’ mom has been visiting from Arkansas. And last month, she sang at a live venue for the first time in over a year.

She said performing felt wonderful. But it was clear that not everything was back to the way it was before the pandemic. The way she interacts with the audience has changed.

“I don’t wear a mask on stage while I’m singing because I don’t want to pass out,” she said.

But when she’s approached by the audience, especially when they’re not wearing masks, “right away, you just kind of have to take a quick step back.”

Because she wants to protect her health, she’s only considering venues which she considers to be COVID safe.

But on the whole, Lewis is optimistic about the ways of working and living she’s learned through the pandemic.

She’s starting to travel to her job in Oregon again.

“I love the job. I love to be able to go there and enjoy the city life, so to speak. But then I always want to come back home. I want to put down roots in Berlin. I really like the small-town feel,” she said.

But Lewis does feel a bit conflicted about one thing.

“I kind of don’t like that when I go out, everybody knows my boyfriend. Let me go for a brisk walk. We’re supposed to be walking for fitness and then he knows everybody and everybody stops,” she laughs.

As for the boyfriend? That’s for another story...but it’s going well too.

Rick Ganley and Mary McIntyre helped with this story. These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information, visit collaborativenh.org.


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