Mary Ann Versluis

Mary Ann Versluis is the owner of the CookEJar, located in downtown Casa Grande.

CASA GRANDE — Every table at the CookEJar had salt and pepper shakers. No longer stored away, as a pandemic caution.

It was a sign. Normal was on the rebound. And the CookEJar embraced it.

You just had to look around. Diners took to the tables and booths. Few wore masks. The waitstaff served up breakfast and lunch with a smile. You could tell. They didn’t have masks either.

I had one, but kept it in my pocket. I was on a pilgrimage to find normal, life as it was before COVID.

I last visited the CookEJar sometime in 2019. After COVID hit in March 2020, I stopped going out — except for toilet paper. I became a masker and crowd avoider. I got a pulse oximeter. Every morning I measured my oxygen. Ninety-five? Hanging in there.

I got vaccinated. After two jabs and a two-week wait, I felt better about my chances. COVID no longer topped my list of worries. It now ranks below car crashes and skin cancer.

Last Tuesday, I felt confident enough to set foot in the CookEJar, unmasked. To see if others felt the same. That normal was making a comeback.

CookEJar owner Mary Ann Versluis thinks it is. Business is booming. Better than normal even.

“We’re doing really well,” she said. “People are tired of being cooped up, I think.”

Versluis did not stay cooped up herself. She ran her restaurant as close to normal as the government allowed. The CookEJar provided takeout during mandated closures in spring of 2020. Savings helped tide her over. She opened up to 50% capacity in May of that year, as allowed.

She never fussed about masks. Some customers wore them. Some didn’t.

Versluis didn’t question their choice.

“If you want to mask, mask. If you don’t want to, you don’t want to.”

Mid-pandemic, some pro-maskers weren’t comfortable with that, she said. I would have been among them. But I’m all jabbed up. I no longer fret about seeing faces in the crowd. A small crowd anyway.

I took a booth. I ordered my usual pre-pandemic coffee and cookie. It was one of the best coffee-cookie combos I’ve had to date. I’m not just saying that because I got it free.

Anyway, here I was. Sitting at the booth, drinking coffee. People watching. Enjoying normal.

Fred and Mary Castillo were seated the next booth over. Finishing up breakfast, they slipped their masks on. It was a qualified normal for them. I went over for a chat. I put on a mask. I want people to talk to me. Not wonder if I’m a COVID carrier.

The Castillos are from Coolidge. They came to Casa Grande for a doctor’s visit.

“We’re doing good,” Mary said. “We try to be more careful.”

They’re edging back to normal, now that they’ve been vaccinated. With their daughter’s encouragement.

“She’s a nurse,” Fred said. “She kind of keeps us on our toes.”

In Coolidge, a lot of places were shut down. But the Castillos didn’t go out much anyway, Mary said. They had their groceries delivered. Friends shopped for them.

“People were very helpful,” Mary said.

Fred offered advice on handling the pandemic. Don’t panic, he said.

“Just wear your mask. Don’t be a superhero and say, ‘I don’t need that.’”

“There’s some people who said that,” Mary added, “and they’re not here anymore.”

David and Betty Gunsten were a booth away. They waited for their order. They weren’t wearing masks. I asked if they minded if I took mine off. I said I was vaccinated.

“Nope,” Betty said. “I’m vaccinated. I’m good.”

The couple noticed more people venturing out. Enjoying the simple pleasures of normal.

This is something of a change for them as well. Tuesday is Betty’s day off. But she usually spends it helping out her mother-in-law, David’s mother. Betty shops for her groceries.

“I didn’t want my mother-in-law, because she is much older, to get compromised.”

Betty knows a good place for groceries. She works at an Albertsons in the Valley. She once worked at Albertsons in Casa Grande, from the day it opened to the day it closed. She met David there.

He now works as a janitor at Schuff Steel in Eloy. He sees his mother on his days off as well.

They finally found the time to dine out. Enjoy normal.

As they spoke, I took notes. David noticed I was left-handed. He said he was left-handed, too. And so was Betty. What were the odds of that? A lot better now, with left-handers emerging from their homes.

I left the CookEJar and turned up Florence Street. Carla and Nicole, mother and daughter, were seated at a small table outside Deadlift Coffee. It was pleasant in the shade.

We spoke briefly. They preferred I use first names only.

They were stepping out, cautiously.

“Once I was fully vaccinated, I felt more comfortable,” Nicole said.

“We actually went to church for the first time on Sunday,” Carla added.

It’s been a hard year, she said. The pandemic kept Carla and her husband from their grandkids, Nicole’s two children. Now 2 and 4.

Now fully vaccinated, Carla can hold them, once again.

A grandmother’s love. As normal as salt and pepper.


Reach contributing writer Bill Coates at