During this quarantine, I’ve been reading about the effects that the disruption of routine has inflicted on people. For the most desperate groups affected by the sea changes in daily life, there probably isn’t enough time to reflect on anything more than how to get water, food and shelter. The time to reflect from a place of relative safety is a privilege. I’m mindful of that as I continue my interior journey, wondering all the time, thinking about so many different things. I’m examining my own behavior, interested in what I hadn’t anticipated. As a person who’s spent plenty of time trying to be prepared and proactive rather than unaware and reactive, I’m focused on what’s been surprising the past few months. I know that just as our autonomic nervous system hums away below our consciousness, other psychological systems of memory and connections are also churning along until for some reason or other, they emerge from just below the surface.
In basic ways, I haven’t changed much of my usual routine. When I wake up, I deal with my personal hygiene, get dressed and make my bed. I haven’t stopped showering and I don’t stay in pajamas or robes. I did that once in early March when I had a really long travel day and was worried that I might get sick. So on my first trip day, I hung out in my nightgown and a light jacket as a safety precaution. But otherwise, not dressing feels like I’m unhealthy. So I always get ready. Ready for what? I don’t know – just ready. I’m trying to wear different clothes instead of the same stuff over and over. I feel like I’m in the world by doing that. What I don’t wear will be donated. So this is a way to accomplish something that’s been on my list anyway.
I also started drawing. I drew a picture of my most beloved dog. I’m not exactly talented but most of what I’ve drawn so far is identifiable. I’m trying to do satisfying, creative work, especially on the rainy days. All dressed up, nowhere to go and too wet to garden. But the most unexpected activity is my resurgent interest in food. Not the eating of it, the preparation of it.
When my dad died, my mom stopped cooking. Her home life was very different from mine. I think my dad could’ve boiled water, but except for a year or so, when my mom was healthy enough to work, I don’t remember him ever preparing a meal. In that brief time when her job was downtown in the Chicago Loop and his was in our neighborhood, he made lunch for me and my sister every day. There was no cafeteria in our school. Every day we went home and ate either salami or egg sandwiches. At least it seemed that way. Sick or not, mom always cooked. Even better, she baked. A decent cook but a sublime baker. She could come home from a surgery and head straight into the kitchen, limping and all the while, fixing a meal while dad sat at the table, waiting to eat, reading the paper. That was just the way they operated. So when he was gone, mom hung it up. She was done after forty seven years of meals. She liked going to restaurants or coming over to our house for dinner. For herself, she kept things simple. Mozzarella cheese and wheat bread. Strawberries and cottage cheese. Eggs and tuna, plus lots of candy. She really liked these coffee and chocolate hard candies called Nips. When we had to move her from our house into assisted living, the floor under her bed was covered in Nips wrappers.
I really missed her cooking. The comfort of going to her house, smelling familiar spices and feeling that warm satisfaction of being cared for disappeared in what felt like one big loss. My mom survived my dad by twenty-five years. I took over the matriarchal role of the family dinners. A few times she tried to recapture that part of her life and made our favorite soup and chicken. But the truth was, she lost her touch. I got all her recipes, such as they were, and ultimately not only reproduced them but improved on them. The only one I’ve never tried is her lemon meringue pie. I think I’ll just let that one be since it was perfect. But my life wasn’t just like hers. I was always a working mom. In the beginning of our family life, I did most of the cooking. Michael, however, not only loved eating, he loved growing food, canning food and cooking it. Over the years, he took on more and more of the daily meals. I still prepared family favorites, but his recipe repertoire continued growing as he ventured from grilling to preparing complex dishes, and ultimately, to baking. In the last months of his life, he frequently asked me what I was going to eat when he died. I told him not to worry – there was always cereal, fruit and cottage cheese and delivery. And that’s exactly what I did after he died. I turned into my mom. If it wasn’t simple, it wasn’t happening. I stopped cooking and after awhile, I was embarrassed to find items in my cabinets and on my spice racks with expiration dates that went back a few years. Every now and then I made a dish for my kids because I remembered the bereft feelings I had when my mom quit doing everything. I’ll admit those times were infrequent. I even gave up the Thanksgiving dinner I hosted for thirty-five years, becoming instead, the person who brought a dish.
So here we are, in the pandemic. Every day I read articles about food and what people are craving and making. Suddenly there’s fresh baked bread, so much that the local stores have flour shortages, right along with toilet paper, paper towels and sanitizing wipes. People are reverting to the foods of their childhoods, buying cans of Chef Boyardee and bricks of Velveeta cheese which is actually a strange synthetic concoction, hardly what I’d call comfort food. But people are buying this stuff, even if it’s not great for them. For weeks, I was immune to this food-consuming tsunami, mostly getting cravings for my favorite meals from closed restaurants. I dreamed of a Dutch baby for days, my number one choice from the best breakfast place in town.
Then, in what felt like an overnight sea change, I began to have impulses to head into the kitchen, which has been the least used room in my house for the past three and a half years. The food I wanted to cook wasn’t so much about what I wanted to eat, as much as it was what I wanted to give to my family. I don’t want them to feel like those homey comforts I used to provide are gone forever. At least not while I can still function. I want my grandchildren to have memories of me making them feel safe, warm and satisfied. So I started with a noodle dish that was my daughter’s childhood favorite. Then I graduated to a full dinner for her family along with me and my son, whose work abroad was cut off because of the virus. That was oven baked skinless fried chicken with mashed potatoes and peas. Next I resurrected, with some trepidation, Michael’s chili. That recipe, which he got in 1987 from our friend Randy, was tweaked over time to make it his own. I could barely read the instructions but I managed to re-copy them and gave it a shot. My son was looking over my shoulder and said he’d bet that I couldn’t replicate the flavor we all knew so well. But I did it and Michael’s presence seemed even more intense than usual. I was a lucky one who had flour in my kitchen. The next thing I knew I was heading for a cookie recipe which was given to me by our friend Brian’s mom, Mary, way back in the 70’s. We’d met Brian during our college years when we were all involved with the anti-war movement. He came from a small town of 800 people, northwest of our university community. He was the first person I knew who owned cows. Sometimes when he was broke, he’d have to sell one for extra cash. Brian is a pure soul, a dedicated conservation biologist. He was instrumental in saving the black-footed ferret from extinction and is a well-respected scientist and author with encyclopedic knowledge about practically everything. He’s also just a wonderful person. When he was getting his PhD, he lived in one of the upstairs apartments in our house. We were great friends. He and Michael had adventures together, both loving the outdoors and stuff like white-water rafting. Here is a blurry photo of an old-school selfie they took on one of their trips. We shared a lot of experiences together in this house. Scary movies and family dinners. Brian, always breaking out his down home sense of humor around the science that had him plunging his hands into ruminants’ bodies with gloves that went up to the shoulder. He was here with us when we had our daughter and was her first babysitter. A thoroughly generous person, he helped with everything, from bailing us out financially when we were down, to shoveling the drive and walks during the worst winters. When he had surgeries, we were there. We hosted him with his new bride, making them a honeymoon suite with chocolates on their pillows. We went through births, illnesses and deaths. When he had brain surgery for a subdural hematoma after an accident, I flew out to his home in New Mexico to help take care of him. When Michael was weak and sick, Brian came here to be with him. He was the last person outside our family that Michael spoke to before he died.
So there I am in my kitchen with Mary’s recipe and up from under the surface burst all these memories of Brian and Michael and me and the families from which we came, and the families we built over decades which of course are now blended together. He and his family have been my stalwart supporters as I hope I have been to them over the years, most especially since Michael’s death.
The snickerdoodles tasted just as delicious as they did when Mary brought them here the very first time. She typed that recipe card for me those many years ago. Brian’s wife Carina didn’t have it, so I was happy to share it, sending it back to his family. I’m sure his daughters will be baking them one day.
And then there was my last venture, mom’s old fashioned chocolate fudge cake. My piece de resistance. That was a cake which never lasted long, impossibly spongy, dense, rich and light, all at the same time, with the center slightly concave from the wet batter. No thick frosting for this baby; rather a thin drizzle of sweet chocolate with the tang of a little orange juice to balance the flavor. I sliced this one in half before I got carried away by its temptation, and sent it across the street to my daughter’s crew. But I had to invite my sister here to have a taste of nostalgia in the most literal way. She came the next day and murmured happily while she ate and I totally got it, because it was so much more than the flavor. She ate two slices and cried a bit, both for now, for this weird uncertain time and future, and all that lies just below the surface. What’s next? What will rise up in the days ahead? Stay tuned…