A New Role: Chef de Quarantine

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As the mayor’s stay-at-home order is gradually lifted and we begin to reengage in everyday activities, I find myself reflecting back on these last few weeks and months under quarantine.

We’ve spent our days cooped up in our respective caves and cages, seeking ways to escape. We’ve donned masks and gone for walks, worked puzzles, mainlined Netflix, called college pals, clinked cocktail glasses over Zoom, done yoga in our living rooms.

Despite all these attempts, there has been no denying that we have been escaping. Much of our lives has been stuck on pause, as if trapped in a freeze-frame. And yet, throughout it all, to quote Robert Frost, “life — it goes on.”

We have existed insularly, our days and moments distilled down to quotidian activities. Mine have included frequent texting with our three teenagers — those nocturnal creatures residing deep in their rooms — with chores for the day or questions about lost and found objects: “Who took my phone cord?” “Whose glass is this?” “Someone, please walk the dog!” (No wonder they’ve been in hiding.)

Despite my family’s tendency to retreat to our respective personal spaces during the day, we’ve spent more time together, largely because of dinner. Before the quarantine, I mostly viewed this event, put on and presented by me, as drudgery, as a duty that has been known to engender resentment by yours truly. To quote a friend, my attitude was, only half-joking, “You need to eat, again?”

But, suddenly, it was as if I’d been given a chance for a do-over. I’ve metamorphosed into “Provider Mom,” that maternal presence who comforts like an oversized cardigan, who actually thinks about dinner before 5 p.m., who cooks from a recipe and scours the food section for delectable-sounding dishes. I’ve even printed out recipes, for goodness’ sake. And saved them in a box!

What has been happening? Why haven’t I resented all the grocery shopping, the cooking, the general taking-care-of? I mean, it’s not like I’m a completely different person — I’m still more Bridget Jones than Julia Child — but amid slinging pots and splattering sauces, I have managed to get dinner on the table most nights, and even enjoy it. What’s up with that?

Well, for one thing, I’ve had more time on my hands. No longer what I call a “stay-in-the-car mom,” I’ve become, literally, a stay-at-home mom. My “workday” of driving to and fro (one teen still doesn’t have a license) no longer starts early, ramps up in the afternoon and continues into the evening, which also happens to be dinnertime.

Instead, the husband and kids have been home all day, wandering into the kitchen intermittently, nosing about in the fridge with the same refrain: “Is there anything to eat?” All of a sudden, I’ve been forced to focus on the reality that five humans under one roof need to eat multiple times a day.

More than that, though, I’ve been savoring this found time with offspring I would normally have seen only fleetingly. Before the quarantine, our son, taking a year off before starting college, was studying and working in Spain, and our twin daughters were typical high-schoolers with myriad activities and homework. We held family dinners as their schedules allowed.

But in this “new normal,” we’ve been gathering for a meal most evenings and running into each other randomly during the day. (I can’t imagine having to test my homeschooling skills, and empathize with parents of younger kids.) We’ve played a few rowdy rounds of poker and watched some favorite shows. But mostly, we’ve been together at the table.

The meal has never been what I would call relaxing. Often, the decibel level has reached a pitch that induces indigestion, and I’ve found myself constantly admonishing certain people about not talking with their mouths open, putting napkins in their laps (still!) and sitting with both feet on the floor. We’ve endured a lot of talking over each other, interrupting, laughing and occasional arguing. But when I’ve caught my husband’s eye during these cacophonous times, I know that we have been and still are silently, together, grateful for all of it.

Overall, I’ve been thankful that, so far, we have remained healthy and that my husband still has a job — and I’ve ached for those who are not and who do not. I have resisted the urge to avoid all bad news; we need to know the bad news, the suffering of others. And we must celebrate the heroes, those front-line workers risking their lives. I have tried to contribute in various ways and feel fortunate that I can afford to buy groceries. I know that the tiny inconveniences we’ve experienced, compared to what many others face, are just that: miniscule.

But in the shuttered space where I reside, I have strived to do my part by offering comfort in cooking, hopefully brightening my family’s days a bit. Usually, one of the kids has been saying a blessing before dinner, and often that has included a “thank you to Mom” for the meal. I can’t deny that hasn’t been gratifying to hear. Yet I realize it’s not the reason for my role as Chef de Quarantine.

Maybe for me this hasn’t been a do-over, exactly. But in these uncertain and troubling times, it has been the one thing I’ve known for sure I can do in the present moment — and hopefully, as the outside world slowly unfurls before us, in future moments, too.

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