When this started, I was focused on not dying, and making sure my parents didn’t either. As a former journalist, I was glued to the news and Johns Hopkins’ COVID-19 tracker. I watched its progression, paid attention, and then I locked down.
First and foremost: I am one of the luckiest people around. I’ve spent more years in the blue collar trades than white, and had this happened almost any other time in my life I’d be toast. In fact, when the Great Recession hit I lost. it. all.
But this catastrophe around I am incredibly spoiled: a week before Gov. Cuomo shut down the state, I sauntered in to work, grabbed what I was working on and stated, “I am leaving. I will be working from home.” A different employer would’ve balked, but they knew I live with two high risk individuals, and understood. Pretty sure they also thought I was nuts. Fair enough.
As I transitioned full time from a giant Mac to a tiny-ass 13-inch laptop screen, perched uncomfortably on not my cush ergonomic work chair, I focused on making work work. I’d worked remotely off and on as I made my way through culinary school, but this was different. This was for real. This was now my life.
Then school went remote, my weekend cooking gig shuttered, and I was stuck, me myself and my itty bitty screen, where I watched as those on the other side of the digital divide struggled to teach their kids, cook a meal, fill their days and, apparently, make infinite loaves of sourdough bread. I was jealous. I wanted to play, to reinvent myself, to also learn how to cultivate “the mother” and bake crusty loaves of carbs.
Instead, I did what I’ve always done: I worked. For which I remain thankful. I was raised to believe that toil was the most important thing you could do. Didn’t matter what you did, as long as you put in an honest day of it. My grandfather ran a stone crusher when I was a kid, long after he’d made the trip into the Pennsylvania coal mines at age 13. My great-grandfather was a miner as well. My grandmother’s vocation — running the house — was the glue that kept it all together, and the typical existence a woman of her time could expect.
These days, as trips to the grocery store have evolved — from early morning missions of running through the store, dousing myself in hand sanitizer, wiping everything off with Lysol wipes, jumping in the shower and immediately washing my clothes and reusable bags, to sitting in the designated parking spot and scrolling through social media while waiting for my order to be dropped off at my trunk — I have decided it’s time to grow and move forward. So what does that mean in these pandemic times? It involves a lot of looking back.
When my maternal grandmother, Eleanor, was dying of leukemia we’d take turns staying at her house. She was in New Jersey, I was living in Syracuse, but I managed to make a few trips down to be with her at the one home that had remained constant throughout my life. An airline pilot father meant we moved quite a bit, a tendency I took up and ratcheted to 10 with more moves by the age of 30 than most people make in their entire lives. But my grandparents had lived in the red asbestos-shingled house on Oak Street since well before I was born. It was the single constant in my life.
Gram was too weak to climb the stairs, so she slept on a cot in the living room. One night, after I’d said good night and was about to head to bed, I asked her: “Gram, where are we from? What are we?”
My great-grandmother, Mary Ellen, was a force to be reckoned with. She lived outside Hazleton, Pa., and my earliest memories are of a plain farmhouse with chickens in the backyard. The birds didn’t know it at the time but at any moment they might find their heads lopped off and plucked, stewing in a pot.
She was the size and shape of a sack of potatoes, with an impossibly long mane of gray hair tied round and round in a bun, and she made the most amazing food and craziest quilts. You could always tell the level of whiskey she’d imbibed by how wild a particular pattern was. And I adored her.
After she passed and I grew older, I found out more. She’d been a flapper, her beloved husband, John, died at age 46, she knew which mushrooms to forage without killing someone (or, alternately, how to kill someone with dinner), and she knew how to survive. When John died, she was on her own with a bunch of kids. She got shit done, and her resulting tendency of turning — sometimes a bit heavily — to the bottle could hardly be surprising. I cannot judge.
And as I sit in my room, with every possible luxury afforded to me with little to no effort on my part, I can’t help but reflect on the strong women who have come before me.
Many traditions will die with me: I will never consume chickens or their eggs, and I will never kill or eat a pig. The Catholic holidays the women before me put so much time into mean nothing to me aside from the memories that center around them — the food, the celebration, the family, the consistency.
But one tradition I find myself drawn to over and over as the months in isolation have stretched on is food. Namely, the food that gives me comfort, or solace, or is something completely new I might never have tried before because there were restaurants, so why?
We’re a month into a new year — nearly a year after everything changed. I guess it’s time to show my work, so to speak…. Coming soon: preservation, part one.