Can I get a ‘corona divorce’ from my quarantined family?
Our family consists of my husband and three kids, ages 14, 17 and 20. The thing about having young adults is that, for several years now, our house has functioned much like an Airbnb: Familiar-looking young people root through the refrigerator and sleep here at night but don’t interact much with the property owners (unless we have a noise complaint or they have a problem with an appliance). Then the quarantine happened.
Now, we are five near-adults in one house 24 hours a day, seven days a week — together.
For some families, festering below the fear and anxiety of how to survive the pandemic is how to survive one another.
Being in family quarantine has given me flashbacks to another less urgent and self-inflicted quarantine: our 10-day RV trip through Northern California when our kids were 12, 9 and 7. My son has diagnosed ADHD. The three of them fought like cats and monkeys. I washed dishes in a micro-sink for 10 days nonstop. What possessed my husband (I blame him) to think this trip was a good idea is beyond me. The kids remember the RV adventure fondly, while I break out in a cold sweat whenever I walk by a camper.
But my children are young adults now and being home together brings unexpected moments of grace: family Rummikub tournaments, nighttime walks around the neighborhood, Scattergories competitions, sleeping late, and rewatching old episodes of “Glee” and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” I notice my 14-year-old daughter and her 17-year-old brother, enemies of old, enjoying a detente in the TV room over Xbox and popcorn. I notice myself not racing to pick up my daughter from debate on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4:45 p.m., driving to Subway for a snack, dropping her off at martial arts by 6 p.m. and rushing home to make dinner. I notice my son’s long legs stretched out beneath the kitchen table at mealtimes. Soccer practice and sports conditioning are canceled. I wonder how long it has been — years maybe? — since our family of five sat down together for dinner on a regular basis. This is a silver lining.
But teenagers consume a lot of food, and it feels like I’ve been cooking 24 hours a day. I hate cooking on a good day. And the cleaning up! Every time I enter the kitchen, stacks of white plates, bowls, mugs and tall glasses threaten to overflow in the sink. By the end of the first week of quarantine, I was filling the dishwasher, running it and emptying it twice a day.
“No more,” I said to my family of adults.
I got out a box of Fiesta dinnerware for four I had ordered on a whim last year. I packed up all the white salad plates, dinner plates and bowls, stacked them in the garage and replaced them with Fiestaware: one bowl, one salad plate, one dinner plate and one mug per person — each in a different color. Every person now has his or her own color-coded dishware (mine are lemongrass, my older daughter’s are sunflower, my younger daughter’s are turquoise, my son‘s are cobalt blue, and my husband kept a set of white dishes). Now, when a cobalt blue plate with melted cheese and pizza crumbs is left on the table, I know immediately which kid, I mean adult, to yell at to wash and stack their dishes.
The pleasure and pain of this strange family hibernation play out differently each day.
I was able to celebrate my older daughter’s 20th birthday in person. She was supposed to be at college in Connecticut on her birthday, but of course that was before the quarantine. So instead, she woke up at home to the four of us singing “Happy Birthday” and a blueberry blintz souffle on the kitchen counter. After dinner, I threw her a surprise party on Zoom. A dozen of her school friends popped in from the East Coast, India and Kosovo. She said I was “so extra,” but a mom is still a mom even during a pandemic.
Prior to the quarantine, my husband and I had eased into the teenagers-always-out, house-to-ourselves phase. Not anymore. The offspring are distributed into every room, and my husband has taken to sitting next to me while I read — and watching “Breaking Bad” on his phone. (I lovingly remind him for the thousandth time to PLEASE USE [BLEEPING] HEADPHONES.) The other day, we had a big fight about how long the winter coats had been sitting in the back hallway. I said they’d been there for months, and he insisted it had been only a few weeks. There might be a baby boom in nine months, but this “corona divorce” thing is real. When I got married 22 years ago, a friend shared the wise words of Kahlil Gibran, “Let there be spaces in your togetherness.” In quarantine, it’s more like, “How about I go in the kitchen and we meet up in the living room later?”
Humor is my coping mechanism. It works well during the day. But, at night, it is hard not to lie in bed and worry. My husband is a physician. While we quarantine, he continues to take care of urgent patients. He doesn’t want them to end up in the ER, where the hospital staff is needed to fight the coronavirus. I instituted a home infection-control regimen where he changes in and out of his scrubs and shoes in the garage. I meet him in the back hallway (the winter coats have finally been put away) with his blue robe. But I worry about him. I worry about my son with asthma, my daughter with chronic sinus infections and my youngest, who uses an EpiPen and has an anaphylactic allergy to bee stings. I know we are all adults. I know life has totally changed. And yet, some things never do.
This may be the last time the five of us live together for an extended period. Perhaps that’s why the other morning I woke up and made another blintz souffle. This time, cherry. Everyone knows I hate cooking, so the picture I posted on Facebook of my second cinnamon-coated souffle elicited many confused and surprised emojis. Maybe panic-baking blintzes comforts me during the apocalypse? Maybe feeding the family makes things feel normal? Maybe whoever left a turquoise plate splattered with cherry filling lying on the kitchen table will put it away? I know exactly who did it.
Robin Finn is the founder & creator of the Los Angeles-based writing course Heart. Soul. Pen. and is working on a memoir.
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