I remember the last week of normal life with an eerie vividness – on Wednesday, I went swimming and read a few chapters of the new Hilary Mantel book and let my son have an extra cookie on the way home from Scouts; on Thursday, they announced that the schools were closing and everyone should stay home whenever possible; on Friday, which was, as a weird sort of cosmic bonus, Friday the 13th, I wrote a review of two short story collections. That was also the week I decided to take my son to my mother’s house, where we’ve been ever since. We came because the thought of being stuck indoors day and night was anxiety-provoking enough, let alone being confined with a nine year old in a cramped, downtown Toronto apartment. So at the start of what should have been a fun-filled March Break, we left home for the comparative luxury of a suburban house with a yard.
I knew that things would be challenging, even with the extra space. My mother works in healthcare and still goes to her office every day, so I’m left to juggle work, childcare, distance learning and anything else that comes up. All of this would be difficult under normal circumstances, but of course it’s exponentially more so against the ambient background panic of COVID-19. What I didn’t expect was to find little moments of grace in all the awfulness. I was especially surprised when baking became a new touchstone for my son and me during these strange times.
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It started shortly before the schools had put formal distance education into place — back when parents were being advised to cobble together whatever educational activities they could. I figured baking would cover several different skills that were useful both for the classroom and for life in general: following step-by-step instructions, measuring for volume, myriad fine-motor stuff and, of course, the magical chemical reaction that happens in the oven. My son hadn’t been thrilled with any of my other homeschooling ideas, and I’d expected him to treat baking with the same disdain he’d brought to my homemade math worksheets. Instead, he surprised me by being immediately enthusiastic about the idea, and his interest has only grown stronger in the weeks since.
I’ve always loved baking, but it just isn’t something we can do regularly at home. Our hallway-of-a-kitchen is so narrow that we can barely open the fridge all the way, and it overheats in all seasons thanks to century-old radiators that clank from October to May and a lack of air conditioning the rest of the year. Limited space isn’t the only problem; regular life is so hectic that between school, work and extracurriculars, there just isn’t time to dig into a multi-hour cake project. But at my mother’s house we have lots of counter space and, of course, these days we often have more time than we know what to do with.
So far we’ve made cakes, cookies, dessert bars and bread rolls, and we’re getting more ambitious every day. Some attempts have been more successful than others (our batch of English muffins were on the dense side and the brownies were a bit crispy at the edges), but overall, it’s been a success. My son says he especially enjoys reading the list of ingredients, cracking the eggs and working the electric mixer; my favourite part has been the chance to focus on a task that requires enough physical and mental attention that I can check out of pandemic life for a while. We both cherish baking hour as the highlight of our days.
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Some of my friends have found joy in staying home with their families during the pandemic — they’re having more meals together, more game nights, more conversations. I wish I could say that this has been my experience, but I mostly feel the dizzying sense of simultaneously doing too many things and still not getting enough done. However, even the crankiest, most contrary part of myself has to admit that being with my son for so many hours of the day has given me new insight into the person he’s growing into: even-tempered, funny, forgiving, quick with a hug, and, as it turns out, handy in the kitchen.
I don’t know how much of our baking time will stick once he goes back to school, but I’m trying to check my impulse to look that far ahead. In this moment, on this day, we are enjoying it. That is enough; it doesn’t need anything else.
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