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A Return to the Family Dinners We Never Had

Theresa Conefrey
Professor of English

“Din-ner!” yells my husband. “You’ve been served!” echoes my elder son, popping into each of our rooms, spouting his signature phrase. While I scramble to finish a final email, my husband brings the steamed rice and grilled salmon to the table, and my younger son searches for tongs for the salad. After a day that we have all spent matching tiny faces in boxes to discombobulated voices, the relief in chatting around the table is palpable. Amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic, regular family dinners have been my solace.

When my children were toddlers, dinner-time was rambunctious and chaotic, and rarely relaxing. Then, when my children were old enough to sit still long enough to talk about their school days, after-school activities began. From elementary school through high school, sports practices, newspaper clubs, and theater rehearsals disrupted our weekday dinners and tournaments and performances interfered with meals at weekends. My modest goal became family dinners at least three or four times a week until fall 2019 when my elder son began college and eating together was relegated to special occasions.

However, everything changed with the Bay Area “shelter in place” order of March 16, 2020, which mandated the closure of schools, offices, and all non-essential businesses and required everyone to “stay home.” My elder returned home from college on the east coast and my younger son had no more after-school events. With restaurants closed and even take-out suspended, cooking and eating at home was the only option. Suddenly the family dinners of my dreams were possible.

My husband discovered a passion for bread-making and classic dishes and I leaped at the chance to try new fusion recipes. While my husband and I took turns with the shopping and cooking during early lockdown, gradually, our sons, who kept us well-stocked in homemade chocolate chip cookies and lemon squares, expanded their culinary repertoires to begin cooking with us and later for us. Over dinners, we discussed our meals (more spices, a bit too healthy), our days (the novel math proof, the lucky break on a midterm), and our future plans (let’s sneak in a family vacation before our sons head off to college). 

With the availability of vaccines, businesses and schools are beginning to reopen, my older son is finalizing accommodation for his summer research project and my younger son is deciding where to begin college in the fall. As we emerge from those anxious months, I will be forever grateful for the bonus birthdays and shared meals that never would have happened except for lockdown’s slow down. While I am happy that my sons’ lives are moving forward again, I am already feeling nostalgia for our family meals together.

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