I quickly came to understand that a Mr Coffee was not chic

We bought a drip coffee maker this week, a 14-cup monster. E accidentally smashed the glass of the cafetière while doing the dishes, and from this mishap we gave ourselves permission to make the investment, even though a 14-cup monster takes up a lot of counter space, and we have little. Even though a 14-cup monster coffee maker is very suburban. It’s the kind of coffee maker that makes me think of my American relatives*, who seemed to always have a pot running in their homes, especially my grandfather, who drank coffee with every meal, including dinner. Not even decaf! 

When I first moved to a city twenty years ago, I quickly came to understand that a Mr Coffee was not chic, and being chic felt important. I discovered pour-overs, espresso machines, cafetières, those Italian steel stovetop pots where the coffee boils up into the top in a little burst of joy. But now, the sound of the brew percolating in the 14-cup monster reminds me of how I felt when I heard those hot bubbles in my parents’ house and my grandfather’s condo: calm, comforted, cared for.

*

There are two genres of online discourse that I’m finding piquant right now. One is the profusion of essays by people who have left New York City for their second homes. They all write at length about how they thought it over, and they knew that they were breaking the rules, but they decided that something about their situation was exceptional and special: they had a dog, or they had to take care of their family, or they didn’t want to get coronavirus. 

What the people never write is that they are rich, but of course it’s in there, infusing every word. Each time I read one of these essays — and I read all of them, savoring the feeling of envy and loathing — I think: If I had another home I would absolutely go to it right now, and then I think But I would not tell anyone about it! 

The second genre of online discourse is by writers who are disgusted by the cowardice of people who are leaving New York. They’re not real New Yorkers, not ride-or-die, the discourse says, they’re feeble, fleeing the streets that dreams are made of. All it took was unprecedented death, and the closure of all of of the city’s cultural institutions, schools, childcare, offices and restaurants, to make these weaklings think that it might not be the greatest place in the world right now to pay thousands of dollars a year in rent to live!

Each time I read an example of this discourse I think, I guess I want to be a coward too! but then I think, I guess these people who think it is cowardly to leave do not have kids!

*

Several times a day now we refresh suburban rental listings. The limiting factor, it turns out, is that most suburban rentals are not welcoming to dogs. In New York City, it seems like everyone has a dog in their apartment; in the suburbs, it seems like dogs require mortgages. Our small dog is less feral than many spoiled children, I write in an email to a realtor. I delete it.

I refresh the listings, and I drink 14 cups of suburban coffee, and I have the same jittery conversation over and over. It’s about how I have to take care of my family. 

JHE

*My British relatives always were running their electric kettles, obviously.

Without an end in sight, what are you counting except being alive?

People don’t seem to be numbering the days anymore, I’ve noticed, no longer tagging their quarantine Instagram posts #Day27 or whatever. I suppose this is because it’s no longer wry. I suppose because counting days off loses its appeal when you don’t know how many more days there are to come. Without an end in sight, what are you counting except being alive?

I’ve been at home now for quite some length of time. It would be a lot of days, if I counted them. The last time I took the subway was to go to Manhattan for a painful biopsy I have every six months. It was negative, so that was good. My doctor, a woman who treats people with very serious illnesses with great calm, seemed stressed. I’d never seen her seem stressed; sometimes I ask her very stressful questions and she always has calm answers. I suppose we all had a moment when we knew in a personal way that this was going to be a very big problem, and that was mine. Maybe if I’d known how long I’d be at home I would have made more of my biopsy outing. Maybe I would have savored it. 

*

It had also been quite a lot of days since I’d left my street. We don’t take B anywhere now but the backyard next door. For a change of scene, we set up a tent for him in the living room; we build forts out of his emptied milk cartons. I got a large clear plastic bin to fill with uncooked rice for him to dig around in after I watched a video on Instagram of a woman recommending letting toddlers dig around in a large plastic bin filled with uncooked rice, but we haven’t done that yet. We only have forty pounds of rice. I don’t think the woman filmed the video during the pandemic.

This afternoon, however, I went for a long walk on my own. The weather was beautiful, the kind of weather you want for an Easter Sunday even if it’s not a day that you mark as special. When E told me to go for a walk on my own — yesterday he took a long bike ride, at my urging — I said, I don’t want to. I didn’t want to because the more days I stay at home the more I feel afraid of strangers, like I’m a child again, like it’s not safe to go somewhere without a chaperone. 

But E pressed me, so I put on my jaunty-printed mask — the print is jaunty, the mask is not, the mask is depressing like all other masks — and a too-heavy coat and I walked 10,000 steps, down to the Victorian houses in Ditmas Park and back. It was so beautiful and so sad. I stood under a cherry tree for a moment and looked up and watched the blossoms sway, but then I got moving. Standing still, with the possibility of an approaching stranger on a sad walk of their own, seemed unsafe.

*

I’ve been thinking a lot about a time in 1987 when there was a big snowstorm in my hometown, Schenectady, in early October. Maybe it was an ice storm? I had to look the year up because I didn’t remember it that precisely. But I do remember that most things shut down, and we didn’t have any electricity in our house, which I believe meant that we didn’t have any heat and definitely meant that we did not have any capacity to cook food. What I remember in the most crisp detail is that my dad went to get takeout from McDonald’s because it was one of the few places in town with hot food that was open, and that was because their cooking was powered by gas. 

At McDonald’s we bought hot chocolate for me and coffee for my parents, and also — and this is no doubt why it’s seared in my memory — a cup of hot black coffee for my brother, because he was allergic to dairy. This is what makes me suspect that we didn’t have heat in our house, because why else would any parents buy a cup of coffee for their eight-year-old son? 

Now, I think about that cup of coffee while I look at B and wonder how traumatized he will be by this experience, to what degree he will carry it with him for the rest of his life, and I think, Gosh, my parents must have felt under extreme duress when they gave my brother that cup of coffee. As I recall, he didn’t drink it. He didn’t like the taste. But he turned out OK. Many of us do, in some shape or form.

JHE

*

My friend Ellena’s book BLUEBERRIES is out now, and it’s exceptional. That’s my tip for you.

Perhaps this is a problem I don’t need to solve right now

A problem that we’re having right now is that B feeds half of every meal to Martha, the dog. He’s trained her, now, better than she’s been trained in most things. Martha sleeps a lot of the day: she’s a rescue, I don’t know how old she is, but it seems possible from her sleep patterns that she might be quite old. Sometimes she is happy to play with B and sometimes she seems to find him quite antagonizing. But when one of us starts carrying B to his high chair she animates into a gray-and-white streak and shoots under the table to assume her position.

When B is really hungry the first few mouthfuls are just for him, but then as the meal progresses he starts sharing: one for her, one for him, and so on. No, we say, not for Martha! This is your food! but B just smiles and continues, and it’s hard to know what to do.

He shouldn’t be feeding the dog, but also it’s very sweet that he feeds the dog, that he’s already learning to share, that when he is enjoying his meal he wants to make sure that she’s not hungry.

Each time it happens I think: I should work on changing this behavior, it’s bad manners and it’s not good for Martha to eat all of this human food. 

But then I also think: When will we be free to come and go again? What will the world look like when we do?

And then I think: Perhaps this is a problem I don’t need to solve right now. Perhaps this is a time to choose battles.

JHE

who does he think he is, the King of the Laundromat?

In the laundromat a young man was sitting in a plastic chair in front of my machine, reading a backlist Hilary Mantel novel. I had stepped out to run some other errands, in the twenty minutes of sloshing and spinning. His presence annoyed me — who does he think he is, the King of the Laundromat, on his plastic throne? — but the annoyance was tempered by recognition of my former young self, a person who would curate her laundromat reading because she felt like it made her look like she was an interesting person.

I hoped that someone who also liked Hilary Mantel (or whomever) would admire me in the flickering fluorescent light. ‘I see you also like Hilary Mantel’, they would say, a thing that absolutely never happened to me in my whole life, not in probably twenty years of hopeful performative public reading! And yet I persisted.

Now that I am living my best mom life, which I love, I find that what I long for most from the past is not popping corks and dancing on tables. Perhaps I’d been mostly over that for a while. No, what I miss are the long stretches of empty time that I had, when I could sit on Sunday mornings reading impressive books in the laundromat.

This is unexpected. Back then, it was time that sometimes felt like a hallmark of my solitude. Loneliness, even. Not a glut of opportunity that I’d never get back to read a book or go for a walk or watch enough episodes of a derivative medical show on Netflix that the app would serve me that screen that asks if you’re still watching, as even Netflix itself thinks you should go outside and get some fresh air. Then, there were always things to be done around the apartment and so forth, but there so much future time in which to do them. Even when I met E and the shape of my life changed into something that accommodated a second person, I could put things off.

Now, if they’re not done —  if, for example, I do not go to the supermarket when I need to — there are consequences. At a party this weekend I discussed the measure of a good mother with some expectant parents and remarked, as an example, that the standards of mothering are so extreme that ‘if I feed my son peanut butter toast for two meals in a row I feel like I’m a bad mother!’ and one of them said, ‘I suppose all that matters is that he’s fed.’

And that’s true, but I also felt that maybe they said it in a tone that was dubious, that maybe they were horrified by my peanut butter confession, that maybe I should have kept it to myself.

(You see what I mean about consequences.)

Like many parents I am currently preoccupied with the question of what we will do if we end up quarantined from coronavirus. To quell my fears, after I finished doing the laundry, while B took a long nap, I reorganized the pantry. I cleared out marshmallows that were older than he is, a jar of maple syrup that we purchased on our honeymoon. In the pantry I uncovered a great many dried beans and this was interesting, but not surprising, because I would like to be the kind of person who cooks dried beans but I also have never cooked dried beans in my life. 

I kept them, however, I put them in jars, because I felt like they made it look like I am a competent parent, someone prepared to reconstitute pulses in a crisis. This was somewhat calming. It’s a different kind of performance from the ones I used to do, when I was younger, and with more time alone. But it’s still hopeful.

JHE

*

My friend Ellena’s book Blueberries is coming in Australia and the UK and America, and you should pre-order it because she’s just so smart and good!

A story about trying to dress myself as a mother

Now, I have jeggings. L told me about them. We were at a music class with our babies, and maybe 30 other babies. It was an unusually crowded music class. B and I got there late and when we opened the door to the cacophony and I set B down on the floor he reached back up to me with what seemed like a look of mild horror. Maybe one day he’ll discuss it in therapy.

 The man hosting the music class — teaching it? I’m not sure we learned — is a very skilled musician. But I’m not sure that he likes kids. To me there was not a lot of joy in his eyes as he sang his original compositions about Brooklyn and dumped tambourines on the floor for the babies to wrestle over. 

But maybe I’m projecting, because I’m not a baby person myself. I’m also not a musician, not since high school orchestra, but if I was inspired to pick up my cello again it wouldn’t be in a room full of under-twos. Back in the summer when we took B to see my mother she remarked, You’re not really a baby person are you? and I cheerfully said: Nope!

I love my own kid, in fact I think he is the most interesting person in the world. And I love L’s son and my friends’ other kids, the babies in my mom support group, B’s other baby friends. But babies as a genre? No, they’re not for me.

*

Clothing is something I’ve long cared about, however. I used to think about it a lot more than I used to think about babies. People who know me might find this surprising because I wouldn’t say I am a woman of outstanding style. I suppose there was a phase in my late-is twenties where I dressed with a bolder hand, took more risks, but most of my life my interest in fashion has been around how I could use it to seem…normal?

Or to achieve success, as if wearing the right kind of thing could propel me into being the right kind of person. I think a lot of people believe in this. Sometimes it works. I can think of a number of times when wearing a dress or a pair of trainers that felt right for an occasion meant that I entered a space with more confidence than usual, and left with what I wanted to get.

Some of these times I was dressing to impress other people. But most of them I am pretty sure I was dressing to impress myself, so that I could look in the mirror and think: Yes, normal.  Sometimes this has let me justify spending more time and more money on an outfit or an item than someone else might think worthwhile, which is maybe why I don’t often share the details of this particular preoccupation.

Now, I’m preoccupied with the question of how to dress like a normal mother. Not just for the obvious reasons of changes to my body — yes, it’s different postpartum, but I’d already stopped wearing the dresses that looked good when I was 27. It’s more that I’m not sure how to dress for this occasion, for this season, for this constant sitting on the floor. Sometimes at baby-centric gatherings I am conscious that I am the only adult sitting in the sofa, and I wonder if people look at me and think: Jean is not really a baby person.

*

But I was sitting on the floor in that music class in a decade-old sweater and leggings with the other babies and parents and the tambourines and the possibly disaffected musician. I looked at my feet and thought, Well done to me for wearing a pair of matching socks! L pointed at another mother with a lovely outfit and smooth blonde hair and said, Why does she look good, why is there always a mother who looks really put together? and I said, Ugh I know! and we shook our heads for a moment and then L said, I got these really great jeggings from Madewell and I said, Amazing, that is exactly what I need for my life as a mother! and then I went home and ordered some and now, I have jeggings. They’re black and perfectly OK and they acquired a smear of oatmeal on the knee on Saturday morning and still wore them for the rest of the weekend.

I could tell you that’s something I never would have done before. But I feel like that statement vaguely implies that there might have been jeggings and oatmeal in my previous life, just not worn for three days, and it’s more foreign than that. If I was a more important person on the internet I guess this could be sponsored content? But I’m not. So it’s just a story about trying to dress myself as a mother, a person who I’m still getting to know.

JHE

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