Covid chooks, cake and catastrophising: a month of our new normal
At the start I was frozen, pinned to the moment by that first big announcement about the schools closing. I was in work, listening online to Leo broadcasting live from Washington (“Can I speak now?”) on Thursday 12 March, telling us that the kids weren’t going to be donning the green for Lá Glas the following day. I walked out of work that day and haven’t seen the office since. The kids were thrilled, spilling off the school buses in the sunshine and running to release the already-old news to their grim-faced parents.
We came home and did some morale-boosting baking: cupcakes for the girls, huge great slabs of porter cake, made with prunes and studded with brazil nuts (clear out the pantry stuff!) for the rest of us. And cinnamon sugar-topped scones. Little Missy devoured three when they were still warm out of the oven. The rest of us weren’t far behind her.
Week 1: survival
My girls brought home very little homework; with only a couple of hours of notice, the teachers hadn’t had any time to prepare. Nor had parents. The first week, after the second announcement – an end to pubs, bars and gatherings – I sat at the kitchen table and tried to gather up the threads of what I had been working on, while managing second and fourth class homework. It’s not “homeschooling” – that term is, with all due respect, total bollocks. It’s more about day-to-day survival, juggling work plus child wrangling and operating an all day canteen. I still can’t understand how two children, who often come home with their lunches uneaten, manage to eat so much when they’re at home.
This week we still hadn’t adjusted to being together all the time. Every time I got stuck into something, the girls demanded food. Or distraction. Or my attention. The radio was full of catastrophising – we switched the dial to Lyric FM for some peace – and gradually felt our way into working alongside each other. It wasn’t easy. The girls were frustrated at being stuck at home all the time. I couldn’t concentrate on the features that I was writing (Would they ever be printed? Would the places that I mentioned even exist whenever all this was over? Would the newspaper still exist?). Everything was exacerbated by lack of sleep – there were a lot of vivid dreams, 3am wake ups, worrying about family near and far and mentally counting bags of flour.
St Patrick’s Day lunch was a subdued affair, we wanted to be with family or at the parade, anywhere rather than at home. We roasted a morale-boosting chicken (the white) with handfuls of wild garlic from the garden and fresh ginger, slices of crunchy cabbage (green) and orange pops of kumquat on the fennel & apple salad for a tricolour meal. Danced it all off afterwards at Aoife McElwain’s Insta Live Sing Along Social where the girls were mortified at me throwing shapes all around the living room. Business as normal, then.
It was a cabbage kind of week: inspired by comments on stocking up by Sally McKenna at this year’s International Women’s Day gathering at GMIT – and Mark Diacono’s Sour (the last library book I took out! Not sure when it will be returned) – I went back to making saurkraut. This batch was loaded with fennel, juniper and chilli. Lots of chilli.
Week 2: getting organised
When we emerged from those initial Covid-19 sucker punches, still reeling while trying to figure out the new way of being at home, shopping – without stockpiling (it’s all I ever do! I live in the countryside!) – and managing food drops to parents who are over 70 (only just over, as they’d like to point out), I realised that we needed a plan. Little Missy – favourite question: “what are we doing tomorrow?” – is the kind of person who has to know what’s happening. Even if the answer is “more of the same.”
I started to write up a rough schedule of what was going happening the following day – 9am homework, 10am break, 11am outdoors etc – listing new treats (previously they haven’t been allowed to be online much!) like coding and trying to beat their NZ cousins on a leader board for French on Memrise. We also instigated a phone-a-friend time: every weekday, at 3pm, they’re allowed to contact a buddy and have the chats. That’s the one thing that made an enormous difference to the mood of the 10-going-on-18-year old: like the rest of us, she’s been missing daily interaction with friends. Otherwise, this timetable is more aspirational than actual. We all work around it.
Week 2 was also when we accelerated a plan that we had been thinking about for this summer: getting hens. We kept hens (and turkeys, but that’s another story!) for five years at the cottage, through the arrival of kids and cottage renovation but we had to give them up in 2011, the year-of-craziness, when we also acquired a brewery. We found a hen run at a company in Carrigtwohill, assembled it on the Monday, painted it on Tuesday and, on Wednesday, released four extremely grumpy hens – purchased from the lovely Kylie at Magner’s Farm – from their travelling boxes. The next morning, Jordie, Ari, Bonkers and Macy presented us with four eggs; the girls started their egg selling business. At 50c an egg – and nowhere to spend it – they’ll be coming out of this with a profit from their pandemic pets.
Friday 27 March: Leo announced lockdown, the 2km travel limit and cocooning. In a panic, I nearly got in the car to bring the messages that I’d picked up that morning to the parents that very night but a saner head prevailed and after a good night’s sleep, I turned up at their door at breakfast time, socially distancing while delivering cabbages and cheese, cat food, smoked mackerel and soap. The girls even sold them a few precious eggs – while I was still not allowed to touch the egg stash. Sunday night I handed over cash for the egg-in-an-egg-cup supper. The girls declared them “the best eggs ever.”
Saurkraut fermenting. Girls allergic to the smell already.
Week 3: establishing a routine
We’re all a bit resigned now and things have become more normal. The swing and slide set in the garden have never had such an extensive work out and it’s pure joy to hear the girls laughing and playing out there (when they’re not inside trying to kill each other and me, that is). The Kiwi starts working from home, disrupting my hard-won schedule. He’s banished upstairs to the bedroom and I discover that he’s as bad as the kids when it comes to regular breaks and feeds.
Mum was supposed to be off in Malta with my aunt; instead she’s cocooned at home with Dad, sending me WhatsApps of shopping lists. Shopping happens on Wednesday, a speedy, stressful supermarket sweep, that involves plenty of sanitiser and a scrub when I get home. I do food deliveries on Thursday mornings, the day that the Farmers Journal and local newspapers like the Avondhu and Vale Star come out, so that I can maximise the stack of papers that accompany the milk (lots of milk!) and butter and gluten free everything.
This is also the week that Little Missy turns 11. The Small Girl and I make a two-layer cake, one chocolate and one vanilla, fill it with improvised chocolate ganache and ice it with a chocolate glaze for a chocolate chocolate-on-chocolate-in-chocolate cake. With chocolate eggs on top. And a pair of 1 birthday candles fashioned into an 11.
On the morning of her birthday, I learn about the death of my father’s old friend from Covid-19. It should have been a big send off; instead Tom was driven through town in Henry’s hearse while everyone stood at their doors and driveways to say goodbye. It was over in minutes, rather than days.
While we were eating Little Missy’s birthday dinner – the biggest of homemade burgers – I got a call to say that my cousin, nursing at a Dublin hospital, had tested positive for Covid-19. Her husband is a geriatrician, so he’s confined to home as well, doing phone and online consultations. Their three children – 12, 10 and 5 – are cooking dinners. I can’t deliver food as she’s living too far away, plus lockdown, but I manage to discover that The Bookshop.ie are still delivering so the girls and I pick out a stack of books that we think their cousins will like and I hand over my credit card number.
Saurkraut fermented. I’m eating it on everything. Girls still detest the smell.
Week 4. We’re still here
Sour milk narrowly avoids getting poured into breakfast porridge. I can’t justify throwing it away so it gets used as buttermilk, subbing it into some everyday recipes: there are pancakes for breakfast and cinnamon sugar-topped buttermilk scones for morning coffee. With the weather getting warmer, it’s not quite as easy to stash fridge food in a box outdoors. And there’s quite a bit of saurkraut taking up space in the fridge.
Last Friday we had a food delivery (my first! It was very exciting.) from Neighbourfood Doneraile and it was so successful that I doubled my order for Easter. The Purple Squirrel Farm salad greens go straight from delivery to the sink, salad spinner and table. Rainbow chard reminds us of NZ silverbeet so that the Kiwi and I have to cook two bunches at a time. Spinach gets tossed with gnocchi, topped with cheese and grilled until bubbling. Kilbrack Farm‘s Early potatoes see two outings: for the first they are steamed and served with lots of butter, a day later they become “second day potatoes,” fried slowly in the cast iron pan until crusty and crunchy and eaten with dollops of hummus or beetroot dip (store cupboard pre-cooked beetroot whizzed up with natural yoghurt, hazelnuts and pomegranate molasses).
Little Missy is sick of hanging out with her family (sometimes her family thinks along similar lines). There are no other options. Theoretically, she and her sister should be on Easter holidays now. I make the executive decision to just keep going with the weekday schedule as normal, although eking out homework across two weeks of holidays proves harder than expected.
Lunches are getting increasingly dotty: today it was cheese and crackers + slow cooker rice pudding, one of the girls’ favourite after school snacks. In an effort to mix things up, I put polenta slices, roasted until crispy, on the menu. They get a resounding thumbs down from small people. Defiantly, I eat most of the rest myself.
While circumstances might be different, some traditions still remain the same: exactly a month after the kids were sent home from school, the choc chip hot cross bun recipe that I developed while living in New Zealand gets pulled out for its annual excursion. This year, with slightly more time on my hands, I go crazy and update it with pastry cream crosses, a development even more dreamy than you could imagine, especially when the buns can be toasted and eaten for a week’s worth of breakfasts. Normal times, a stack would go into the brewery for sharing.
Deliveries of just-milled flour and semolina (plans for pasta making!) from Ballymore Organics and Exploding Tree chocolate sort out baking and Easter crises. I’m discovering a new kinship with couriers, many of whom I already knew from the brewery. The country roads that I walk are alive with the sound of zooming courier vans, delivering must-have purchases.
Easter Week and there’s a new emphasis on sticking close to home. On my way to my parents with their messages, I get stopped by the Gardaí (damn that Tipp reg!) and – not wanting to encounter them twice in the one day – have to take a roundabout way back to drop off the food that my mother has made for her brother.
After a month in, we’re wanting to be anywhere else but home. But we stay there. There’s good news from my cousin: she’s recovered and is back at work. A week that starts with full stops and frustrations ends in the first gorgeous day of the year, homemade (not by me!) bagels for lunch and sausages over a campfire at dinnertime.
It’s all about family. We’re all in this together.
(But some days are easier than others.)
And cake helps.