Last March, before my mother flew from Washington, D.C., to visit me in New Orleans, we negotiated how long she should stay. I was having knee surgery after massively tearing my meniscus and A.C.L. during a Mardi Gras parade, and she offered to help me recover.
She wanted to stay for seven days. I said five days was the most I could handle. In the end, she stayed for 53.
That’s because the pandemic arrived, along with a citywide stay-at-home order. And this dullness set in. We ate in dullness. We watched movies in dullness, learning to alternate between my mother’s desire for old films about war and immigration, and my desire for reality dating shows that she found disgusting. We loathed each other quietly, not yet understanding how to change the dynamic we had built over 38 years.
Like many Americans her age, my mother didn’t take the pandemic seriously at first. It was a team effort for my siblings (in Los Angeles) and me to get her to wear a mask and stay home. I would find foods in the house like ice cream or braided anise-seed cheese, evidence of her escapes to Baskin Robbins and the local Palestinian grocer.
At first, I balked at her sadness and the collapse of my adult autonomy. My mother had replaced my first caregiver, Abby, a friend and healer from New England, who tended to me like a child before and after surgery.
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My mother wasn’t bright-eyed like Abby — yet. Her eyes were heavy. My father had died suddenly only a few months earlier, and she carried a broken heart from room to room like a backpack. I felt bad for needing her and guilty about all the work she had to do to care for me. She already had so much on her plate.
When I bathed for the first time after surgery, I grew faint at the sight of my stitches and started yelling. I expected my mother to zone out, but she rushed in with a stool for my knee and sat down at the foot of the tub, iced coffee in hand. Seeing her there, sitting with me, naked on a trash-bag covered chair, as if it were normal, I began to notice and appreciate how much she loved me.
I was struck by her simple acts of devotion. I had to trust her to lift my leg and help me from bed to crutches to the bathroom, every single time. I had to depend on her to carry my things from room to room, to find my clothes, to feed me. She made eggs and toast and matzo brei, learned how I liked my tea, made my bed and washed my clothes.
I hadn’t let anyone this close to me in years. She was becoming my dream partner.
A food writer, my mother went in cycles testing recipes. She cooked Dutch baby pancakes for a week, was strangely exuberant about her warm homemade hummus another, and made and remade several versions of Iraqi Jewish mujadara, a dish served to mourners, made with lentils, caramelized onions, and rice or bulgur.
I hate cooking for myself. She signed us up for the local C.S.A., ripe with local artichokes and peaches galore. We had fodder for trades.
And then came the emissaries. Josh, who lived behind me, showed up with strawberry jam from Ponchatoula, La. He was so sweet, leaving it 10 feet from where I was sitting on the porch. There was a caveat: “Would you mind,” he said, “if I went into your backyard? My chicken has flown into your loquat tree.”
This was the start of a lot of chicken escapes, and a lot of trading. We gave Josh and his boyfriend, Michael, cake and bread; they dropped off curry and let my mother pick their mulberries.
This was also the start of my mother and me falling in love. She came alive when the neighborhood did, leaving my father in the grave and joining the living as she harvested the mulberries down the street, meeting the neighbors who peeked their heads out the window to speak with her while she picked. She made dried mulberries, mulberry cake, mulberry muffins and mulberry jam. She loved mulberries like they were cocktails. I marveled at her.
Our neighbor, Annie, began coming by to harvest our kumquats and lemons with her two sons. She made us cookies and left them on our porch every week. We left her chili, stew and homemade challah.
Virginia appeared soon thereafter, from across the street. She and my mother began talking at the fence, and that bridged more trades. Virginia brought us ketchup, made us our first masks and then showed my mother her sacred Mardi Gras craft room, where the shoes for the Krewe of Muses were gilded in a den of glitter. She taught my mother about possums and brought us our own flat of Ponchatoula strawberries. We left a portion of smoked leg of lamb in her mailbox when Alon Shaya, a local chef, dropped one off.
The dullness of quarantine gave way to a socially distanced affair, evening dates and all. My mother’s eyes lit up as she shared stories of the day’s encounters over the dinner she made or the sinfully delicious food we ordered from local restaurants. I began to loosen, to lean into the care I felt so guilty for receiving, the three meals a day cooked by my mother, the needing someone, that letting go of an almost too fierce independence I had built over the years.
My mother glowed. She was taking long masked walks alone and exploring New Orleans by foot, discovering the hidden Jewish names in so many graveyards, the horrific confederate statues and the unreal beauty of City Park.
We eventually started processing our grief, finding space that is so hard to find when two people are grieving simultaneously. Sometimes it was in the middle of the night, like when I heard the screeching of a cat (either dying or mating) and woke her, scared. Or the time our neighbor’s chicken squawked its last breath when a hawk stole it from their yard, took it to my roof, killed it and dropped it outside my window.
Quarantine for us was not boring.
We started to learn that we were grieving two different men. Hers was the husband she met in the 1970s, a partner and friend who went to movies with her and around the world, who emotionally supported her, slept beside her, made space for her career.
And I was grieving the loss of my father, someone a bit more distant, who was mine for only 38 years, and who I ached to have with us on the sofa, laughing at bad TV, enraptured by old movies.
We ordered new clothes for her, as she had packed for only five days and needed things to wear for nearly two months. We started holding hands while watching our strange selection of movies: “Goodbye, Columbus,” “Baby Boom” and “Force Majeure,” or the delight of “My Brilliant Friend,” our companion for a whole week.
This touch between us felt like pulling up from the void. It felt like splicing open hell to have a quiet picnic.
We found a rhythm, her two-hour walks while I taught my Tulane students on Zoom, followed by lunch together and a review of my curriculum. On Sundays, a friend would take her for a bike ride, and later we would put on masks and drive through the empty French Quarter to the Bywater, where we waved to friends from a distance and got cocktails to go.
We had found our way.
When she perked back up, refilled with color and life, I helped her do her makeup and clothes for her Zoom seminars, and we sat at dawn, me in bed, her in the window seat, and talked about loss. But not both of ours at once. We learned how to weave in mulberries and chickens and fresh-picked flowers, how to bake and breathe and listen to the lives we were living, how important it was to be full in order to finally make space to speak of our emptiness.
By May, I was walking again. She started making muffins and stews for me, stocking my freezer. And then one Monday, she put on rubber kitchen gloves and a mask and went to the very empty airport to return home.
We had made it through 53 days of coronavirus quarantine. My father was still gone. Her husband was still gone. He wasn’t coming back. And in his absence, with no one else around, my mother and I fell in love with caring for one another.
Merissa Nathan Gerson is the author of “Forget Prayers, Bring Cake,” forthcoming from Mandala Publishing in July 2021. She lives in New Orleans.
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