“Oh, it’s heavenly,” I said to Bill, as I bite into a piece of the piping hot lemon bread. The corners of the loaf were just this side of burnt, a bit of crust. The top had a sweet drizzle in contrast to the moist citrusy inside. (I associate this level of moistness with butter and, hence, calories.) Every so often, I’d feel just the tiniest grit of a poppyseed.
Missy and Karen, our neighbors across the street, had rung our doorbell in the dark of night and surprised us with this gift. Prior to this, we had only waved at them as they walked their dogs. They are a generation younger and, in previous years, genial hosts of pool parties and sports-watching parties.
A couple of days later, while reading Louise Penny’s latest Gamache mystery All the Devils Are Here, I had a shock of recognition. I was eating pain au citron, exactly what Gamache had been given by a couple who had known him since he was a boy. Gamache’s bread was also hot out of the oven. At least I did not slather mine with whipped butter.
Armand Gamache is the chief of homicide in Quebec. Gamache and his wife, Reine-Marie, are in Paris to visit their son and daughter who now have families of their own.
It’s strange to be gripped by nostalgia while reading a book about the present. Sitting in my living room in St. Louis with the winter light slanting in the windows, I was transported to Paris to be with the Gamache family. Before COVID. Before masks. Before social distancing.
Gamache had spent a chunk of his boyhood in Paris, so there is a sense of homecoming, such as his meeting with the couple who served him the lemon bread. The Gamache family members share meals at restaurants whose owners are long-time friends. They visit gardens that hold special memories for them. These circumstances feed my sense of nostalgia.
Even the mainstay of murder mysteries – greed, corruption, and violent evildoers – feel comfortingly familiar. Penny is an expert at the high-wire act of putting characters we’ve come to love in danger. In my review of one of Penny’s previous Gamache novels, Kingdom of the Blind, I write that you have to read her books in order because she is ruthless about killing people off. So, the stakes are incredibly high. Still, her villains can be vanquished with brains, brawn and heart.
COVID is a different kind of villain – efficient and indiscriminate. To vanquish COVID, we’ve been told to “socially distance,” to stay breathing distance away from others. Of course, this works. If everyone on the planet would not breathe in the virus, it can’t spread. That’s the logic.
Our species, though, can’t make that kind of mental and emotional U-turn so quickly, or possibly, ever. We are a social species. Our evolutionary instincts are to touch, hug, kiss, and fold our loved ones into our bosoms. And to eat together! In every culture, we celebrate life events, cement friendships and spark romance with gatherings around food.
“Social distancing” sounds so benign. We associate the word “social” with community, safety, security. We help each other through trying times by coming together. Yet our family hasn’t been able to do that for almost ten months. And this is why reading All the Devils Are Here makes me so wistful. I reflect on and regret so many things I took for granted.
Gamache goes to the hospital every day to read to and to hold the hand of his injured godfather. I remember the nights I spent on a hospital recliner – which jackknifed closed if you slid too far down – when my dad had had a stroke. How could I leave someone who couldn’t shift his body position, who couldn’t speak or work a call button? Later, when the Gamache daughter Annie delivers her baby, everyone converges at the hospital to ooh and aah. Just like my folks did when Alex was born.
Armand, Reine-Marie, their son and daughter and spouses, and Armand’s godfather cram into a beloved restaurant, one that Armand and Reine-Marie first ate at thirty-five years ago. “They were greeted with kisses and embraces by the owner’s daughter, Margaux …Warm baguettes were placed on cutting boards on the table, along with a terrine de campagne, whipped butter and small bowls of olives.”
When they return home to Three Pines, Quebec, “Drinks were poured as Clara, Ruth, Myrna, Gabri, and Olivier brought everyone up to speed on the events in the village.”
We can’t do any of these things right now: visit people in the hospital, eat food communally, or gather for drinks. Some customs will come back. We’ll have Thanksgiving again. Some won’t. I bet few people will blow out birthday candles in the future.
I long to do yoga in person. (Do we hold this pose or is the picture frozen?) I want to chat with girlfriends, all of us slightly tipsy from white wine. I wish to sit at a big, round table wielding chopsticks at a Chinese banquet with good friends. I need to hold my now three-year-old grandson, who I haven’t seen in a year. His joie de vivre thrills me.
I want to share food with Bill. I want to hold his hand while walking, just as we’ve done for the last thirty years. Bill and I are in a bubble, but we still take precautions. (More than half, and in some reports, up to 80% of people get infected by a family member. Add to this the sobering statistic that 80% of people who have died are our age, that is, 65 or older.) If you think we are too cautious, I say that the quarter of a MILLION new cases from yesterday alone is an indication that what most people are doing isn’t working.
But I do not look at the All the Devils Are as just a way to reminisce about my and everyone else’s former life. Life moves forward. Babies are born. Children grow and take over their parents’ jobs. Old people leave the scene. And, strangers become helpers and friends.
Like Armand and Reine-Marie, Bill and I are lucky to have grown children who care about us, and who we can count on. In this time of COVID, I am also grateful to have folks like Karen and Missy looking out for us.
Tell me: What can’t you do during COVID that you didn’t think you’d miss?