It’s been a year. By which I mean that it’s been a really weird year. Lots of ups. Lots of downs. During a brief moment for a few hours in the summer, it looked like we might return to something that looked like life before Covid-19 showed up.
And then, along came the Delta variant to remind us of that old saw about humans planning and deities laughing.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote about feeling lucky. Having been raised by parents who grew up food-insecure during the Great Depression, we were well-stocked with staples. Our jobs didn’t evaporate. And because we’d been walking our four-year old dog in the large cemetery near our house since adopting her, the social distance/exercise balance was already in place.
This past January, though, my mental health started to deteriorate. It felt as if there was a plexiglass shield between me and the rest of the world. I walked through my life without inhabiting it, walking the dog, going to work, coming home, putting on my pajamas, then sitting in front of the TV while partaking of a newly acquired pandemic skill, knitting socks.
Four months prior, I’d spontaneously begun what turned out to be a literal breadcrumb trail through the maze that was my depression. In October, my friend Dena’s husband Neil (z”l), died after a long illness. We’d been friends since our teens, forging the kind of relationship that thrives intact despite long dormant spells. Calling felt cold. But with the pandemic raging, showing up felt wrong. In the end, I grabbed a challah from the freezer, a mask from the pot rack (where we keep them), drove to her house and rang the bell. The door opened just wide enough for me to all-but-throw the challah at the masked person who answered the door and run back to my car.
At the graveside service days later, attendees stood far away from anyone they hadn’t arrived with, huddled in little pods. Dena and her young adult children spoke via microphone in the cemetery, their words carried away by a constant wind. The rabbi chanted the El Mole Rachimim. When it was over, we walked back to our cars and scattered, each of us returning to the shelter of our own houses. The family prepared its own seudot havra’ah (meal of consolation); shiva was over Zoom.
That Friday morning, I got up early. I had months of pandemic experience struggling to add a six-strand braid to my repertoire. I could make something beautiful for Dena. The challah I dropped off that day had never seen the inside of a freezer.
I thought about what it had been like for our family after my father died. At first, there had been lots of people. Three months after Dad’s funeral, we were pretty much on our own. That memory sparked a decision. For the next 11 months, Dena would get a challah every Friday. Then, just before Neil’s first yahrzeit, we’d bake one together in a sort of “passing the torch” kind of ritual.
Friday morning mixing, kneading, braiding and baking became routine. The house smelled wonderful, the anticipation of fresh bread and Shabbat candles setting a sweet tone for the day ahead. Dropoff turned into a Kabbalat Shabbat highlight for both of us. We’d sit in Dena’s kitchen or den and fill each other in on the triumphs and travails of the week.
What I couldn’t have known in October was how important that Friday routine would become when my world got dark in January. The routine of my challah baking ritual and our visits were contributing factors in my eventual return to feeling like a more regular version of myself.
Becoming a widow sucks. There was nothing I could do to bring back Dena’s husband. But I could bake challah. I’m glad I did. It worked out for both of us.
Amy Waldman is a Milwaukee librarian and a regular contributor to the Chronicle.