Life in a Box
So here we are again, stuck at home.
We did this for so many months, I should be used to it, but I’m not.
We have a basement full of painting supplies, a shed full of bikes and scooters, a container full of chalk and window markers, and shelves and shelves of games, but instead of keeping us busy we kids look at those things with something close to aversion. Because to us they symbolize being here alone, without friends or school, without the usual diversions that color our life and make us feel normal.
So it’s with less than a little enthusiasm that I respond to my mother’s call to come help decorate the sukkah. My siblings look no more excited than I as they shuffle outside, where my father stands on a ladder.
“Come on guys,” my mother says. “This is always your favorite part.”
It’s true, we usually love this. Decorating the sukkah is a family event around here. My parents don’t try to make things fancy. Instead, they let us choose from boxes of old favorites – things we made in kindergarten, handmade posters my grandfather made decades ago – and the creations we made this year. It’s a nice juxtaposition of old and new, and the result is cozy and timeless.
My parents let us take turns on the ladder, and we try to recapture the euphoric feeling we all had in the past as we put the finishing touches on our beloved Sukkah, but it doesn’t really work.
“It’s beautiful!” my mother exclaims as she looks around when the very last decoration has been hung, and I try to smile back.
Now, you may think I’m being a tad overdramatic – after all, we’ll only be in this situation for another week or so – but then again, if that’s the way you’re thinking you probably haven’t been in my shoes.
When you’re a kid whose life has finally returned to some semblance of normalcy after the whole world went crazy, when you’re finally back with your friends, and your mother is on the phone inviting your cousins for Yom Tov as usual, it’s a great feeling.
And then when one small test comes back positive, and your world is shuttered once again, it doesn’t matter if it’s for a day, a week, or a month.
It’s a calamity.
I know, I know, I should be very grateful – and I am – that no one’s feeling really sick. I mean, aside for some small symptoms, everyone is fine.
So we are very lucky.
I try to remind myself of that every time the bell rings and our groceries appear on the porch in a box, every time I walk into the kitchen and find my mother cooking, as usual, my father working on his laptop, as usual, and my brother and two sisters whining that they really need ten more minutes of electronics.
Life doesn’t get more normal than that around here. So it must be a blessing.
But still. With every phone call from someone checking up on us, to every cancelled guest, there’s the knowledge that we are back to square one, that terrifying time when school was closed, and no one knew who was next to catch those invisible germs.
And every time I pass the closet of paint supplies, the pile of games, I think about how happy I was to be back in school just a few days ago.
It’s going to be a long Sukkos, that’s for sure.
And here we are.
My father sits at the head of the table, resplendent in the old armchair he insists is perfect for the sukkah (I think my mother tried to put it out with the trash once and he quietly replaced it in the shed where it waits all year).
My mother beams at us from her place at the other end of the table.
My siblings sit in their seats in various forms of attire. Mordy insisted on wearing sweats, despite my parents’ protests that it is Yom Tov, because he said he’s a choleh and needs to be comfortable. (Choleh my foot. I’m really starting to think his test results were swapped with someone else’s.)
In the center of the table is a giant floral arrangement sent by all my aunts, uncles, and cousins, some of whom were meant to sit in the empty chairs that are piled up in a corner of our backyard.
We rise for kiddush and I wonder if this night, and the next, and the next, will fly right by as they always do each Yom Tov. I wonder what it will feel like to be home for hakafos.
But here’s the thing. I may not feel all warm and fuzzy inside, the way I usually do when we sit around this table out here with cousins we haven’t seen for a while, or maybe with some neighbors or friends. I may feel a little strange knowing that things are not the way we’d like them to be right now, the way they look in those fancy magazine pictures that show us what Yom Tov should look like.
But the truth is, there’s always something that’s just not the way I want it to be, whether it’s Mordy in his sweats, or the plain white paper plates my mother uses instead of the fancy ones everyone else’s mother seems to buy.
My father told me recently, “When everything is normal, it’s not normal.” I’d been in middle of my usual rant about how unfair it is that life has gotten so crazy, and at the time I didn’t appreciate what he was saying. (I may or may not have stormed out of the room, actually.)
But maybe adults know that better than us kids, that life throws curveballs from time to time, even major ones like this. And we need to live with them.
My mother’s smile wavers as she looks over at me, and for once I think about how hard it must be for her to keep smiling when we all look so glum.
Two weeks. It can feel like forever.
I look around at the hodgepodge of decorations that surrounds us, at the black night that peers through the small plastic window across from me.
And I look at my mother and smile right back.