Guilty Pleasures

My oldest son holes up in his bedroom all day, studying for the MCATs. He emerges only for food, or when the sun begins to go down. He is also our Activities Director. Each night after dinner, he begins by asking us what we would like to do. Head out front and shoot hoops? Go to the backyard and play Cornhole? Drive over to the footbridge at Fairleigh Dickinson to watch the sunset? Play a few rounds of Mario Party? Quiplash? Or stream a few episodes of the latest thing we’re binge-watching?

My middle son is moving to the East Village next week. Though his college classes will be mainly online, he has labs, and labs are taught in the building and in person. For him, summer has been a frenzy of virtual apartment tours and seeking out cheap furniture that will fit the measurements of his new room. But after dinner, Middle Son becomes our Media Consultant. It is he who suggests movies to watch, series to binge. On his recommendation, we devoured Tiger King and tore through eight seasons of Game of Thrones in eight weeks.

My baby is in high school. In a normal year, he would have spent the month of July in sleepaway camp, communing with nature. Instead, this summer he is taking online bass guitar lessons, playing banjo in socially-distant sessions with his band, hanging out with friends at a safe distance, taking a summer school class, wreaking mayhem in Assassin’s Creed, and discussing wokeness and culture wars at dinner. He is The Debater.

My honey works from home, from his command bunker in the basement. From dawn to dusk, he participates in presentations to hospitals and insurance companies, explaining the benefits of telehealth to clients who have never considered it before. It took a pandemic for insurers and hospital systems to understand how essential it is. Between meetings, he ambles up to the main floor, wanting to hear about what everyone else is doing, sharing the latest grim statistics and today’s political idiocy. He keeps us updated on all virus and vaccine news. In addition to being The Dad, he is also The Medical Expert, Cassandra, and most of all, The Grammar Nazi.

My married daughter lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. When her school went online and Maryland went into lockdown, she and her husband raced to Toronto to spend Passover with the in-laws…and stayed until June. Though by now she has returned to Silver Spring, I haven’t seen her since February. We are all afraid of what any of us might be carrying.

As for me, I spend my days being a housewife. I shop for groceries. I hunt through stores stocking up on Bounty paper towels and brand-name toilet paper. I clean the kitchen. I empty the dishwasher. I fold towels. I straighten out the couch. My Covid 19 hobbies include feeding my sourdough starter, making fresh mozzarella cheese, doom scrolling, and eating. I’ve dragged out my old sewing machine and learned how to make masks. I cook dinner. I am The Mom.

It is with a considerable burden of guilt that I admit this next thing: I am pretty happy. Friends I adore have lost parents and loved ones. Parents who are tasked with distance-schooling small children while also working from home are losing their minds. So many of us have lost their jobs or businesses. But despite the global health crisis, despite the fact that I take my life in my hands every time I leave the house to go to a grocery store, despite the fact that I must mask up upon entering and bathe in Purell when I leave, despite the fact that I must view each passing encounter with a friend or stranger as a possible threat to my life, I am still pretty happy.

Our college boys have been living with us since their schools closed down in March. I’m sure they’re bored out of their minds. I’m sure they’re tired of our company, our jokes, our nagging, and everything I cook, but I don’t care. I am so damn happy to have them here.

Nothing beats seeing them at breakfast, lunch and dinner, tripping over their shoes, laughing at their jokes, talking about school, seeing them rummage through the refrigerator looking for something to eat, cooking for them, seeing them flopped all over the couch, or the sound of their feet pounding up and down the stairs throughout the day. It makes me ridiculously happy.

But in a week, everything changes. My Media Consultant goes back to school, and then my Activities Director.

I know there are college kids all over the country who are not returning to their campuses this fall. But I believe that college kids should be at school with other college kids, far away from the parents and grandparents they can infect.

As a teacher, I know first hand that many students do better with in-person learning than with Zoom distance learning. But as a teacher, I am also terrified of getting sick, and of passing it on to my husband. No one knows who is going to get off with the symptoms of a bad cold, and who will end up on a ventilator.

We are living through a vast global experiment, with little guidance from our leaders. My daughter and her husband plan to visit us in August, driving up from a state on New Jersey’s quarantine list. My boys will surely be back soon; for Shabbat, for holidays, for Winter Break. What do I tell them? Must I make them take Covid tests before I allow them in the house? Can I hug them? How do we manage this next stage safely? Why isn’t there a protocol to follow? Where are all the responsible grownups?

Today, there is only one thing I know for certain. Our time sheltering in place together is nearing an end. And as crazy as it sounds, I’m a little sad.

About the Author
Helen Maryles Shankman is an artist and author. Her book, "They Were Like Family to Me," originally published as "In the Land of Armadillos," was a finalist for The Story Prize in 2016 and won an Honorable Mention for the 2017 ALA Sophie Brody Medal for Achievement in Jewish Literature. Her stories have been published in many fine literary journals, including The Kenyon Review,, Gargoyle, and Cream City Review. She is a columnist at The New Jersey Jewish Standard.
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