I am marking change by the gain and loss of settings at my family table

I write this as I contemplate what dinnertime in my kitchen will look like. This evening. And the next. And the next.

Just six weeks ago my husband and I sat down to our first evening meal in a newly empty nest. After two years of commuting from our suburban colonial to his job in Manhattan, our 24-year-old son had finally taken off to travel the world before starting grad school in California. Our youngest, Noah, was already back up at college after a long Christmas break. 

Pictured in the image above, the author’s family: Paul Freundlich (dad in foreground), Noah Freundlich (college guy in overalls), Ben Freundlich (quarantiner on Facetime next to Noah), Carol Rosen (author’s mother, locked up in at her home in New Jersey). Not pictured: Paul’s mom, Florence Freundlich, (on Facetime but Peg was using her phone to take the picture; you can see her empty can of Goya kidney beans) and Peg Rosen herself.

For the first time in 21 years, Paul and I had 161 Wildwood to ourselves. No more hairy young guys steaming up the second-floor bathroom. Not a cushion out of place in our historically beer-can-and-crumb-littered den. 

Change landed hardest in the kitchen, the place where I showered love, funneled anxiety, and, essentially, found refuge and identity throughout my mothering years. 

Night One on our own, I went to set my oak clawfoot table, and, fork in hand, found myself frozen in thought. I remembered the thrill of laying out plastic plates and utensils, as each of my sons claimed his seat at our table for the first time. I recalled adding two extra place settings for my parents one night in late 2013. And the look on my newly widowed mother’s face when she noticed my error. I thought of all the moments between the milestones marked by who was and wasn’t at our table: a seat empty for a night after a vicious fight or vacant for the season as our teens surrendered to sports. A chair pulled in from the dining room for a grandparent, a best friend, and, eventually, a girlfriend. 

Snapping to, I ladled a cumin-scented chickpea stew into shallow bowls, poured a decent Sancerre and had a pretty excellent meal with the man I’d loved for almost 30 years. The nights that followed unfolded similarly: A wisp of melancholy, giving way to the delicious, albeit quiet, ease of each other’s company. 

“What life was that?” I ask myself now. Ben, my world traveler, is six days into a 14-day quarantine on our third floor, having made the last plane out of Chile before flights were canceled. Noah, finishing his academic year online, wanders the house listlessly, sneaking trysts with his girlfriend somewhere outdoors. My mother Carol, age 85 with pulmonary fibrosis, is locked up in her stucco home like a glass princess. Confined to her 29th-floor apartment on the Upper West Side is my 87-year-old mother-in-law, Florence. 

Tonight, like other nights during this surreal nightmare, I will make a place for all of us at my table. There will be three settings for Paul, Noah, and me. And three Facetiming iPhones propped up by cans of Goya beans: One for Ben, eating his meal on a paper plate upstairs, and one for each grandmother, who will sing the praises of modern technology from their respective kitchens as they pick at some canned tuna or maybe a poached chicken breast. 

This is not the empty nest I’d imagined for April 2020. This is nothing I could have imagined. But it has redefined for me what a place at the table can be with the help of a little imagination and some good technology. There is always room. For everyone who cares to join. That’s a lesson I plan to take forward long after this scourge has passed. 

(Note: Ben was released from quarantine on April 4 to the not-much-more-thrilling lower floors with the family.)

Peg Rosen writes often about food, health, and healthcare. A trail runner and obsessive baker, she lives and works in Montclair, New Jersey.