Facing the pandemic, I was as helpless as anyone. But as a new grandmother, I was a culinary superpower.

The baby was born on the third day of quarantine, just minutes after the midwife arrived. Daily oatmeal practice began the next morning.

For nearly 100 days this year, I woke up not to an alarm, but to a text message from my daughter, Mollie: “Oatmeal please.” It began the day after she gave birth to her daughter and my first grandchild, in the bedroom downstairs. Oatmeal was not something I prepared when she was a child, but her midwife had told her it was a powerful lactation booster. I readily volunteered. I wanted to be a helpful, not intrusive, grandmother. 

She and our son-in-law had been sheltering in place with us—me, her father, and our younger daughter—before they prepared for a move to their own home. We were a full house, with three dogs underfoot. The baby was born the third day of quarantine, just minutes after the midwife arrived, fastening her mask on the front porch. 

The daily oatmeal practice began the next morning. I measured out two cups of water to boil and then a half cup of steel-cut oats, the fancy kind in the metal tin, not an instant packet. I used the half-hour it required as a quiet period of contemplation. Would I choose the red lacquer rectangular tray, or the round metal one embossed with vines and flowers? 

What would you like in your oatmeal? I texted, and Mollie replied, Chopped nuts, fruit, chia seeds, honey, warm milk please! I chopped a handful of pecans and checked the fruit bowl. A banana, that first time. An apple. But fruit availability during pandemic times became unpredictable. Sometimes we had strawberries, or an unexpected treasure of kiwis showed up in the farm box. I was moved by the surprise kiwi, and took care to arrange the green dotted ovals on a special plate. While the oatmeal finished cooking, I heated a small pitcher of milk.  

An ornate metal tray arranged with two bowls of fruit, a blue pitcher of warm milk, and a bowl of oatmeal topped with nuts, chia seeds, and honey. August 2020

The author’s homemade breakfast of oatmeal with chopped nuts, chia seeds, honey, warm milk, and a side of kiwi.

Susan Ito

Choosing the perfect bowl was the next part of the ritual. The Imari bowl from my Japanese parents’ cupboard, or the earthy brown one hand-glazed by her sister? The painted floral bowl from San Miguel was a favorite, too. Each one struck a different mood, and looked different based on the tray and the fruit of the day. 

I ladled the steaming oats into the bowl and topped them with the pecans, a sprinkle of chia seeds, and a dollop of organic honey. I tucked the pitcher between the bowl and a cloth napkin and carried the tray down to the baby den. My sleepy daughter cradled the mousy-haired infant against her body, and passed her to me while she ate. “Mmm,” she murmured. “So good.” 

In the months since, our house became a jumble of infant care, dog-walking, and virtual meetings. My college classes abruptly pivoted to Zoom as my students scattered, mid-semester. The half-hour of oatmeal preparation was the one thing over which I had control.

When the baby was three months old, my daughter and her family decamped to their own home, and I accompanied them to help for a few weeks. Even though my daughter was capable of making her own breakfast, I clung to our oatmeal ritual. On the final morning, before I returned to my home, I boiled water, sliced strawberries and cried. And then I carried the oatmeal to my daughter and nuzzled the baby while she ate. 

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Susan Ito is the author of The Mouse Room. She co-edited the literary anthology A Ghost At Heart’s Edge: Stories & Poems of Adoption. Her work has appeared in Growing Up Asian American, Choice, Hip Mama, Literary Mama, Catapult, Hyphen,The Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere. She is a MacDowell colony Fellow, and has also been awarded residencies at The Mesa Refuge, Hedgebrook and the Blue Mountain Center. She is a member of the Writers’ Grotto, and teaches at Mills College and Bay Path University. She was one of the co-organizers of Rooted and Written, a writing workshop for writers of color.