10 April 2020, The Tablet

My family, back under one roof again

My family, back under one roof again

A person makes their way past a taped off bench on the sea front on Bournemouth beach, Friday April 10
Andrew Matthews/PA Wire/PA Images

One of the joys of the current way we are living, in these strange times, is that we are seeing a lot more of some of our children.  It can be a mixed emotion, however. Having everyone living at home, and not knowing how long this will last, is more problematic for them than for us, I think.  Our children are in their twenties and up. Some of them are accustomed to complete independence, some still working towards it; but all watching it recede in front of them.

I don’t work full time, but I do usually work from home, so my adaptation to the current situation has been slightly different from other people’s.  I write tunes for Sunday psalms (found here), and blog about it here.  At the moment there isn’t much demand for the music, although the blog figures are good (people have more time for reading?).  The online Masses which we are all getting used to don’t seem to have any music, because only the priest is present. No hymns, no readers, no sung psalms: it’s understandable, but it’s a part of the Mass that we miss very much. 

What we’ve done, just in case anyone finds it useful, is put a simple recording of the psalm for the UK Mass on the website front page. We haven’t done live recordings before (it’s very stressful!), but luckily one of the benefits of our son John’s now having to teach from home is that he has a big microphone you can plug in, and he has helpfully made it interact with my computer.  We aren’t going to do all the psalms for the Easter Vigil, but we’ve done Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the two Mass psalms (Vigil and Sunday morning).  

When the lockdown became inevitable, we were very concerned to bring our eldest daughter back to the family home.  Rachel (names have been changed to protect the innocent) has lived in her own house for years, in Sheffield, but she would be very vulnerable to Covid-19 and is one of the people needing serious shielding.  So she arrived just before the lockdown, with a very welcome bag of potatoes and a packet of loo rolls. On the same day, our middle daughter woke up on the top floor with a very sore throat, and decided that it was too dangerous not to self-isolate.  Two of the boys are living in London, and decided to stay there; everyone else is now at home, which means six of us in the house and the drawbridge up.   

We have a tall, thin house, messy but capacious.  Thank God we also have a garden. It’s years since so many of us have been living at home at once, and having only one bathroom wasn’t a problem when everyone was little and being bathed in procession.  Nowadays, what we wouldn’t give for even one en-suite!

Middle daughter Mary emerged after a week, and we still have no idea whether she had anything significant or not; we may never know.    At least we now only need to do one set of trays, and Rachel is not all the way up on the top floor. But every cough I hear at night wakes me and makes me nervous, a situation I remember from when the children were new, but didn’t expect to be experiencing again.  Four of us are working from home full time, so my husband’s in the sitting room, Rachel and Mary are working from their own rooms, and John is in the dining room. My computer is in the old playroom, now called the music room, because it’s where the piano is. A friend gave me some large knitted baubles on strings a couple of years ago; these have been repurposed as equivalents to red lights outside a recording studio.  Once they are hung on a doorknob, no one is allowed to go in - to limit the number of times a seminar/crucial phone call/feedback session gets interrupted.

I listen with incredulity to people on the radio discussing how to fill the empty hours, as I am busier than usual, only with things that have nothing to do with my work.  Six adults eat a lot of food, and with shopping having become so difficult, it would not be practical to allow everyone just to help themselves. That wouldn’t be the way we did it anyway; whoever’s home in the evening eats together.  But now everyone is at home all the time. It’s very funny to watch the different ways in which the children organise themselves over snacks or breaks. The rule seems to be that if you leave one brownie (or biscuit, or jam tart or whatever) in the tin, it wasn’t technically you that ate them all.

It’s very hard to carve out a space for praying, sitting quietly or even reading uninterrupted; but I find I thank God as I go along for my kitchen machinery, which makes the jobs much less onerous, and I do indeed find myself ‘praying without ceasing’ for the health of my household.  It’s been interesting to watch that word come back into use; I don’t think I’ve heard it ten times in the last ten years, except at church, but now we are all in ‘households’, and those are the only people you are allowed to go for a walk with. It’s more inclusive than ‘families’, and a bit more old-fashioned, but I like it.

My husband is also in a risk category, so the hunter-gathering falls mostly to me and my youngest daughter.  Luckily, Margaret and I are both Pollyanna-types, so we treat the shopping as questing and try not to let the shortages get us down.  The only way we can cut the risk for our vulnerables is to minimise going out completely, so we have found some delivery options which we never knew about before (indeed, possibly they didn’t exist before), but we still need to go hunting sometimes.  We plan our trips out like military operations. We have always arranged our route so that we don’t waste time, but now we also try to plan for quiet streets and time our raids carefully so as not to coincide with a ‘reserved’ time. Deliveries help a lot, but not everything is available to be dropped off on our doorstep.

It’s funny to think that this is in fact the way people used to do all their grocery shopping.  It feels so long ago that I had almost forgotten, but now that my memory has been jogged, I remember my mother writing her grocery order in a little red book every week.  It always started ‘6 lbs butter’, and I can picture it clearly in her writing, on a small lined yellow page. It was important, because once you could write neatly, you were allowed to write it at her dictation (until the next brother or sister learned to write neatly).  Nowadays we do it online, and the shop tells us what is available before we list it, or often (sadly) what isn’t.

I’d never mentioned anything about grocery deliveries to the children.  It seemed like a relic of a past era, which of course it was, from the time before supermarkets, at least in rural Staffordshire.  But now that the memory has resurfaced, we did talk about it. They thought it was hilarious. I found it helps me to imagine a time when even the strange events we are going through now will be past and almost forgotten.  What I can’t remember is where on earth we bought bread, and it’s really annoying me. My husband says his mother used to have a delivering baker, but I’m sure I’d remember that.

It is a pleasure to spend time with the children. They are interesting and thoughtful adults, and I think I would like them even if they weren’t mine.  It’s fun to watch them talking together, swapping experiences, striking sparks off each other, capping each other’s jokes and being supportive. Margaret is at the stage of trying to find a first job, which is remarkably hard at the moment, but everyone else is being really encouraging and chipping in with advice and offers to read over applications (most of the time very welcome).  Rachel has to deal with the isolation, and what she feels is her own lack of agency in this situation. My heart bleeds for her, but I can’t help with that, and I can’t even touch her. It is hard. It’s difficult for all of them in different ways, at the different stages they have reached in their various careers. They have all adjusted to the problems of living like this with grace and forbearance.  I am proud of my children, but desperately worried about how to keep them safe.

Getting to sleep at night is no problem, as we’re all exhausted by the tensions of the day, but I find I wake up early and fret.  At least that’s a good time for praying quietly – for all my household, and for everyone else’s as well.


Kate Keefe was born in Staffordshire, England and studied at Cambridge and Oxford Universities. She has lived and sung in England, Italy, the Czech Republic, Kenya, Georgia, Russia and the Balkans. She writes musical settings for mass, found here, and blogs about it here.

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