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Marny Stebbins.

I took a few weeks off from writing the column to make 487 grilled cheese sandwiches. Thank you for your patience.

Yes, when faced with a worldwide pandemic, a table full of lethargic e-learners, rationed toilet paper, a disheartening lack of national leadership, and a dwindling supply of chocolate milk and patience, the holy combination of fried carbohydrates and cheese has proven our coping mechanism of choice. I won’t feign surprise.

We are all craving comfort and safety and what is more reassuring than 4 squares of melted Colby cheese snug between two slices of toasted Cottage bread? (Do not say 2 triangles because we are not heathens – yet). Grilled cheese sandwiches offer the simple reminder that …simple is enough. Simple is safe. Simple might be exactly what we need.

It started at breakfast. When my teenager slammed a laptop shut, cursed at the Wi-Fi router, and slumped onto a kitchen stool like a deflated Wubble ball, I treaded carefully.

“Good morning, honey,” No eye contact. “How’s it going this morning?”

“Not dead yet,” he answered without flair.

“How can I help?”

Let me just say, we both recognize this is an offer with limitations. I cannot DO much. I can’t provide a place for friends to gather. I can’t coach Trigonometry. I can’t drive him to a girl’s house, go to a theater, sit in a restaurant, or discover a COVID-19 vaccine. Lord knows, I can’t longboard (without peril) and I am a liability at a drive-thru window. For any given situation, I can’t more than I can. “How can I help?” feels like an empty gift box, a wordless love song, a bottomless boat, no more than a hollow gesture with good intentions. Lonely is awfully hard to fill without people, good intentions or not.

“Gouda and Sourdough, please.”

“I can do that.”

Grilled cheese sandwiches have become the new hug at our house and hugs are available as needed. And as the rhythm of our days has changed dramatically, homework, laundry, showers, Netflix, and hugs are not bound by any specific timeline. My griddle has been hot since day #4 of quarantine. That is not intended to be a metaphor, but upon further reflection, it could easily apply to my pandemic parenting thus far: hot and cold. A little brittle on the edges.

Nonetheless, we have embraced this new tradition of comfort and placed no restrictions on availability. Literally.

Breakfast: grilled cheese

Snack: grilled cheese

Elevensies: grilled cheese

Lunch: grilled cheese

Second Snack: grilled cheese

Supper: grilled cheese

Dinner: grilled cheese

Midnight snack: cheesecake. Which, if you think about it….

By the time we are done sheltering at home, I fear they will have to roll our plump, well-loved, selves out of the front door like Violet from Willy Wonka getting rolled to the juicing room before she explodes like a an over-ripe berry. Except we will be cheddar – orange like the face of the Oompa Loompas. Or our President.

This is a frightening time. Even from my privileged seat at the table, I worry. I worry about the health of loved ones in my home and far away. I worry for hard-working friends and colleagues who are vulnerable to economic collapse. I worry for overworked medical teams, disoriented students and stretched teachers. Most of all, I worry about lessons we have been slow to learn and lessons we will be quick to forget. I worry we won’t let this change change us.

I won’t ever look at a grilled cheese sandwich again without thinking of the weeks our family has spent sheltering at home. It has been a series of tough weeks and I won’t pretend this little token of comfort has solved a single darn challenge. But, it has reminded me that simple efforts of kindness are often the most beautiful and this, I hope, will stay with us long after we (eventually) leave the kitchen.

Marny Stebbins lives in Stillwater with her husband and four children. She is a staunch believer in early bedtimes, caffeine enhancement and humor therapy.

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