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Time for Dinner

Before the coronavirus pandemic, my family had a pretty solid routine and a predictable rhythm to our everyday activities. As uncertain as life can be, we had an idea of what most days would look like. Busy, but manageable. It allowed a monotony that we had become accustomed to and comfortable with. So simple in fact that here’s a sample rundown of a typical Monday from my perspective.

5:30 AM: Wake up.
5:50 AM: Get in the car.
6:15 AM: Drop off my dad – Julius Taku – at the Huntington Long Island Rail Road station for his commute to Penn Station and his job in Manhattan. Drive back home.
6:25 AM: Steal 30 more minutes of sleep.
My sister, Elvira, catches the bus to Walt Whitman High School.
My mom, Lilian Taku, leaves for her job as a social worker at the Family Service League.
6:55 AM: Wake up again.
7:10 AM: Drop off my brother, Kritz, at the Silas Wood Sixth Grade Center. Drive back home again.
7:20 AM: Sleep some more; wake up; shower; get dressed; eat breakfast.
Wake up Eddy – brother #2.
8:15 AM: Scroll through my phone and read the latest news as Eddy eats his usual Honey Nut Cheerios.
8:45 AM: Drop off Eddy at school – he’s in fifth grade at Maplewood School and will be moving up to the middle school soon.
8:55 AM: Arrive home and watch News 12 Long Island. Play guitar/piano, clean the house or whatever feels right until it’s time to catch the train.
10:00 AM: Drive 12 minutes to the LIRR station and hope to find parking near the tracks.
10:14 AM: Find a parking spot. Send my dad a picture of where I parked so he can pick up the car later.
10:24 AM: Get on the 10:26 am train to Stony Brook University, where I am a junior majoring in journalism.
11:44 AM: Arrive on campus. Swing by Room 307-K in the Student Activities Center – the office of The Stony Brook Press, the student-run campus magazine I write for – to drop off my duffle bag for my gym session later in the day. Barely make the elevator in the Melville Library and arrive in class just in the nick of time.
 

Most days, I wouldn’t return home until sometime between 8 and 10 p.m. My dad would pick me up from the train station and by the time we arrived home, my dinner would be waiting for me in the microwave. Mom served it before she went to bed. Nothing says love like a home-cooked meal. I’d heat it up and eat by myself in the basement as I watched season two of “The Grand Tour” – the British motoring program that features the trio of British broadcasters who teamed up for “Top Gear” and that was just cancelled because of the coronavirus – on Amazon Prime Video. Jeremy Clarkson shouting “Poooweeeeerr!!!” or Richard Hammond insulting James May for being slow. Dinner for one – more times than I care to mention.

This was my regular Monday schedule until the coronavirus swept the country, forcing me and almost everyone everywhere into quarantine – with shelter-at-home orders, remote learning for kindergarten-through-college classes and entire industries and small businesses shut down. I’m a creature of habit, but I’m adapting. Still, this change is different – scary, even – with health risks, uncertainty, rising death tolls and limited social contact with the outside world. 

But life in lockdown has had one silver lining for the Taku family. It has forced my family – all six of us – to eat dinner together at the dining room table almost every night. 

Just before the pandemic reached its fever pitch, my family moved into a five-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom house in Huntington Station. It was the fourth time we had moved since coming to the United States from the central African country of Cameroon 11 years ago after my mom won a visa lottery. My parents were young professionals – mom was a high school English teacher and dad was a customs official for a telecommunications company – when they left their country, their families, their jobs to give their children better lives in the land of opportunity. I was nine, my youngest brother was just a few months old. We settled on Long Island, first in a house with my dad’s sister who lived in Elwood, and later to two other rented houses in Huntington.

But this move was different. This time we moved into a house we own. And for the first time ever, there was more than one bathroom. And we kids each had our own bedrooms. 

With all the packing up and moving around over the years, many things were lost or left behind – books, clothes, countless pairs of shoes, the car-shaped bed my little brother outgrew. And many things were carried over from one place to the next – TVs, dressers, kitchen appliances, the bbq grill.

But the thing that remained a constant no matter where we went was our dinner table. 

The table has been in our family for eight years and four moves. It is made of dark-stained maple that my father sanded the varnish and stain off of to reveal the lighter wood underneath. It is a rectangle with rounded corners and ornate decorations along a skirt around the perimeter of the table. Its smooth beveled edges have caught many hips and several small children have bumped their heads on it. 

The best part about the table is that it comes with two additional extension leaves that can be installed to increase its length from 86 inches to 121 inches. The legs of the table are sculpted like something out of a castle or a guest room at Versailles with a central support beam connecting them. Its chairs are still the rich shade of brown the tabletop used to be – similar to a bottle of Bacardi Black. Four of the chairs have tufted, upholstered seat bottoms and carved seatbacks. And the two at either end of the table have tufted seatbacks to mark them as my parents’ chairs. It’s a sturdy and well-traveled piece of furniture, but also a uniting and central part of my family.

Every time my family has moved, the announcement was made by my parents at this very table. It’s like a podium in the way it serves as the location for official decisions that affect my family. 

Our dinner table is my father’s desk when he works from home and a study table for my little brothers when they’re doing homework. It is where financial matters are discussed and decided. And where bread is occasionally kneaded when the kitchen counters are occupied. It has been the site of many birthday cakes, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, prayers and Sunday dinners.

It was a nice place for us to converge, decompress and talk about our days over the weekends. But on weeknights – it was every Taku for his or herself.

Kritz, Elvira and Eddy would get home between 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m., then do homework or watch TV till my mother’s arrival around 5 p.m. By 7 p.m., my mother – a model of efficiency in the kitchen who has perfected the art of cleaning up as she cooks – would have dinner on the table for them. She would then set aside my father’s meal in the oven and mine in the microwave. Usually, something quick and easy like baked ziti. But if we were lucky – very lucky – it might be fufu and eru, a Camaroonian specialty that combines spinach and cassava. Our regular weeknight routine only changed on days when my dad or I caught an earlier train home. 

But now, regular has taken on a new meaning.   

Now, we have dinner together every night – and usually cap the night with a movie. I place a different tablecloth on the table each night and set the charger plates. Eddy puts out the glasses, while Kritz pours the water. My mother places a pork chop on each plate, matching the serving size to the age of the person she’s serving. When I was 17 and got more serious about working out with weights, I finally graduated to the same portions as my father. The mixed vegetables are next, then baked potatoes and some gravy to go with them. 

Elvira carries each plate to the table, placing it on the silvery wood-grain charger in front of each person. Finally, I get the salad, the salad dressing and condiments out of the fridge. My father – a stately gray-haired figure who stands six-feet-one-inches tall – assumes his place at the head of the table. We say grace before we eat  – “Bless us, oh Lord and bless this our meal which we’re about to receive from your goodness. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.” 

Kritz – a gentle 12-year-old giant who stands five feet eight inches tall – starts talking about a Japanese anime show he’s watching, “JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.” 

“There’s this character on JoJo whose power is to travel using reflections and it got me thinking,” he says. “How do we make mirrors? What are they made of?”

Eddy rolls his eyes so hard you can almost feel his annoyance.  “Not again.” 

Elvira interjects before Kritz’s next sentence. “Don’t start. You’re just going to keep going on and on. You’re good. Look it up later.”

My mother – a youthful 46-year-old with dreadlocks she’s been growing for a decade that now reach to her lower back – looks at Elvira, who has shorter locks of her own. “Leave him alone,” my mother says. “It’s just how his mind works.” 

I pull out my phone – gasp, a phone at the dinner table – and look up the answer to Kritz’s questions. “The modern mirror,” I read, “is made by silvering, or spraying a thin layer of silver or aluminum onto the back of a sheet of glass.”

My dad tries for a joke about “golding” the glass as opposed to silvering. He’s a good one for classic dad jokes. 

We don’t really ask each other about our days since we’re all in the same house and check in with each other periodically. But inevitably my dad asks his favorite question –“Did anyone check the mail?” 

My siblings and I shrug our shoulders and look at each other, as if to ask, “Did YOU check it?”

My father shakes his head and takes another forkful of his pork chop. I say I’ll get the mail after dinner and we continue eating.  

Being the oldest of four children in a family of six has been a full-time job for most of my 19 years, but my workload has lightened as my siblings have grown up. Now the work is more evenly distributed. Since we’re all home, though, that distribution of labor is more apparent than ever before.

I’m in charge of cleaning the floors, the downstairs bathroom, and, thanks to COVID-19, disinfecting doorknobs and surfaces. Elvira, age 17, cleans the upstairs bathroom and washes the dishes – sometimes. Kritz empties the dish rack and the dishwasher. Eddy, age 10, cleans the dinner table and takes out the trash – with a little help from his brothers. Our parents work at their jobs from home, cook lunch and dinner, pay the bills and deal with all the rigmarole expected of parents.

On a typical day, whatever that means nowadays, my parents work at the dining room table or in the living room or their bedroom. My mother, a social worker, turns their bedroom and the living room into her office where she holds therapy sessions over the phone or Zoom video chats. My father, a risk management agent at a bank, has claimed the dining room as his workspace and doesn’t get up for hours at a time as he helps negotiate massive transactions. 

My sister crams for her AP classes in chemistry and macroeconomics between binging another season of “Love Island” on Netflix. My brothers go to school in Google classrooms and video chat with their teachers and classmates. But Kritz finds time to play “Tekken Tag Tournament” and watch Vsauce’s videos on alternate dimensions. And the mischievous, super-competitive Eddy, who is a sore loser and a sore winner, asks me if I would like to play ping-pong – to which I usually respond, “In a little while,” and help him wheel out the table. Then I return to my many, many, many homework assignments only to stare idly at my screen until I decide I don’t want to sit at the computer anymore. 

I miss seeing my friends dearly. I wish I could go to work. I was about to start a part-time job at a BMW dealership, but the virus put the brakes on that. I even miss commuting to the Stony Brook campus by train. Some days I yearn to just leave the house. I’m not sure when we will move out of quarantine. Otherwise, I’ve become accustomed to and comfortable with this new routine and in-house monotony. 

Before long, I see that Eddy has convinced Kritz to step away from the TV and I watch them from my bedroom window jumping around outside on the trampoline with abandon. Moments like this make me smile because I know they’re building long-lasting memories. Maybe they will earn a few scars that will remind them of this time years from now.

After a while, my mother calls them in for dinner. Tonight the meal is baked ziti. I change the tablecloth and set the charger plates. Eddy puts out the glasses, while Kritz pours the water. My mother lets us serve ourselves this time. Elvira sets the plates. I get the salad. My dad pours wine for himself and my mother before taking his seat at the head of the table. We say grace, then proceed to eat.

Cue my dad’s nightly query. 

Damn. I never checked the mail.

By Julio Taku

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” - James Baldwin.
That quote rings so true for me because of the world we live in today. Oftentimes the truth is obscured or hidden from us for any number of reasons. This effectively blinds us from getting the full story. I see it as my duty to help clear the blind spots we tend to ignore whether it be in history, modern times or in the future. As a student journalist at Stony Brook University, I am working to contextualize modern events through relevant historical lenses. Nothing exists in isolation and it’s important to understand this when analyzing contemporary issues. This is especially true in matters of culture, race and gender. My work exists to diversify the narratives and stories in journalism. I currently serve as Culture editor at The Stony Brook Press where I do just that and amplify the voices of others.

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