Recalling close quarters

Once, my family stayed in a fishing cabin for three months. It was stressful, and our routines were upended. But I loved it.

Marko Djurica/Reuters/File
This cabin was built on a rock in the Drina River near Bajina Basta, Serbia, in 1968. One of the original builders still co-owns it.

When I was in third grade my family moved from a house in the sticks to a house in town. My parents sold the first house before they bought the second, so we had about three months when we were houseless. During those three months, a family friend offered us their very small fishing cabin right next to what we called the canal. 

The cabin had one bedroom, a small living room, a tiny kitchen, and a large foyer, where my brother and I slept in a bunk bed. It was a stressful time for my parents. All of our routines were upended. But secretly, I loved it.

I loved the bunk bed, where I knew my brother was right above me, close enough for me to reach up and touch if needed. I loved the small kitchen, where my mother would cook and I would read aloud to her from “The Value of Believing in Yourself: The Story of Louis Pasteur.” I loved that there were no other kids anywhere nearby, so my brother had to play with me. I loved the weird games that we found in the cabin; most of our usual activities were in storage. I loved that as I went to sleep at night, the light from the living room and the sound of my father watching TV were just a few feet away.

In that period of disruption, I loved the closeness that our small quarters forced upon us. In our normal lives, I wouldn’t have dared to ask my brother to play with me instead of his friends. I couldn’t have requested to share a bedroom with him, for what child wants to share a bedroom? In our normal lives, I wouldn’t have been allowed to stay up late enough to hear my father watching TV.

Right now, as our daily lives are interrupted and we are stuck together in this strange reality, I’m having a similar feeling: I’m secretly enjoying the closeness it is forcing upon us. I am comforted that my partner, our dog, and our two cats don’t have anywhere to be. The hours of the day have taken on new rhythms: There might be a serious conversation at 11 a.m., a movie break at 3. Around 6 p.m. the news of the day begins to sink in, and we take turns calming each other’s existential dread.

I’ve been reaching out to friends more than usual, checking in to see what they are experiencing. The people in our apartment building created a group text that so far has included a discussion of whether vodka can be used to make hand sanitizer as well as updates on the latest directives for Chicago, our city. I’ve been talking to my mother almost every day and texting with my brother as we discuss the situation with my father, who is in a care center that is locked down.

I could have done most of these things before. But I didn’t. Caught up in routines and work, the demands of making money and making dinner, and an understanding that everyone else is also so, so busy, I didn’t. A survey published last year by Wakefield Research found that more than half of Americans asked said they didn’t have as deep a connection with their inner circle as they’d had five years before – most saying they didn’t have meaningful ways to stay in touch. 

No one wants a crisis. Hardships associated with this one may linger for months, years. But this moment does afford us an opportunity to remember why we do all of the other things we do. When our lives are stripped down, what is truly significant stands out. Relearning what those things are is a blessing.

I don’t have small children, but many of my friends do. I know these friends are struggling to keep their kids occupied in what may seem to be an endless expanse of time. How will the children remember this experience? I’m certain that, like me in that fishing cabin, some are secretly happy to have their siblings all to themselves and to have their caretakers home all the time. They’re happy to be in a situation they never could have asked for, one that can afford such comfort in a time of such upheaval.

Eventually my parents found a new house and we moved into it. It was bigger than our old house and much bigger than the cabin. I liked my bedroom, which had an eastern-facing window with a window seat. But I mourned the loss of the cabin. I mourned the loss of the closeness.

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