The first time I’d woken up in the morning was before the birds started singing their opera in front of my window to contemplate whether I’d be at fault for missing the Christmas reunion. The second time, I woke up to the rain beating down on my roof and the clock’s tiny hand on 11, which sent me into a frenzy.
Today was The Holloway Reunion, the official name given to the time where our families bundled up in SUVs, overflowing into the trunk, and drove the trip to Nana’s house. If you didn’t go, you were sure to get a stank eye the next time you visited, and now that three weeks ago, Nana fell asleep and never woke up again, it was something I didn’t want to risk.
I had to, though. Maybe it was because I neglected the plants I kept lined up under the balcony canopy and watched them shrink and wilt that karma finally decided to catch up with me – I had Covid-19.
I remembered having muscle pains and a congested nose and the funny feeling in my gut that told me to go to the local testing site. It didn’t require an appointment but that only meant an enormous line of folks waiting to get swabs shoved up their nose. My results came two days ago, a shock when I went to go get the mail. Upon finding out I was positive, I'd gasped and sat in front of the mailbox for two hours, the little door with my key attached wide open, and my neighbors watching me while pretending to mow their lawns.
I was the only one who knew; my brain was still registering the dreaded news and I couldn’t bear to lay that stress on anyone else. They’d find out anyway when Opal Holloway, the twenty-year-old in law school who always attends every gathering wasn’t there. I was going to make something for them, a small reminder that I hadn’t forgotten and still honored the memory of Nana. Her sweet buns were on my mind. They were the kind of things that extended family talked about on phone calls to start conversations and the kind of thing that made the kids stop complaining about the entrée as long as they had her sweet buns on the side.
The recipe was given to me in middle school when I stood next to Nana as she danced around the kitchen mixing and sifting things, but because of my subpar long-term memory, I’d forgotten it. On top of not knowing her recipe, coronavirus snatched my sense of taste.
At first, I thought I could use it to my advantage – force myself to eat vegetable stew and all the healthy foods I normally hated to shed a few pounds, but it became a bother and the reason I was in the kitchen almost screaming in stress.
I walked around, opening and closing cupboards trying to find anything that could jog my memory back to that time with Nana. I’d written a few things that I thought were obvious: sugar, active dry yeast. Staring at the thin slip of paper I was clutching in my hand, I debated throwing it in the trash. What were two things going to help me with?
Perhaps a stress reliever would be nice around now, so I dialed in my mother’s phone number. I waited until I heard that familiar bubbly and breathless voice on the line. “Sweetie, hi. How’ve you been? I could hear Dad’s deep voice in the background, talking frantically about something.
“Same old, same old.”
“Don’t miss your mom anymore?” she joked. I laughed but it melted into a sigh when I stared at the measly list of things on the paper.
“Uh-oh. I heard that one, Opal. What’s up?” You couldn’t really hide things from her, not with the maternal intuition thing she had going on, but I could try.
“I’m not going to the reunion,” I blurted.
Dad and the other nasal voice that I recognized as my aunt’s were the only things audible. I stared at the open cupboards full of things I never touched while I waited for Mom to talk again. Two minutes passed before she spoke and when she did, it came out in long sigh.
“Opal, are you thinking about Nana? Why this one of all reunions?” She was hurt; I knew by the way her voice rose an octave, and it made sense -- Nana was her mom.
I wasn’t telling her the reason. In the time that she was silent after I told her I couldn’t go, I’d already decided on Grandpa. After Nana, he'd taken up hosting it. “Trust me when I tell you this was just a really bad coincidence, okay? Me not going is for the best and you’ll know why later.”
She tried to pry it out of me, but I kept it inside. Grandpa would be the first to know. She told me that her casserole would burn and cut the phone, leaving me in the kitchen with my tiny list once again.
I felt like I was being taunted by those two little things scrawled down in my loopy handwriting. Sugar, active dry yeast. What came after that? It made me wish I’d taken that culinary arts class back in high school, but I was insistent on computer programming, even though I never used anything I learned in that course after it ended.
I sighed and slipped on gloves and a mask. The kitchen clock ticked towards one and it was like somebody inserted bees into my stomach. By five, the get together was in full swing. I hadn’t even started baking yet.
I got a bowl and removed all the main things from my fridge and set them down on my counter. I cracked two eggs and poured milk, water, and oil in it. Using my electric mixer I got as a birthday gift from Nana and Grandpa two years ago, I beat them up and swirled the liquid result around, watching the watery batter drip down and form small folds over each other. It took willpower and a small pinch on my left forearm to stop myself from swiping my finger against the bowl and licking it. What would I taste?
I went and grabbed flour, sugar, and yeast. I mixed them into the batter and watched them harden into a sticky dough that I had to wrestle off the whisk attachments. This was where I should’ve payed attention to what Nana was telling me. I’d laid out everything that she could’ve put in her buns to make them taste the way they did – molasses, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg.
Willing my brain to remember back then, I leaned back and stared at the spices, hoping something would come back to me. Maybe the universe really didn’t appreciate me not watering my plants or putting them outside of the canopy to catch the rain because nothing came to mind.
I decided that I’d use everything but in small amounts, a solution that could instantly go downhill. Sighing, I did just that – put everything in the batter in small pinches. I folded them in with a rubber spatula and by the time I finished, my arm felt like the day after a T-Dap.
The next step, I knew from the videos I watched at night, bundled up and starving but too warm to leave the comfort of my bed. Let the dough rest and rise. I covered it with saran wrap and set it against the wall.
In the meantime, I knew what I had to do. I sat on the small island stool and called Grandpa. It rang five times, and I almost cut the phone but then a click and I heard his voice.
“Opal, dear. How are you?” His voice was deep and jolly, nothing like someone who’d just lost their spouse.
I smiled even though he couldn’t see me. “I’m good, Grandpa. But I could be better.” Getting news out fast was my thing now.
He paused and I heard the laughter on his line, some of adults and some loud shrieks of the little ones. Footsteps sounded and the noises dulled before a door shut and it was silent. “What’s wrong, Opal? Is it about Nana? Do you miss her?” His voice hushed into a whisper.
My heart shattered. I didn’t know how I got Covid-19 and I wished that I’d known who I was next to that was positive or what it was that I touched so I could’ve avoided this mess. “I-I caught the virus, Grandpa. I got the results two days ago.”
The quiet that followed reminded of when my brother and I were young and made a mistake only for our parents to find out and ask which one of had done it. I sighed and slumped against the counter, laying my head on my arm.
“Are you serious, Opie?” he asked. He used my nickname that he and Nana created when I was a baby, the one that Nana used when she was talking to me a few days before she passed away.
“I wouldn’t joke about this.”
“Oh, my goodness.” His voice was laced with horror. “Did you see a doctor? Are you quarantining yourself?”
I nodded my head like he was sitting right in front of me. “Yes, to both of those.”
He exhaled a long raspy breath and I clenched my jaw. As if he wasn't already dealing with the death of his wife, here I was telling him something that added stress on his heart. “You’re going to scare us, Opal. I need you to be safe, okay? Take care of yourself and others even if that means you can’t be here.”
My facial expression stared back at me in the black of my phone screen. “You mean you aren’t angry or sad?”
A bag of bricks had fallen off my shoulders and I gave myself a mental pat on the back for choosing to call Grandpa instead of somebody like my aunt on my Mom’s side, who was the strictest about going to every single gathering.
“I’m sorry things turned out this way, Grandpa. I’ll end the call, but I have one more thing.”
“Since I can’t be there, I want to make Nana’s sweet buns and take it to you guys. Do you think it’s safe and responsible considering my…predicament?”
I heard his brisk intake of air and I knew that hit him right where it beats. Grandpa was the sweet buns’ number one fan. Every time Nana was in the kitchen making them, he would come behind her, snake his arms around her waist and rest his head on her shoulder, giving us a peek at what they might have been like in their twenties. When it was anything else, he’d sit in the dining room and watch sports.
“People could be wary, but you can have somebody drop them off as long as you’re being completely sanitary and I mean nonstop washing hands, not breathing on or near the food, you know the rest.”
I let him know I was being safe and we hung up the phone. I texted Mom if she could stop by on her way, telling her that with the pandemic and us living separately, I’d rather we kept our distance. She’d find out when the buns get a warning that the person who made them was tested positive.
I preheated the oven to 350 degrees. Waiting time for the dough was short after the phone call and when I went to go check on it, I saw that it had doubled in size and almost touched the saran wrap. I took it and after removing the cover, dropped it onto the pastry board. I punched it down until it had a bunch of fist prints on it, giving me lines to cut through. Twelve equal parts to three sheets. I placed them all into the oven racks and set the timer to 30.
I didn’t do much while I waited – sat on the tiny stool and watched The Golden Girls, until I heard the ding. I hit pause and got up, placing oven mitts over my gloves and removing the sheets. The buns had risen in uniform lines, were deep gold in color, and smelled like warm apple cider and winter nights.
Nana always told me a great chef always taste tests their food. Not when you had Covid-19. The smell would have to tell me all I needed to know about the taste, like coconut or pina colada. I put them back in the oven to remain warm until Mom came.
The waiting time for her was longer and I got through two full episodes before I heard three knocks at my door. I removed the buns and covered them with more saran wrap.
Raindrops slid down my windows and cars splashed through puddles outside. I put on my hoodie, even if I wasn’t stepping past my porch. I picked up the buns and carried them over to the door, opening it with my free hand.
Mom stood a few feet away, bundled up in layers of clothing. She blew a strand of hair away from her face and waved at me.
I returned it and told her I wished I could hug her. I set the buns down on the doormat and blew her a kiss before shutting the door. From the side blinds, I saw her come pick them up and give them to Dad to hold. She honked twice before driving off, splashing rainwater with her tires.
Cleaning up was nothing short of exhausting. Some flour had even made its way into the dishwasher and when I tried to scrub it with water, it turned into dough. Once the kitchen looked the way it did before, I made myself sweet tea that wasn’t sweet and turned on the heater, setting it in front of the couch where I was going to take a nap, a norm for me nowadays. I slept to the winds howling like lost wolves and the lingering smell of what I’d baked.
I woke up to a grey sky smeared with pink and orange and a rainbow curving over my apartment. I rubbed my eyes while adjusting my shirt that had managed to twist itself around my torso. The heater had done its job and I reached to turn it off, but my phone screen was lit on the coffee table. I reached for it and turned it on. My breathing picked up when I saw it was a message from Grandpa. I clicked it and there, looking back at me, was a picture of three empty sweet bun sheets.