The kitchen is my favorite room in my house.
About a year before Shawn died, we remodeled part of the house, putting in a new kitchen with more light and a few more cabinets. I had never been a big cook, but I was excited about the project. I thought that having a nicer space might help me improve my culinary skills.
Things didn’t quite go as planned. The kids were still so small and Shawn was working on building a new business and my teaching job was picking up, and there wasn’t any time. I figured once Tommy was in full-time preschool, I’d be able to really work on my new goal. But then Shawn got sick and food became an afterthought. As he was dying, the kitchen was the place where I’d meet Michelle and Becky and try and figure out the logistics of my life. It was where I told my dad that Shawn was going to die and it was where my friends were standing late that night when I came home once he was gone. The first year of widowhood, it was where I often cried with my friends and my dad.
But it hasn’t been only sadness permeating my kitchen over the past three years. It’s also been the place where I grew, bit by bit. It was where I first applied to a new job. I didn’t get it, but it was a start. It was where I first signed up for online dating, which was a disaster, but it was an important step in reclaiming my personal life. It was where I did my finances and called the repair men and learned to unclog a drain on YouTube. It was also where, slowly, I started to cook a bit more, re-discovering the smells and tastes I knew I once loved.
I healed in my kitchen.
It was never a perfect healing, of course, but in some ways, as the kitchen became mine – as I cooked and cleaned and did informal therapy with my friends in that space – I realized that I had arrived in a place that was mostly happy. The kitchen was the place I liked to be after a long day of teaching and the spot where I sat as I wrote in the pre-dawn hours last winter. In the spring, as Covid ravaged the world, I found refuge in my kitchen. It was a space where I played the music as loud as I could, wrapped my arms around my kids, and cooked them something warm.
It was also where I sat many nights as I talked on the phone to Chris in the early days of our relationship. It was where I danced by myself as I felt the dizziness of new love and it was where the kids FaceTimed with Chris in the weeks before he arrived. It was where he picked me up, that first night he was here, spun me around and said, “I love you.”
And it is where every Friday night since the start of the pandemic, I’ve made pizza. First, just for the kids, but then for Chris as well.
There’s something about the ritual that I love. The dust of the flour always hangs in the air as I stretch out the dough, and the cheese usually burns a bit on the pizza stone, but I love the feel and the smell of all of it. And though I’m often covered in tomato sauce and exhausted from a week of online teaching and homeschool learning, Chris and I find refuge in those evenings. In fact, we have made it our weekly date night throughout the pandemic. I make the pizzas and he serves me a gin and tonic, and then we feed the kids before setting places at the counter just for the two of us.
It is my favorite time every week.
Three weeks ago, as I was finishing the meal for the kids, I looked in our fridge and realized that I didn’t really have any toppings for the pizza. “Um….we’ve got some old pepperoni,” I offered to Chris.
He smiled at me and said, “I’m so in love with you.”
I laughed a bit, because it was a funny response to my statement.
“Pepperoni it is!” I said, “I love you too.”
I made the pizza and as we waited for it to cool, we sat down at the counter. “Should we make a toast?” I asked.
“Yes, we should,” he said and smirked, just a little.
“I love that we’re here, right now,” he began. I was confused, a bit. Weren’t we always here on Friday night?
And then he said a million sweet things to me about our love and our lives. How he had never been happier and how our love was different from anything he’d ever felt and how he wanted to be with me forever and ever and it was only at the end of the speech – right before he said it – that I realized what he was saying.
“Will you marry me?”
I cried and I laughed and I managed to choke out, “yes, I will!”
I was dumbstruck, really. How was this even real? How was it that this man – the one who I’d laughed with for years before confessing my long-standing crush, the one who I’d always considered was off-limits because he was my best friend’s brother – how was he now asking me to marry him? How had he hung on through the early day of the pandemic and the chaos of joining a house with three young kids and the difficult conversations about loss that we had, and he still wanted to be with me? How had I gotten so lucky to find him – someone who made me this happy – and how was it that he loved me back….and also wanted to marry me?
It left me mostly speechless.
He picked me up and spun me around the kitchen and we were both so full of each other that three weeks later, neither of us can really remember all the things that we said.
But I remember what came next. “Should we tell the kids?” I asked him. Without saying anything, Chris got up and yelled down the stairs, “she said yes!”
Wait. Did they already know? I asked him and he said, “Claire did.”
Before I could react, the three of them bounded up the stairs, smashing us into one big hug in the kitchen. Everyone was jumping up and down and screaming and hanging on us so much that I could barely stand.
Later, when I asked Chris about the proposal, he said that he’d told Claire the night before. “You asked an 11-year-old girl to keep this proposal a secret for 24 hours?” I was incredulous. “She was my co-conspirator,” he said, a smile on his face. “I wanted her to be a part of it. I knew I couldn’t tell the boys, but I wanted her to know that I trusted her with this big secret. For the whole day, it was our surprise together.”
I think if I had imagined what a proposal would look like at age 11, I would have imagined someone getting down on one knee in front of the Eiffel Tower, or something similarly picturesque. I think I’d imagine that the perfect scene would unfold in a certain cliched romantic way. And yes, those sorts of proposals are beautiful and I’m sure everyone feels joyful in the moments after an engagement.
But my daughter will forever have a different image in her mind when she thinks about marriage. She will know that perfect happiness can be right there in front of you, right there in the kitchen.
After we all calmed down a little bit, Claire looked at me and at Chris, and with the biggest smile on her face, she said, “you’re getting married!”
Chris gripped my hand and we laughed and kissed and then the five of us jumped up and down again in the kitchen, with the smell of pepperoni pizza in the air.
Image Credit: Becky Hale Photography.