I had a plan: I’d make the cinnamon rolls from scratch. I was excited about the prospect of making him something sweet. Food is comfort, and there’s nothing that’s been more comforting to me over the past year than baked goods.
I scoured the Internet for an easy recipe and found one for “one-hour cinnamon rolls.” (Reader, they took me way longer than one hour to make.) I’d been really enjoying baking during quarantine — I love the meditative quality of making something by hand, the patience it forces me to foster as I let the dough rise. Every Friday, I’ve been making a challah from scratch, and I love getting lost in the routine of kneading the dough, letting it rise, kneading it again. The smell of fresh bread fills my house, and for a moment, I can let go of the stress. I can let go of the worry.
This year has been difficult for everyone, but in different ways. My children are 9 and 11, and it’s been hard adjusting to our new reality. At school, they wear masks and wash their hands incessantly — they know that they are responsible for keeping themselves safe, which is equal parts empowering and terrifying. They worry about outbreaks, about getting sick; each day, our school district sends out an email to tell us how many teachers and students have tested positive. I’m a novelist, and my next book is due next month. It’s getting harder and harder to find pockets of time in which to do my work. It’s harder still, when I do find time, to clear my mind enough to let the creative flow in. My husband is a pediatric cardiologist and is seeing kids with a complication of covid-19 infection, as well as the infection itself.
We have ways to fight the stress: We take walks, we get fresh air. We think about what we’re grateful for, we think of ways to help others. We spend time together. We cook. We bake.
Still in pajamas, well before 8 a.m., I began. Reading the recipe, I carefully set out the ingredients I’d need: sugar, flour, butter, yeast. I made the dough, I made the filling, I made the frosting. (I didn’t have powdered sugar, so I took out my blender and made that, too.) I was so happy to be making something that my son wanted, something that I thought could be a bright spot in his day, when he’s had so many rough ones.
I served the cinnamon rolls fresh from the oven, just like the recipe described, and drizzled the frosting on top. My house smelled so delicious, and it made me feel just as warm as the cinnamon rolls themselves. I let my son pick the one he wanted, and then carefully used the spatula to put the cinnamon roll onto his plate. After taking a picture for Instagram (I’m only human), I set the plate on the table, ready for the praise to wash over me. After two bites, my son left the table.
“Is something wrong?” I asked him.
“No,” he said, and put his head down into his iPad.
“Why didn’t you eat it?”
“I didn’t really like them.”
I was crushed. I’d just spent over two hours baking, and I was exhausted. The kitchen was a mess — the countertops caked with dough, the sink overflowing with bowls and whisks. Couldn’t he taste the love that I’d baked into those cinnamon rolls? Couldn’t he taste the comfort I was offering through what I’d made?
Apparently, he could not.
I texted my husband: He didn’t like them! My husband responded with a laughing face emoji.
I texted my parents. They replied: Send the cinnamon rolls down to Florida! We’ll eat them!
I posted pictures of the baking process, from start to finish, on Instagram. Half a dozen friends asked for the recipe.
Everyone else seemed to like the cinnamon rolls. Everyone but the one person I made them for.
But then I realized — it didn’t matter. My son didn’t want them, and that was okay. Baking was a way that I showed my love to him, but it wasn’t the only way. He knew that I loved him by the way we talked about our days together, the way I was always around to discuss any problem, big or small. He could sense my love just as easily in the warm hugs I gave him, or the way I helped dry his hair when he came out of the shower at night. He felt my love in the squeeze of his hand, or the way I checked that his shoelaces were double-knotted before our daily walk.
And baking wasn’t just a way to show my love to my son. It was a way to show love to myself. It allowed me quiet, introspective time. When my hands were covered in flour, I could not check my phone relentlessly, poring over the news and social media. As I waited for the dough to rise, it reminded me that things that are worthwhile take time, take patience. The smells from the oven offered me comfort. They encouraged me to take a deep breath and soldier on.
I grabbed my son’s plate to taste the remainder of the cinnamon roll — perhaps I’d made a mistake with the recipe? A quick taste would tell me what I’d done wrong, or what I could do better the next time. I took a bite. There’s no other way to describe what I tasted: It was heavenly. I finished the entire roll and used my finger to eat the remaining bits of frosting. It tasted like butter. It tasted like sugar. It tasted like love.