The decision to leave Brooklyn for Maine was one that my husband and I made rather rashly. As the world responded to the coronavirus pandemic, we’d be working from home indefinitely. Lucky for us, we both have internet jobs. Still, attempting to do them while squeezed into a tiny two-bedroom apartment with a toddler began to feel impossible—and it had only been one week.
That’s when I got a text from my aunt: “Just a reminder that our house in Maine is always an option if you guys need it.”
It hadn’t dawned on me that her vacant summer home in Maine—the one built in the 1970s by my grandparents and the house I spent my childhood vacationing at—might be available for our use. They had since passed away. My aunt and uncle have kept the home up and running, but predominantly for summer use.
I had one question before we sealed the deal, “Do you think we can install high-speed internet access?” I asked my aunt.
The next day, my husband and I had packed a car rental with enough of our Brooklyn lives to last us at least a handful of weeks. We made it to Maine in record time, thanks to zero traffic, and kicked off a 14-day self-quarantine.
As we settled in, I led my husband around the house with the air of confidence of its homeowner. “The light switches are here; the bedrooms are there,” I over-explained. But, the more we unpacked, the less at-home I felt. It dawned on me that the last time I stayed in this house was over 15 years ago. And my memories of it were tied to experiences that took place long before that. Things like playing kick the can in the woods with my cousins (a great game if you haven’t tried it) and hearing the hum of my grandmother’s wind chimes throughout the house. But also saying goodbye to my grandparents—in particular, my grandfather who succumbed to cancer, riding out his final days in this very home.
My mom suggested I whip up my grandma’s recipe for stew as a way to lift my mood and brighten up these uncertain times. “It’s great for leftovers,” she said. “Plus, your grandma made it for me and dropped it off after I gave birth to you!” She sent me the full recipe and even arranged a socially distanced drop-off of the ingredients. I’m no cook, but my husband—who preps most of the meals in our household—was eager for a break. “You should do it,” he egged me on.
So, I did—using my grandma’s dishes to prep and assemble the stew I’d eaten countless times growing up, but never made myself. I chopped the carrots, peeled the small potatoes and, as the recipe called for, I saved time using pre-cut meat. “Don’t forget the bag of frozen peas!” my mom reminded me over FaceTime. Finally, into the oven (for five hours) it went.
I could smell it before I tasted it, the aroma of my childhood and summers spent in Maine wafting around the house. I served it to my husband and skeptical toddler around the exact dining table that my grandmother used to serve the dish to her own family so many years ago. And it was just as I remembered—a giant bowl of comfort food full of tomato-based flavors. Just like I did as a kid, I padded my own bowl with more potatoes than beef. Yum.
How weird to now be enjoying this recipe in the very house where my grandma made it for her own family so many times.
After dinner that night (btw, my mom was right—the leftovers lasted all week) and in the weeks ahead, I found myself tuned into a lot more of the nuances that I glossed over as a kid. For example, my grandfather’s binoculars, which he used for bird watching (bo-ring, my younger self thought), hung in the exact same place he left them. I busted them out to watch the seagulls. A week or two later, I ran for them when we giddily spotted, not one, but two bald eagles delicately swooping above the pond out front.
I found myself retracing my steps through the woods to a cove carved out by the tides on the edge of the property—a place I used to catch crabs and skip rocks for hours. This time, I brought along my toddler, who couldn’t have been happier to traipse through the mud and explore, just as I once did. But, now, as a parent, my delight came through witnessing him discover these small joys.
I even started to truly savor the dinner hour in this house, something I hardly noticed as a kid aside from the food on the table. (I was hungry!) Now, I see it as a moment where the house fills with warm sunlight from the truest golden hour I’ve ever experienced, serving as a silent, benevolent dinner bell. Mother Nature’s spotlight on family time. (My grandma must have loved that.)
It’s been six weeks—and counting—since we drove up, and while this house is so familiar thanks to my childhood memories in it, I am still getting to see it through my eyes as an adult. Much like the stew, I feel like I’m tasting it for the very first time.
But there is something my child and adult self have in common. Back then, this house was an escape. My home base for summer vacations and a place to visit my grandparents and hang out with my cousins in between runs to the ice cream shop and the beach. Now, it’s still an escape—but a much different one. It’s a place where I can cocoon myself away from my fears of the world (and COVID-19), but also a sanctuary that allows me to embrace family time and truly slow down, just as my grandparents envisioned it when they built it almost 50 years ago.
Rachel’s Grandma’s Beef Stew Recipe
1 1/2 lbs stew beef, pre-cut or cut into small cubes
4 to 6 potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 medium onions, peeled and chunked
2 carrots, peeled and chunked
1 8-oz can of tomato sauce
1 12-oz can of V-8 juice
3 tsp tapioca
1 onion soup mix packet
1/2 cup of wine (or beer, if no wine)
1 bag frozen peas
1 bay leaf
1. Place meat chunks in over-proof pot. Sprinkle with tapioca and stir.
2. Pour 8-oz can of tomato juice over all. Stir.
3. Add onions, carrots, wine, potatoes, bay leaf. Pour V-8 juice over all.
4. Place frozen peas on top.
5. Cover and bake at 250 degrees for 5 hours.
6. Eat for the entire week.