The public consciousness still lingers over the indelible images of 2020: faces half-obscured by masks; marchers on the move, shouting in defense of Black lives; and, as I write this, Donald Trump’s glower and its slow supercession by Joe Biden’s grin. Close your eyes and, for better or worse, the glow of them are there, the film negatives that flood your vision when you think you can’t see anything else.
Along with these, we have our own collection of images. Mine includes my daughter, of course, transforming from a disoriented deep-pink blob-wrinkle of a newborn to a confident, chubby-cheeked, downy-headed seven-month-old blowing spit bubbles and reaching for absolutely everything. My heart is humbled to remember her. And I am lucky, lucky, lucky that my mind’s eye rests on her, in a year in which so many will never forget their last glimpse of a loved one falling to the pandemic, in which Aidan Ellison’s mother had to begin to turn to memories instead of to the living face of her son.
And I am lucky, lucky, lucky to have seen so many onions.
We lived on Christine’s massive food drop and Seamless deliveries for a while, of course, when the baby was very young. But before and after, I cooked like never before, two meals a day, six or seven days a week. In the “before times” we had demanding jobs, long commutes, evenings or weekends with friends. We had reservations, leisurely meals with wine and dessert; we had street food or bodega sandwiches or overpriced salads for lunch. At home for so much of the year, I took over the unseen work of so many of my neighbors who’d fed me for so long, and that without the benefit of access to an endless supply of podcasts. I cooked some new recipes, improved on old ones, and threw meals together with whatever was left in the fridge more than a few times, and I don’t think I had to throw an onion away all year.
My eyes are sensitive, and I cry enough to stop up my nose when I have to chop onions. I don’t chop them the “right” way. I only recently became aware that there is a “right” way. And I chopped them over my pregnant belly and, later, so carefully, around the baby in the carrier. I turned them over with a spatula while she babbled or screeched or cried in the next room (even now, in a house instead of a one-bedroom apartment, we are never far apart). I browned them in olive oil and garlic while listening to Ari Shapiro’s glum recitations of case and death counts, to Sarah Marshall’s and Michael Hobbes’s meticulous and occasionally grim recountings of decades-old murders and miscarriages of justice, to Hrishikesh Hirway’s loving deconstructions of beloved pop songs, to Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Election Day prayer vigil on Instagram Live.
I probably dug a few shallots out of the bins at Carnival, their papery skins crinkling the same way the baby’s favorite toys do, but more often I just clicked the relevant button on the FreshDirect page and got yet another red netting bag of the familiar yellow cooking onions. I looked forward to Dakota’s encouraging “Mmmmm, something smells good” after they would cook for a few minutes, even if it was just the onions themselves. I watched them sizzle in the pan and thought, they are harmless, I could be vegan if I could just cook everything in onions and garlic, right?, yes! I’ll start tomorrow, and I never did, because I love cheese.
They were foundational: the beginning of the meal, the big rocks of the produce drawer supporting asparagus in the spring and sweet potatoes in the fall. They were something I knew how to do when, once I brought the baby home, I came to believe I knew how to do exactly nothing. I turned back to their translucent flesh and green veins when I was once again driven to ignorance and impotence by the mass of boxes, the onslaught of fake wood paneling and faded wallpaper in the old house we bought: they are harmless, I cannot fuck this up, I can do this.
And of course, I had Jesus. I had my family, which grew by one beautiful baby girl. I had my friends. I lost nothing from 2020 in this way. But when my friends and parents were far away, when my husband was with the baby, when Jesus reminded me that I was the salt of the Earth, I had onions. Always to be chopped (the wrong way), always to be transformed into something else, the scent lifting out of the kitchen and beyond me. And I will smell them, feel them, hear them, see them when I remember this long, strange year: their savory, stinging tang; their cool heft, the gentle clunk they make against the cutting board; the crackle of their crinkly skins in red net bags; their shimmer and shadow in a pile. I cannot love them more than Jesus, or my family or my friends, but I can be grateful to them nonetheless. They can live in my backwards look on this year, and I can be thankful for it.