In my last post, I mentioned my son and I moved to Blacksburg with no friends, no family, and nothing else resembling a social life or community, other than a handful of work colleagues. I had started work in January of 2012 and for a year-and-a-half split time between Blacksburg and Evanston, IL, where my wife worked. We really had not made (or had opportunities) to make friends in VA. I was not that great a father, either, as Kate had been much better and more patient than I was with a baby/toddler/small child.
This sounds like a bleak situation, and in casting my mind back, the bleakness returns in a way I had forgotten or blocked out. I was only able to make my way through by relying on those far-distant friends. We skyped weekly with some good friends from graduate school and from Evanston, we had a couple visits from some friends from college and from family, we traveled quite a bit, and I tried to explore the new relationship I would have with my son. But there was not much in the community.
This was a tough nut to crack. I cannot emphasize enough how much attention a two-and-a-half-year-old child requires: all of it. You must pretty much constantly have eyes on and be offering stimulation or correction or supervision. My son was probably working through issues of his own, always asking me to play with him and climbing on me, even while I was trying to cook him dinner. (One of my wife's former colleagues had lost his mother at about age two and offered the comforting assessment that it had never been a source of trauma for him. I think that was generally the case for my son, but I'm sure he felt the loss in some ways, including the halving of the attention he could receive.) Unfortunately our day care was several miles away and drew kids from all over the town, meaning there was no local dynamic to the emergence of daytime play friends.
It turned out that food was a key part of the equation. I was reading some work by Michael Pollan, who was discussing cooking and community in several forms, and reading several chef's memoirs. This was part of my process of learning how to cook more skillfully and ambitiously, because I was suddenly fully responsible for family food. But I also continued a tradition of a weekly pizza night that the family had established during our year in Philadelphia. I thought back, again and again, to an account of a 36-hour dinner party around a wood-fired cob oven that Pollan wrote up in the NYTimes. It had appealed to me then as a struggling, childless grad student, but even moreso as a desperate, widower single father who wanted to attract people over to my house to provide stimulation for my son and some form of adult discussion.
I had hit it off with a colleague and we decided to organize a backyard lamb roast in May of 2014, and it went off quite well. It was about the same time I decided I wanted a wood-fired oven of my own. I had pledged that I would have to make pizza once a week for a year in order to make the oven worthwhile. We met that goal and I found someone to help design and build it in the fall of 2014. In 2015 we started holding regular backyard pizza events, where I provide all the pizzas you can eat and everyone else brings sides and beverages. Now, if a weekend goes by where we don't bake, I feel the loss. There is a group of regular attendees from the neighborhood and from VT, and my son has organized a "kids' table" on the front porch, where they get a little more autonomy. There are also a few kids who ask to come for the pizza parties, as word has spread around his school. I'm pleased to think it has become a destination and we have created an event where kids and adults like to meet each other, catch up, and eat. I'm now considering my own 16-hour party in the fall (not yet a full 36 hours) to see what is possible with a wide array of people cooking in the oven.
At this point, 4 years after the death of my wife, the prospects for reconstituting a family are not yet certain. It's difficult in Blacksburg, a town with a major university bubble that heavily features nuclear families. But I am really glad to have found a way to connect with my neighborhood and found a regular social outlet that makes use of the house and yard that had been a dream for so long. My son is also very confident and socially adept, and I'm glad to have created opportunities for him to be able to build those skills and some of the relationships we had to start from scratch.