On the second week of March, Tara Hurley and her family did something that now seems strange to our sequestered world: she walked into a restaurant, sat down, and ordered food to celebrate her birthday.
The restaurant was The Cheesecake Factory, a natural choice for a family with little kids. The chain restaurant is heavy with options — “Glamburgers” live alongside a kid’s grilled salmon in a spiral notebook-like menu.
Tara turned 34 on the last day in the free world before her suburban Los Angeles neighborhood shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19. The Pasta Da Vinci arrived, but the birthday girl’s attention floated past her family to the quiet restaurant and the edgy waitstaff. Uncertainty clung to the air in the days before city officials issued stay-at-home orders, but on that day there was cake and a bowl of pasta swimming in wine sauce.
“That would probably taste so good right now,” said Tara, pronounced Tar-ah, like her Irish parents, Emer and Niall O’Mahony, do.
It’s been almost two months now of staying at home, right? Who can keep track? The days blur into each other like an endless ballad on repeat.
Tara is tall, slender, with light cerulean eyes. She is the kind of mom who dresses up all four of her kids — Mary, 8; Rose, 6; Finn, 3; and Cora, 1 — in their finest clothes for an Easter celebration at home to keep some sense of normalcy in a world turned upside down by the Coronavirus outbreak. They made prime rib and had an egg hunt — just Tara, her husband, Patrick, and their kids.
For Tara, this time of sheltering-in-place has brought on introspection about her faith. She is a practicing Catholic, who has always leaned into her religion for inspiration and comfort. In her childhood bedroom in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, she painted a wall with a portrait of Jesus.
Her faith shapes her kindness. Or is it the other way around? Once when Tara was about 9 years old, their family hosted a yard sale to purge the house of accumulated stuff. Tara sold some of her toys and stuffed animals for $7, which she then put in her church’s Sunday collection.
“That shamed me into donating the $300 we made at the yard sale into the collection also,” said Emer, her mother.
As a mother herself now, Tara always reserved Sundays before the pandemic for church. It was never easy to get four little kids ready and quiet for service. Often, it bordered on chaos, but the Hurley family always made it to a pew.
Now her church doors, which were always open to welcome the weary, were locked. No large physical gatherings meant no sacrament of the Eucharist. No squirming Hurley kids to hug and cajole in their pew.
Their church was empty, and it unsettled Tara emotionally in many ways.
“Making sure I am able to feed my children spiritually is so scary to me,” she said. “How can I give them this on top of everything else?”
Los Angeles’ lockdown came amid Lent. For Catholics, it is a time of waiting and penitence as a solemn observation of the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter. So for Tara, it seemed appropriate to ask her family to cancel any plans that would take them outside of their home. The way she saw it, they were being called upon to make sacrifices. But when Easter came, joy was tempered with a new reality: lockdown orders were still in place. The churches were still closed.
“It was really hard,” said Tara. “I am struggling with that every day, but not letting that drag me down.”
That Easter Sunday, the rain fell steadily. The Hurley family watched Mass online. Their oldest daughter, Mary, had a classmate with a birthday, so as with the fashion in a pandemic, a celebratory drive-by parade was planned. The parade is a new, tenuous tradition that has a razor’s edge rate of success. Often it teeters on awkward, especially when it rains and the birthday girl stands in her driveway dressed in her best, unsure of what to do.
Especially when the Hurley kids made signs to flutter out the windows of their car to bring light to this little girl’s life, only to find out halfway to their destination that the signs were left at home.
Tara is only human.
“I’m like ‘Are you kidding me? It’s the one thing that we could do!’”
So they found some American flags inside the car. Okay, just stick them out the window, she told them. It will be fine. And it was, for the most part. But it made Tara again think about her faith and her resolve, beyond anything else, to make this time a positive experience for the kids.
“I feel I am being stripped down and I can’t control what I used to be able to control. How do I operate now? The lesson is to be present. It’s here and it’s now. I can’t control more than just right now.”
The Hurley’s “right now” looks, well, a little cramped. All six people are sheltering in place in a two-bedroom house, about 800 square feet. It was supposed to be a 2-year house, but then 7 years yawned by. And on any given day, a walk down their street will stop any pedestrian in front of their yellow house to drink in the energy of love pouring through the windows. And the laughter. There is so much laughter.
Patrick, an audio supervisor and technician in the television industry, is an even-keeled California boy, according to Tara. He’s like the doldrums of the ocean with no wind or waves. Pandemic? Meh. No problem. Nearby, Tara storms, her waves of emotion crash on top of each other.
Recently, the Hurleys have welcomed bedtime with a reading of “On The Banks of Plum Creek,” one in a series of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s children’s novels about a pioneering family putting down roots in a new world. In the story, a storm of locust decimate the family’s crop, but the father carries on in the face of adversity. He just finds a way to be a steady, protective force for his family. For Tara, there are many parallels between the book and real life in a pandemic.
“As parents we have an added responsibility to shape the memory of this for our kids in a way that is not all negative and scary,” she said with optimism seemingly unrattled by all the uncertainty.
It’s a quality born into their daughter, said Emer. One Halloween, little Tara wanted to dress as a smiley face in hope that her yellow outfit with the smile painted on the back would be contagious.
It’s probably the only thing the world needs to catch right now.
In the snug Hurley house, all the togetherness and time has grown something unexpected in Tara — patience to listen to all sides of conflict between the kids and truly empathize. She is letting their feelings air out, unfettered by time or her own emotions. It’s something she hopes she can hold onto when the world returns to normal.
“All of this time to spend with the kids is such a cool unique gift to be given right now,” she said. “How can we make it a good memory and not think back and say, ‘Man, that was awful?’”
Just as Tara says that, Mary opens her bedroom window facing the back patio and giggles at her mother.
“Go to bed! I will be in in a minute to kiss you,” Tara calls out to her.
“Oh boy. Hooligans,” Tara laughs before disappearing into the night for snuggles and goodnight kisses.
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