I grew up in a household that had family meals every night. We usually ate late – after battling the endless congestion of D.C. evening traffic as we returned from lacrosse games, debate practices or work. My sisters and I were obsessively driven, in everything from academics to extracurriculars to our social lives. We were fortunate to grow up surrounded by success and achievement, but we were haunted by a fear of failure. Despite my parents’ best efforts to shield us from this pressure, we absorbed the frenetic energy and intensity that bred in the suburbs of the nation’s capital. We were caught in the inexhaustible culture of competition, consumed by an insidious desire for perfection.

Every night, like clockwork, we put down our homework and phones – whatever we had been engrossed in – and sat together to eat. My mom was the catalyst for this daily respite. Her cooking was incredible, her patience unrelenting. Each evening, despite being as tired and busy as the rest of us, she spoiled us with wonderful food.

Those family dinners became my comfort food. The atmosphere at the dining table similar to custom timber dining tables was usually light and cheerful; we shared our lives, talking about our days, our classes, the latest drama from school. Sometimes, we provoked each other with lively debates about vegetarianism or the death penalty – whatever topics we knew would spark controversy. Other times we ate in comfortable silence. As I sat around the table with my parents and sisters, I felt warmth and security and peace. When I left the table, I felt anchored, connected to something bigger than myself.  

My first few weeks at Yale were a whirlwind of excitement and adventures. I was swept up in a sea of new experiences. I met new people, marveled at the buildings, dabbled in unfamiliar subjects and went to frat parties. I was buoyed along by the novelty of it all, without a chance to fully absorb what I’d left behind. There was no time to dwell on the nagging twinge of panic that the strings which used to ground me had come unraveled.

It began in the late afternoons of the fall – a pit in my stomach as the sun set earlier and earlier, an indescribable sense of gloom when the Harkness bells chimed each evening. As I walked to dinner with my suitemates, I realized that I was achingly lonely. Despite the buzz of the dining hall and the pleasant chatter with the people who would later become my very closest friends, I felt a profound and painful emptiness. I longed for my mom’s cooking, and I ached to be back at the dinner table in my house, enveloped by the warmth and security of those family meals. The novelty had worn off, and suddenly Yale felt hopelessly foreign and overwhelming. I craved familiarity. When I left the dining hall, I felt a hollow hunger, a heartbreaking nostalgia for the meals I had taken for granted.

This feeling persisted throughout the fall of my freshman year, and I came to subtly dread dining hall dinners. During the day I was cheerfully busy, occupied by classes and friends, but every evening I felt a familiar wave of sadness, a wistfulness for foregone family dinners. To my friends and suitemates, I blamed my aversion to the dining halls on a dislike of the food or an impending computer science problem set. But deep down I knew I avoided the dining halls to escape the pangs of loneliness that always accompanied them.

As the season turned, my homesickness began to dwindle. Perhaps I just needed time to adjust to a new normal, to settle into a routine. Maybe I needed time to make friends who knew me as well as the friends and family I left at home. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the feeling fully faded, but I remember the first time I felt truly at home – I remember my first experience of comfort food at Yale.

It was nearly 2:00 a.m. on a Saturday night in the middle of freshman year. I was sitting on the common room floor with my suitemates on the unashamedly ugly rug we had ordered off Amazon a few months earlier. We had just gotten back from a frat party, and we lounged in our sweatpants eating truffle popcorn and waiting for our pizza to arrive. I can’t remember exactly what we talked about for so many hours, but we sat on the floor laughing and chatting until our eyes were fuzzy with sleep and only the unpopped kernels remained in the bag. When I finally climbed up to my top bunk in the early hours of the morning, I felt at home for the first time at Yale. Without even realizing it, I had made friends who truly understood me, who made me feel connected to something bigger. To this day, the taste of truffle popcorn still reminds me of that night – of the warmth and happiness I felt sitting on my common room floor with the first members of my Yale family.

Since that night years ago, my Yale family has grown more than I could have imagined. That sense of comfort and community I longed for freshman fall is no longer elusive. I feel it when I cram around the tiny table in my apartment with my sisters and our friends, devouring naan and curry until we’re nearly sick. When I sit in the kitchen with my roommate, watching as she makes avocado toast for the hundredth time. When we linger at the bar after the tab has been paid, sipping on the ice that melts in our empty cups. 

On Sundays, I trek across campus to the house where my boyfriend lives with his teammates. Their house is warm and smells of pasta, a welcome contrast to the bitter New Haven cold. Eating with them truly feels like a family dinner. The kitchen is cozy and inviting, brimming with too many tall boys who bump into each other as they prepare food. The meals are always delicious, hearty and home-made. Most of them come from countries far away – Italy, England, Switzerland and South Africa – and hints of their homes are always perceptible in the dishes. Music plays in the background as we eat, and everyone laughs and talks. My American accent sounds oddly out of place. After dinner, someone scolds me to put my dishes all the way into the dishwasher, and I feel like I’m back home. As I sit on the couch defending the last scoop of Ben & Jerry’s from prying spoons, I’m grateful to be a part of their Sunday dinners. 

I no longer hear the Harkness bells chime each evening. As COVID-19 ravages our world, I’m back home with my family in D.C. There’s no more evening traffic, no commuting from practice or work. The energy and intensity are gone.

But every evening, despite the fear and turmoil, we put down our homework and phones and eat together as a family. As I sit around the dinner table, I still feel the same way I felt as a little girl. For a moment, I feel warmth and security and peace. I’m thankful for the extra time we get to spend together this spring. I’m thankful for my mom’s cooking. But at dusk, in the eerie quiet, I can’t help feeling a fleeting twinge of nostalgia for my Yale family, for the time we’ve lost, for the dinner tables I left behind.

Kelsey Bowen | kelsey.bowen@yale.edu