When a kid says I miss you, how do you know if he really means it?

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Every night before dinner we say a short grace: “God bless this food, and the hands that prepared it, and let us be ever mindful of the needs of others.” The only variation comes on days when either Caroline or I is away. “And please bring Mama home safely,” we add. “And thank you for bringing Mama home safely,” we say when she’s back.

At the end of August I flew to Boston for a wedding. I was gone just one night, and my first evening back, Wally concluded grace by noting he was grateful I’d come home safely. That was nearly a month ago, but Wally continues with his expressions of gratitude. A few times a week we finish grace and reach for our forks. Wally goes on. “Thank you for bringing Daddy back safely,” he says, even though home is the only place I’ve been these last four weeks.

I haven’t really known what to make of Wally’s ongoing prayers. I’m flattered, of course, that my absence for a single night is enough to inaugurate a month of thanksgiving, but mostly I don’t think Wally means what he says. He often apes the way we talk, like he did over the summer with his unintentionally parodic imitation of Jay’s “What has more horsepower, a motorboat or a dinghy?” style of speech. So, when Wally prays for me long after the transaction is complete, I assume he’s mostly just following a speech pattern that he associates with a touch of solemnity, rather than giving voice to an actual feeling he has inside himself.

Last Friday Caroline and I had a meeting with Wally’s teacher. She said Wally is cheery and chatty in the classroom, and told us a few stories that made us feel like she’s been paying attention to who he is. She relayed one interaction he’d had recently with a classmate named Nai’el. Nai’el told Wally, “I have an apostrophe in my name.” Wally told Nai’el, “I have a brother.” That sounded about right.

Wally’s teacher also mentioned that he chats with her often about his family. She asked me if I’d been away on a trip recently. I had to think for a second, then said, no, I hadn’t really gone anywhere. She said, well, Wally tells me often, “My daddy went on a trip. I don’t like it when he goes away.”

Oh, I thought.

It’s hard to tell when kids really mean what they say. In the span of three minutes Wally will be hellbent against going outside to play, then all of a sudden that will be the only thing he wants to do. A transcript of his day is full of silliness, non-sequiters, half-conceived ideas, comical misunderstandings, and occasional moments of startlingly clear expression. Amid all that noise, it’s hard to sift out his real convictions.

But hearing that my 24-hour absence bubbles up at more than one point in Wally’s day made me think maybe there is something to it. Maybe he is capable of sustaining attention to a feeling for more than a month.

I had this newfound appreciation for the depth of kids’ emotions in mind this morning as Jay and I were getting ready to leave for school. He was retrieving his lunchbox from the kitchen counter when, apropos of absolutely nothing, he told me, “I don’t love you when you get mad at me.” I froze stiff. Then I quickly reassured myself. Surely, I thought, he’s just parroting something he heard on the playground.

What we’re eating 9/22: BLTs, empanadas, ramen with roasted chicken

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Saturday night felt like a Sunday night. We were tired from a day of soccer and birthday parties. Jay was coming down hard with a cold. We were *this* close to throwing in the towel and having frozen waffles for dinner (or something like that) when I remembered the package of bacon in our refrigerator, left over from a breakfast gathering the week before.

I’ve never really understood the BLT. Lettuce and tomato are filler vegetables, and bacon’s a side dish. The BLT has always struck me as a pseudo-sandwich, and definitely not a meal. But Caroline conjured up the image of a diner, a plate of fries, a chocolate milkshake, and soon I was out the door to buy airy wheat bread and mayonnaise (because even as a BLT doubter, I knew that mayonnaise pulls the whole thing together).

Caroline and I ate the sandwiches and a feeling approaching giddiness came over us. For minimal effort, we’d made a delicious dinner and recreated the far-off experience of easing into the vinyl booth of an Upper West Side diner. The BLTs were a slit in the fabric of a gloomy Saturday evening, a passage to someplace a little sunnier. We’ll be making them again soon.

Dinner I: BLTs with french fries and peas. Caroline used the Martha Stewart method (mayonnaise on one slice of bread, butter on the other).

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Dinner II: Beef empanadas. These were very fun to make. The dough recipe has you work two sticks of butter into 4.5 cups of flour with your fingertips until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Whenever I combine cold butter and flour, I love how one moment it looks clumpy and the next you have in front of you something that looks indisputably coarse. The transformation seems to happen slowly and then all at once.

Jay and Wally helped us cut the dough into 6-inch rounds, apply the filling, and pinch the empanadas shut. It was a good family activity, with the usual undercurrent of stress. Wally kept applying unnecessary indentations to the finished empanadas and threatening to eat the dough, which contained raw egg. At one point he actually did eat the dough, and was temporarily banished from the kitchen. Jay, true to form, was diligent throughout. He’d be a real asset to a family of Buenos Aires street vendors.

One cooking note: We left the dough too thick, which made it hard to get in enough filling, and as a result, the dough overwhelmed the taste of the meat. Thinner, next time.

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Dinner III: Pasta with goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, and arugula. Cook the pasta, drain. Combine hot pasta with 4 oz. of goat cheese and stir until the goat cheese coats the noodles. Add tomatoes and arugula. Done. We’ll have this Wednesday before soccer practice.

Dinner IV: Ramen with roasted chicken and mushrooms. The temperatures in South Carolina have finally dipped into the (upper) 70s. So what if this is what summer in Maine feels like? I’m ready to pretend it’s Fall and I’ve been wanting to make ramen for awhile. This recipe is scheduled for Friday. That feels like a long, long time from now. I’ll post pictures if it turns out well.

Related posts:

What we’re eating 9/14: banana-stuffed french toast, pizza with sausage and figs, easy pasta with ricotta and bacon

What we’re eating 9/8: pizza with red onion marmalade, ricotta and prosciutto; slow-cooked chicken tacos

Small acts of mercy

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Yesterday morning the boys were getting dressed and I was in the kitchen pouring bowls of cereal. I called out to remind them they should wear something nice for school picture day. Jay chose a blue and white striped button shirt, which he regards as the prettiest item in his bureau.

It turned out that I’d marked picture day incorrectly on our calendar, and was off by a day.

Yesterday evening we were driving home from soccer practice and Jay asked if he could wear his shirt to school again the next day, when it would be picture day for real. Caroline looked the shirt over. It was stained from lunch and spotted with dirt from soccer. She told him the shirt was too dirty and he’d have to wear something else. Without thinking, I offered from the driver’s seat that I could do a load of laundry that night, and his shirt would be ready again in the morning.

We arrived home and the boys were tired. Just inside the door, Jay balanced with one hand against the couch and tried to remove his shinguards. “I can’t get them off,” he said. “Yes you can,” I replied. “I can’t,” he said, sounding even more pathetic. Then Caroline walked into the living room. She got down on her knees and pulled Jay’s shinguards off, first one, then the other. Finished, he ran off down the hall to the bath, where Wally was waiting for him.

I thought about our experiences with the shirt and the shinguards a lot last night. They stuck out because Caroline and I each acted differently than we usually do toward the boys.

In most of my interactions with Jay and Wally, I’m of one or two mindsets.

The first is a mindset of sternness, setting limits, and pushing them to be responsible. In this mindset, when Jay asks for help taking off his shinguards, I tell him he can do it himself. In this mindset, when he makes a demand like wanting to wear the same shirt two days in a row, I tell him to be flexible, and to consider that I might not have time to do a special load of laundry just for him.

In the second mindset, I’m accommodating, and willing to make the boys the center of our family activity. In this mindset I make a pit-stop for ice cream because I know they’ll like it, or I sign them up for soccer because I know it’s good for them. In these situations, everything revolves around the boys, and I’m on the lookout for creeping ingratitude.

Last night was different. When I offered to do that extra load of laundry for Jay, it felt neither stern nor accommodating—it felt like a small act of mercy. Mercy is a familiar word, but it’s so rarely a part of my life that I looked it up, just to make sure I understood what it means: “kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly.”

I tend to think I’m in charge when I’m making the boys do things my way, and they’re in charge when I’m doing things their way. Mercy is a third way, in which I’m running the show and they’re getting what they want. It feels like a slight distinction when I write it out like that, but it felt so completely and totally new when I practiced it last night. Mercy. This morning it seems to be exactly what Jay and Wally need most.

How hard should you try to contain little boys?

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If you were standing in the ocean and you kept getting battered by the surf, what would you do? Would you scream at the waves? Get out of their way? Put the ocean in time out?

I thought about this last Sunday while the boys took a bubble bath. They were in the tub off our bedroom, chin deep in suds, awash in little rubber toys, and they were having a hard time complying with the afternoon’s one rule: Please, no splashing water outside the tub.

Wally tromped his squeezable T-Rex through the water and a few drops flew onto the floor. Jay whirled to make a whirlpool and some bubbles hit the wall. Wally stood up to clean the foam from his face, slipped, and fell in a splash that sent a small tsunami across the floor.

I watched all this from just outside the bathroom and I wasn’t quite sure what to do. The first time they splashed I calmly restated the no-splashing rule. The second time I barked at them. The third time I put my head in my magazine and pretended I hadn’t seen what was going on.

Increasingly the boys feel like a force of nature, and Caroline and I are at a loss about how to respond. When they do something that’s obviously wrong or dangerous, I feel comfortable getting mad at them. When they’re obviously exhausted, I know the best thing to do is to take a deep breath and patiently pack them off to bed.

But recently they’ve been spending a lot of the day in a different mode: They’re energetic, unruly, loud, clumsy, fun-loving. I joined the boys for the last ten minutes of their afternoon television shows yesterday and found Jay rolling up on his back, so that his feet were over his head and coming close to hitting the television screen. Do I say something about that? At dinner last night, for no explicable reason, Jay let out a loud whoop. Do I tell him to stop that? At breakfast this morning, Wally arrived at the table with his “cereal pinchers” and proceeded to use them to eat his mini-wheats. We have a rule about no toys at the table, but really, weren’t the cereal pinchers more of a utensil?

All told, I prefer a calm house. I’d like to see Jay and Wally spend more time reading books. I’d like them to sit neatly at the dinner table and tell us about their school days, instead of sending each other into uproars of laughter with nonsense utterings like “schmooey” and “stinky underpants.” They do read books, and they do sit calmly, sometimes. But order is not their natural way.

To bring them in line, I’d have to spend all day telling them no, putting them in separate rooms, yanking them out of the bath. I don’t want to raise wildlings, but trying to contain their quivering, random energy, has started to feel as unnatural as foot binding, and as futile as yelling at the ocean.

Related posts

Jay is who he is, but his behavior’s not inevitable (December 2011)

A new strategy for Jay: just knock it off (October 2012)

What we’re eating 9/14: banna-stuffed french toast, pizza with sausage and figs, easy pasta with ricotta

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The boys love to cook and I love the idea of them cooking, but it’s hard for me to let them in on the action. Jay always wants to crack the eggs into the boiling water for poaching, but I wince just thinking about the slow, shell-y way his eggs break apart. They like to bake, too, but when flour starts billowing across the countertop, I usually step in.

This weekend, though, we found the perfect father-son recipe: banana-stuffed french toast. It’s perfect because, after the sauce has been cooked, each step in the process lends itself to the blunt, messy way kids like to interact with food. Use a potato masher to combine cream cheese and caramelized bananas? Wally can do that. Stuff gooey filling into envelopes of challah bread? Jay’s the man for the job. On top of that, the final product is so very good. As in, it shows up on your plate and you can barely believe that something so intensely delicious is being served on your dinnerware, out of your kitchen.

Breakfast I: Banana-stuffed french toast. We sliced the challah the night before and left it out to stale, and also added a half-cup of walnuts, which for some inexplicable reason the recipe didn’t call for. We used two loaves of challah to feed six adults and four kids.

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Dinner I

Pizza with wild mushrooms, fontina, rosemary, and caramelized onions. This is a classy pizza, tasty but subtle, a dish that lets you feel like your life is operating on a more refined epicurean level than it really is. Caroline, who’s always looking for these kinds of angles, came up with the smart idea to precook the crust for five minutes before adding the toppings and putting the whole thing back in the oven. This let the crust get crispy without burning the cheese.

Pizza with grilled sausage, figs, goat cheese, and arugula. This is more of a “everything and the kitchen sink” pizza, and it all works well together. The figs, especially, were a pleasant surprise each time I bit into one.

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Dinner II: Easy pasta with tomatoes, bacon, and ricotta. We learned this recipe from my sister-in-law and it’s one of our favorite last-minute dinners. Cook five pieces of bacon and set aside. Saute 1-2 red onions in a large skillet until soft. Add two cans of diced tomatoes and 1-2 tablespoons of sugar, plus salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 30 minutes. Serve the sauce over pasta, with a healthy dollop of ricotta and crumbled bacon.

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Dinner III: Baked salmon in teriyaki sauce, served with steamed broccoli and couscous.

Dinner IV: Crab cakes with french fries and broccoli. The crab cakes are 4 for $10 at Earthfare this week, and the french fries are frozen. We’ll have this on Wednesday night, just before we hurry off to soccer practice.