Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Chicken Soup Makes Me Happy

It goes without saying that the late Maurice Sendak (z”l) was in possession of a fabulous mind and a singular talent. His classics Where the Wild Things Are and Chicken Soup with Rice emerged wonderfully into the world just a few years before I did, and have always been a cherished part of my reading life.

I still have my original copies of these and other books from my childhood, though I tend to be the only one here who looks at them anymore. Admittedly, even I do so only on rare occasion. My boys long ago graduated to chapter books, the newspaper, and Sports Illustrated. Picture books have receded into their distant memory, eclipsed entirely by i-everythings and eye-rolling at whatever I happen to do, say, or wear.

We’ve reached the era of begging them for some time in, as in some time in the presence of their mom, instead of sending them to their rooms for a timeout.

But I was once a child, and Where the Wild Things Are resonated with me then in the way it was meant to: I shared Max’s frustration with his mother, who wanted him to be quiet and stop running through the house. As a teenager, I found myself wresting with his feelings of anger and loneliness (No one understands me!), and longed to get to a place where I had some say, could possibly even be in charge of at least one tiny outpost of my own life.

Recently, after a small bit of surprise surgery that has, thank G-d, passed well under the bridge, I found myself couch-ridden in the room with our bookshelves. Perhaps because it has been quite a while since I last read Wild Things with my youngest, I turned to it for some nostalgic comfort, encountering it for the first time as a parent reading solely for my own enrichment.

Opening the familiar pages, I grinned as Max made his boyish ruckus, and bade him farewell as he sailed off to the wild things. On this read, however, I noticed something I’d never seen before in those grotesque creatures issuing their terrible roars: I saw myself. I had become some real-life version of the adults in Max’s (wild) imagination. I slammed the book shut in horror.

Unlike the roars of the wild things in the story, my real life ones tend to be quite specific: Clean your room! Shabbes starts in ten minutes and you still haven’t showered? Can’t you be nice to your brother? Put your basketball shoes away before someone trips and breaks his neck!

It is true. My job description includes making sure my sons tend to their hygiene, respect their environment, and know that they are not the only beings in the universe. Yet I gasped with shame at how I must sound.

To be fair, the boys do their share of roaring (at me, at one another), and my husband also contributes to the parental din (What did you do to your hair? What are you listening to at that volume? Pick up your clothes from the floor!). But they are all somehow immune to the effects of their own rumblings, and I’m the fool who found trouble in a picture book.

Soon enough, the boys arrived home from school, interrupting my little crisis. To my relief, no one mentioned our harried morning exchange (What on earth is taking you so long? You’ll miss the bus!), the one that ended with a declaration of my approaching redundancy (Mom, we’re big boys!). In fact, they hardly remembered the conversation at all (What are you talking about?). I finally resolved to take a page from their book and just ignore what I don’t want to hear.

Still unsteady on my post-operative feet, I hadn’t made them an impressive dinner, but I let their disappointment (roar) pass right through me. I did, however, promise that with their help, I’d be able to pull off most of our usual Shabbes menu. One offered to roll the meatballs if I could manage the sauce. Another begged out because he would be away for the weekend at a school shabbaton. My youngest said he always wanted to learn how to make chicken soup.

Early Thursday morning, the latter bounded down the steps and announced that it was time to put the chicken in the pot. I’d already washed the vegetables and herbs and he took over from there, cleaning the chicken, chopping the carrots and celery, and filling the enormous stockpot with water. He asked me to handle the seasoning, which I did, and we took a commemorative photo to celebrate our collaboration.

The pot simmered all day, keeping me company while everyone else was out. The delicious aroma transported me far away, to an imaginary place where no one roars, where everything follows quietly along a simple, peaceful plot line. As it is for Max in Sendak’s brilliant tale, this give and take is ultimately all part of the bigger picture of parenting by imperfect adults and individuating by imperfect children and adolescents.

I play my role, and they play theirs. Sometimes we roar. But like Max, at the end of the day, we all return to one another in the place where we are loved best, where a hot supper awaits.

Happy once, happy twice, happy chicken soup with rice.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Icing on the Cake

There is perhaps little sense in dwelling on something that won’t happen again until who knows when. And yet, I find myself mulling over the momentous Thanksgiving/Chanukah mash-up long after we’ve polished off the leftovers.

Here in my insignificant corner of the universe, I related on a personal level to the confluence of festivals, though it is admittedly a perspective that developed when I was still quite young. Because my secular birthday is at the end of November, Thanksgiving has long been the de facto date of its celebration with my family, whether the dates actually coincide or not. The result is that the two events are inextricably linked in my memory.

Thanksgiving was always magical, a happy standout from my childhood. It was a day that began with a televised view of the parade and ended with the opening of a birthday gift. There was turkey and homemade cranberry sauce, a houseful of elderly relatives who for the most part loved me unconditionally, and a few other guests, depending upon the year. We may well have eaten apple pie for dessert, too, but I only remember the icing roses on my cake.

Looking back now, I know that there were also less joyous moments that tainted Thanksgivings here and there: illnesses and trips to the emergency room, underlying family tensions, arguments and disappointments. But something about the day, for a long while anyway, distanced me far enough from reality to suppress those darker memories.

Of course, as an angst-filled teenager, I quipped about being a turkey baby and having to share the limelight with a platter of trussed fowl. I resented having my portion of stuffing measured. Still, for one Thursday a year, I didn’t mind the rest of the bits that muddled up my adolescent life; something intangible about the day made me able to see past the present and into a more settled future.

As it does to all it touches, time eventually changed Thanksgiving for me, stealing almost all of its charm. I missed its full-blown observance when I lived in Jerusalem, though friends and I gathered for falafel. It was a turning point anyway. My parents separated that year, and the combination of relatives around the Thanksgiving table would never be the same again.

Over time, the older generation of relatives passed on, and the holiday lost the last of its luster. Before long, Thanksgiving – with my apologies to the poor turkey -- became just another day off from work or school, another national holiday that happened to have a fine menu.

There were, however, occasional moments when I saw a flicker of the joy it once gave me. British friends I’d met in Israel came home with me one year. They enjoyed their first taste of candied yams so much that they ate the leftovers for breakfast the next morning.

Two years later, my future husband came to visit from Croatia in order to propose, and we joined friends for his first Thanksgiving. I’d waxed poetic about pumpkin pie, only to discover that another guest had over-seasoned hers with allspice, rendering it nearly inedible. Minding our good manners, we all cleaned our plates, but it soured my husband off anything made of pumpkin for years. It is a moment we still laugh about today.

Eventually, my mother and stepfather resumed our family Thanksgiving tradition, with all the fixings and their enormous flat-screen television. The sparkle that lit up my childhood memories has been replaced by a day that is quiet and pleasant, predictable and warm. I make the pies; my mother bakes the birthday cake. The boys sit with their grandfather and watch football.

Now that I’m older and wiser, I’m simply grateful for the constant presence of everyone in the room, thankful for the fact that each of us has been blessed to see another birthday.

Soon after the discordant “menurkey” reached my ears, I learned that I’d be hosting this year’s Chanukah/Thanksgiving two-for-one. Though turkey-shaped menorahs are not my thing, it seemed entirely natural to me that the holidays could coexist peacefully, and not just because of their themes of gratitude. But I insisted that each get its due. I wasn’t going to let the latkes knock their mashed brethren off the buffet table and there’d be no post-dinner football until after we’d finished singing Maoz Tzur.

The only Thanksgiving tradition I bumped was the birthday cake. Two occasions are company; three’s a crowd.

Just days later, however, we attended our family Chanukah party. My son lit the menorah after dinner and the grandchildren opened their gifts. For dessert, there were sufganiyot (donuts) and a large sheet cake dotted with icing roses in fall colors.

As I blew out the birthday candles, I made my list of wishes, including more opportunities for combined celebrations. There’s no real reason to wait for the calendar – or a spinning “turkel” -- to tell us when or why. We should bundle our occasions as they come, together with the everyday blessings right in front of us, marking them in some simple or elaborately splendid way.

After all, don’t we all want an excuse to eat more cake?