Category Archives: Parenting

THE SWEETEST VOICE

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Every Sunday, for the past 17 years, my mother’s garrulous voice has greeted me at the end of the phone line. I will have just waken up, most likely to a sunny Californian day, while she will be getting  dinner ready, in her cozy apartment in Italy, the curtains drawn, the tv humming in the background. For 17 years, her voice has embodied my connection to a home that is no more, to a family than hangs by a thread and a love that has survived intact the wrath of my teenage years and my many moves.

The slight shrill in my mother’s “hello” will let me know immediately that everything is fine, while a more subdued and lower tone will presage unpleasant news. A brief humming just before she speaks, her trademark hesitation, conveys trouble, somebody else’s trouble typically, while the mention of my full name prefaces a question she is loath to ask.

That voice that praised me, scolded me, lulled me to sleep, admonished me and, above all, loved me is the voice I hear in my head every time I think of my mother. It’s part of my being as much as my own voice belongs to me. Someone told me that,  when a loved one dies, the first thing we forget is the sound of their voice. No photograph can give it back and, while recording devices can preserve a sound for posterity, they are a far cry from  accessing a memory at will as we go through our day. If all goes according as nature intended, my mother will die before me and the morbid thought of the loss of those Sunday phone calls has crossed my mind as I watch the two of us age.

After much prodding on the part of both her daughters, we convinced my mother to spend a couple of months  in Los Angeles with me, rather than her customary two weeks. As I write or make dinner or even while I putter in another room, I can hear my mother softly singing or talking to the dogs as she stubbornly cleans and irons and tries to make herself useful. It’s hard to resist her happy sound, not to yield to the high tones or the broken notes, especially when she ventures outside to shout for the dogs, who probably disappeared chasing a rabbit or a squirrel. The concern I hear in her calls is the same she couldn’t disguise whenever I tiptoed through the front door, late at night, back from another revelry in my college years, letting me know she had waited up (although she always denied it in the morning).

And then the more placid “Good night” or “Here you are, you scoundrels” will follow, her worries assuaged by our return, everything and everyone once again where they belong.

 

The sound of her presence has brightened my house and made those who inhabit it, human and canine, happier and calmer. I believe it’s because the melody of her speech is irresistible and has the power to draw us in. It will be a much emptier shell when she leaves – the dogs’ snorting, the bubbling of the fish tank and the humming of the fridge will go back to being my day’s soundtrack. Until I reach for that phone and wait for the long, ringing tone of Italian lines and the shrilly “Pronto” will let me know everything and everyone is where they belong.

 

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Filed under Parenting, women's issues

MORNING GRIND

Red ones are impossible to find
Photo credit: asouthernmomtreasures.blogspot.com

What I have come to collectively consider “my morning gestures” are more of a morning routine. Sleepwalking down the driveway, dogs in tow, to retrieve the paper; filling the little terrors’ bowls in front of their eager eyes; switching the cell phone on and, finally, putting the kettle on the stove. While waiting for the water to boil, I will reach for my precious African beans, drop exactly two tablespoons in the coffee grinder and apply pressure for exactly twelve seconds. Twelve, short seconds. Then the bird will hiss and my one and only addiction will be tamed, the same way and at the same time as in millions of other kitchens all over the country.

Coffee made an appearance early in my life. A few teaspoons of it were added to my milk at the age of 8. As soon as I was able to cook some basic stove top snacks, age 12, I “invented” coffee sabayon, a delicacy that would power long afternoons of homework. Nowadays, child protection services would probably have a word with my mother and cite her for child endangerment.

I have always been a morning person but not a social one. Happy to get up before the sun does, try not to speak to me for the first thirty minutes, unless the world is coming to an end and I should be informed. To avoid my parents and my sister, as a teen-ager I would set the alarm way earlier than necessary so I could sit in my mother’s large, yellow kitchen, skinny legs dangling from the chair and a cup of milk and coffee (or, more elegantly, a cafe au lait) in front of me. I learnt to be really quiet while assembling the mocha machine and even opening the front door to retrieve the paper was done inaudibly. That’s how much I didn’t want to see anyone.

Little Italian coffee machine

The espresso was kept in a large tin jar, with a tiny spoon buried in the velvety ground beans. We always bought the coffee already ground and I don’t think I ever saw the coffee grinder that sat on one of the counters being used. I loved that object that would look so quaint and anachronistic next to my 12 seconds whiz. It looked like a red wooden box, the paint chipped in places, topped with a large metal handle one had to turn to get the grinding process going. I can’t quite remember where the beans entered but I did love the tiny drawer that collected them, with a small, round wooden button to open it. My imagination was stirred countless times, as if the grinder contained a world of its own, with tiny coffee people living in it. I always opened that drawer expecting to find something precious while it was just an old, utilitarian object my mother couldn’t part with.

But part she did, long before I started looking for it as an adult when, as a chef, I loved collecting antique or just old kitchen gadgets. I even got mildly irritated when my mother told me she had disposed of it when she moved to smaller quarters and had no use for a coffee grinder nobody in their right mind would still use. Being her daughter, I inherited  her practical ability of letting go of what no longer has a purpose. The upside is a house where junk does not accumulate but also slightly empty of such small memories. Funny that, as a child who firmly believed that all objects had a life of their own, I grew up to be a woman who so easily condemns them to death. I hope they don’t resent me from the other side.

 

 

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Filed under Italy, Parenting

DREAMS ARE MADE OF THIS

“What’s the value of dreaming in an unjust life?” asks a 17-year-old to his puzzled mother. Granted, he hasn’t had it easy, with a father who lost interest in him early on in their relationship, a single mother who works long hours to barely make ends meet and his grandma gravely ill. Tony could be forgiven for not believing that high grades will get him a scholarship, that years of study will parlay into a better future than the circumstances he was born in. Just another Latino kid who used to dream to become a CEO, in the midst of hormonal battles and mild depression, growing up to lose the stars in his eyes because what he sees around him doesn’t warrant his hopes. There are very many of them in this city.

His mother’s eyes fill with tears as she pours her heart out – her son stopped saying “Mom, I will buy you a house one day and you won’t have to work so hard”. He doesn’t believe in the Grimm Brothers anymore nor in a better future. What happened to the land of hopes and dreams? To the wild frontier of old where anything was possible? Twenty years have gone by since the Rodney King’s riots and this city has achieved a racial integration previously thought impossible, only to deliver our youths to a landscape devoid of jobs, of affordable higher education and impossibly high rents.

My instinct would be to tell Tony that dreams are cheap because everyone should be able to  afford them. That he should be dreaming big, bigger than his imagination will allow him –  it’s not necessarily reaching that goal that matters, but initiating the process. Dreams transform themselves over time and land us in places and situations we could have not imagined. But do I really have a right to encourage such dreaming? I would still like to think so. Without big dreams, imagination and perseverance Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela and all those who did and still work to make the world a better place wouldn’t have initiated the process that did, and will, indeed change this wonky world of ours.

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Filed under Los Angeles, Parenting

BABY FOOD – ITALIAN STYLE

If you are a mother, there are many resources out there on how to feed your baby, how to feed yourself while expecting and breastfeeding and also many testimonials of women whose children are food intolerant, sensitive or downright allergic. It used to be that peanuts were the most common allergen but, now, a birthday party for a 5-year-old can become a culinary nightmare.

Even if your child hasn’t displayed any intolerance, chances are he or she will be a picky eater. Lord knows I was, with my poor mother, one of the best cooks to ever walk the planet, concocting ways to feed me what I didn’t like and walking every day to the elementary school with tiffin pots filled with home-made food. Kid you not. She can now scarcely believe I will eat (nearly) everything and that I ended up cooking for a living.

I am of the firm belief that feeding your child home-made food, cooked from scratch whenever possible, goes a long way in challenging her palate and keeping her immune system healthy. And although, at this point, my involvement with children is limited to giving them cooking lessons on request or admiring other people’s offsprings, I thought I would share with you the TV programme Barbara, a fellow Italian and LA mom, launched on YouTube a few months ago. What is different about what Barbara does is that she takes basic elements of wholesome Italian cuisine and cooks them in baby/children’s food form. She has been doing this for her son, Luca, for a while and now she is sharing it with the world.

The videos I am attaching are her latest on ricotta cheese (armed with my original recipe, Barbara takes you step by step on video) and her introductory show.

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Filed under cooking, food, kids food, Parenting

CHILD WISDOM

Used as I am to going through life expressing unsolicited opinions at the drop of a hat and invariably trying to come up with answers, I was suddenly stumped by a 5-year-old.

The little jumping bean sitting next to me at dinner, a mass of honey colored hair loosely tied in a pony tail, was showing me her pebble sized teeth about to come off. “Do you know about the tooth fairy?” I inquired, digging deep into the recesses of my childhood memories.

She did. And then, after a short pause, she wisely asked “But what does the tooth fairy need all those teeth for?”.

Excellent question for which I could only offer a lame “Maybe she makes necklaces”.

Undaunted, and still perplexed, the little girl jumped on the bandwagon of relentless bargaining that, still unknown to her parents, will continue for decades to come.

“But if I want my teeth back, can I have them?”

“Well, I guess if you return the money, she might be convinced to return your teeth” this practiced negotiator offered.

To stave off her inquisitive mind, I pulled out my i-phone to show her photos of my dogs and she deftly scrolled and handled the gadget like a pro.

Without going into the lame observation that children, nowadays, are smarter, I did leave the dinner with the impression that they are subjected to such intense and relentless stimuli on a regular basis to be, understandably, precocious compared to my 5-year-old self who would have swallowed any old fairy story, questions unasked.

I am hoping the inquisitiveness and the twisted thinking of this 5-year-old will not be snuffed out by norms, rote education or a plain willingness to conform and that, 20 years from now,  it will be applied to bigger questions. It comforts me to think there is hope.

In the meantime, I am turning to Google – I am sure they do know what the tooth fairy does with all those teeth.

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A MOTHER’S GIFT

Like all mothers, on Mother’s Day, my mom had to endure a string of useless and ugly gifts, bought with allowance money or, even worse, made at school. It was clear from an early age that DIY was not my forte. At the time,  girls had to learn to knit, crochet and embroider, all arts completely lost on yours truly. And not for lack of trying – I would have loved to knit a whole sweater but I never came close to even a scarf. Practice did not improve my skills but, in the process, my mother received dodgy looking doilies, unevenly embroidered towels and other opprobriums along those lines. To her credit, she kept them around but never quite displayed, a happy medium that satisfied us both.
When I became a step-mother, teachers had evolved and I started receiving store-bought candle holders with funky handmade paintings, notepads on wooden boards, all much nicer than what I could have ever been capable of. I was touched and grateful and kept them around for as long as I deemed suitable even if what I really would have wanted, on Mother’s Day, was for bedrooms to look, on occasion, as actual rooms belonging to a house, rather than bomb craters and for phone calls at appointed times instead of having to ring the entire neighbourhood to establish the whereabouts of my step-children once darkness set in. But I am digressing.
We are taught early on that marking an occasion with a gift is the thing to do and it is indeed nice to give and receive. But mother’s and father’s days are up there with Valentine’s on the stupidity factor. Entire families and classrooms scramble to come up with last-minute gifts and brunch reservations while the only ones who benefit are, once again, card companies, chocolate manufacturers, florists and restaurants.
For the last few years, I have been calling my mother to tell her how wonderful and special she is (because she is) but then I call her every Sunday to tell her that. I save $200 on flowers picked on-line that never look quite like the photo when delivered (one year she felt compelled to tell me about the ugly arrangement she got and that is when I stopped the deliveries) and everybody is much happier and stress free.
I don’t expect anything from my step-children although they always volunteer a phone call. I am happy they remembered and we are all happy we don’t have to sit through a badly served lunch somewhere among screaming kids and decked out grandparents. It’s a win-win situation.
Special gifts are reserved for birthdays or romantic occasions. Or for no reason in particular. And those are always the best ones.

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Filed under holidays, Parenting

IN DEFENSE OF STEP PARENTS

Snow White and Cinderella are to blame. Not so much for creating the illusion that love is eternal and all you need is a perfectly fitting shoe or a kiss to attain the forever after happiness but for perpetrating the myths of the evil stepmother.
Camilla Parker-Bowles who not only broke up the most controversial royal couple since Henry VIII, but also became stepmother to two teenagers, is a case in point. Her lack of poise, style or good looks automatically rendered her averse to the British, only 14% of whom would want to see her on the throne as queen one day. But look at it from her side – the man she loved went on to marry a beautiful (albeit a bit dizzy) 19-year-old. When she finally got him all to herself, she had to endure a smear campaign on having been “the other woman” (partly true although she was there first), on being unattractive, badly dressed (definitely true), to liking a drink too many etc etc. It must be so tiring to read this about yourself day in and day out, all the while maintaining your dignity and trying to win over the affection of two boys who lost an iconic mother. Apparently she succeeded.
Step-parenting is possibly one of the hardest adventures anybody with a sane mind will embark on. It requires massive doses of naiveté, self-esteem and thick skin. And did I mention total disregard for immediate rewards (if ever)? Nobody aspires to be a step-parent, not even women who can’t conceive. Yet, with people marrying more than once at a fast growing rate, children born out-of-wedlock or to single parents, step-parents are an increasing breed. Most of them without guidance.
Therapy might help, there are some useful websites, mainly for venting purposes, but  nobody prepares you for the “you are not my mother” moment, or the disconnect between wanting to feel like a parent but having a hard time reconciling blind love with the bratty teenager you are dealing with. If the birth of a child forces a couple to reinvent their relationship, the adding of a step-parent to an already existing family wreaks havoc on everybody involved, no matter how well it’s done or the good intentions on everybody’s part.
Every step-parent will tell you two phrases: “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into” and “This is the hardest thing I have ever done”.
Whether the biological parents are divorced or one is deceased, you are always contending with a figure that, despite having little to do with your life, is standing over your shoulder at every juncture. There is no competing with a ghost or with a living parent disgruntled by the divorce/sharing custody of the children/jealous feelings or just plain competitiveness.
It takes years for the adjustments to settle and for everybody to recognize that, most of the time, these instant new parents or children are not so evil after all. At the end of the day, don’t we all aspire to happiness, peace and understanding?
And let’s look at the other side of the coin – what if Cinderella hopelessly left her room in a state of disarray or Snow White was a vain teen with a penchant for too many clothes? Ever thought of that?
So here is my cheer for evil Camilla – may she enjoy her step-son wedding and the crown that possibly awaits her. But, please, do consult a fashion stylist – a new hairdo and a classy smock never hurt anyone.

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