Tag Archives: parenting

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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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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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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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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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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HOW I BECAME MY FATHER

In the small, broken nucleus that is my blood family,  I have been appointed, by silent decree, pater familia. As the first-born of his children, my father felt entitled to a boy and, undaunted by the appearance of a rosy girl, plowed forward in molding me and feeding his own expectations of making me his male heir. The way he went about it was denying me anything too apparently feminine: ballet and piano lessons were a big no-no while swimming and skiing were encouraged much to my chagrin. Adventure books were piled up at my door from an early age and travelling with him on business trips was definitely encouraged, even if it meant missing school for days on end.

When his prayers were finally answered, and it seemed as if I were to relinquish my mantle, my brother betrayed me in surviving only a smidge of a hope, thus securing my position. Even when I made patently clear that I would have precious little to do with the business  he hoped I would take over, my father quickly recovered from his disappointment and proceeded to declaim to whomever would listen the stories of my “successes” in an industry he had little knowledge of.

The result of my double pronged upbringing – the pretty dresses my mother bought , the dolls I was indulged with paired with a strict commitment to education and manly pursuits (or my father’s ideas of manly pursuits) – is that, behind a veneer of femininity, I hide a plate of steel that gets uncovered at sometimes inconvenient times.  It’s an aspect of my personality the men in my life both found attractive and uncomfortable to live with and, once I started looking at things from their perspective, I stopped blaming them for their feelings: they were lured by a package with pretty bows only to open it and find a declaration of independence.

Slightly incapacitated by a stroke, crippled by financial ruin and entangled in a long and mostly ugly divorce, my father, not known for particular strength or courage, happily relinquished  all family decision-making to the daughter who was far away, the one he was always slightly in awe of, mainly because he never fully understood her.

Recently, my baby sister communicated a somewhat momentous decision to him and his first question was whether I had been informed. When she told him she was going to call me later in the day, he became preoccupied with my reaction as if I had a long history of criticizing other people’s choices or ostracizing their freedoms. Wishing my sister happiness and slightly peeved at noticing that my (imperfect) judgement created a sense of disquiet in my family,  I realized that the pater familia title was on my shoulders to stay, like it or not.

How can they not see it’s the other two women in the family I rely upon, whose succor and counsel I seek in times of trouble? My mother’s “your allotted crying time is over. Now get off the couch and do something” speech always works wonders. And my sister’s voice, so similar to mine our parents often weren’t sure who they were talking to, is my mirror and the memory of our personal history.

I long ago stopped feeling resentment for a flawed father who ended up paying dearly for his mistakes, shut out by the female triad the rest of us presented to the world. If I am who I am I definitely have him to blame – but also a lot to thank him for.

 

 

 

 

 

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THE FALSEHOODS OF MOTHERHOOD

 

My path intersected three times with Ms. Amy Chao this week. It started with a piece on NPR while driving home, followed by two printed articles on her book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”. The author, American born of Chinese parents, wrote a memoir on how she raised her two daughters according to the notoriously strict precepts of Chinese culture.

Mothers all over the country are up in arms. What do you mean she wouldn’t allow sleepovers? And didn’t she really let her daughter go to the bathroom until the little girl could perform a piano piece to perfection? Did she really call one of her daughters “garbage”? The horror…

If it is true that Chinese parents turn out children bred to excel by adhering to a code of “super tough love”, I am not sure I could approve. Obedience and respect for the family seem heavily engrained in Chinese tradition, even today, sometimes at the expense of healthy subversion and constructive criticism on both parts. On the other hand, what I noticed when I first moved to this country made me shiver in disbelief. At one point, I found myself plopped in the epitome of a typical American bedroom community, pretty houses “Truman show style”, far away from the urban surroundings I was accustomed to – I found it scary mainly because I did not know what to make of it.

A common trend, shared by the young mothers who were also my lovely and generous neighbours, seemed to emerge – these women, mostly stay at home moms, spent the bulk of their time devising strategies on how to be better mothers. This involved shuttling toddlers or teenagers to endless streams of activities, planning play dates for three-year olds, hosting sleep depriving sleepovers and, the mother lode of American schools, volunteering.

Volunteering at your child’s school deserves a category all of its own. Amid catty women hell-bent on topping each other, the young woman has her pick between hosting bake sales, selling Christmas wrapping in July, participating in art classes, being a recess monitor, going on field trips and the like. On top of being the helper on preposterous homework assignments which involve building, cooking and the gamut of science experiments, the hapless parent is virtually trapped for the 13 years (or more if you include pre-school or have multiple kids) the child goes to school.

My first objection was that if one pays taxes, a good portion of which is devoted to the school system, why be asked to contribute what is undoubtedly an excessive amount of parents’ time and money? And why should a woman’s life be run by a child’s constant need for activity? Where is it written that the experience of childhood  is enhanced by keeping a kid occupied all his waking hours? What is wrong with leaving a child in her room, with  toys and her imagination? Or let her figure out who she wants to play with or which sport she wants to play?

Reading stories, family outings, an afternoon at the museum, swimming lessons a couple of times a week used to be enough, leaving room to breathe for both child and mother. When I uttered my opinion in my unself-conscious big mouth way, the kindest retort was that “I didn’t understand”.

What I do understand is that the sum total of what any child needs is love, support and respect. And the freedom to express themselves. With some parameters – maybe not as  strict as those imposed by a traditional Chinese family – but limits nonetheless to make any experience safer, whether physically or emotionally. The rest will take care of itself.

 

 

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