Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Pinch of Love

Suppose, hypothetically, that you are visiting your husband's ailing grandmother in the hospital.

Suppose she is in her 90s, frail, and in recovery from a recent heart attack. Suppose she has just been diagnosed, in the hospital, with an advanced form of cancer.

Suppose this lovely, kind-hearted elderly lady -- who lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War, raised several children, grew her own vegetables, washed cloth diapers by hand, sewed her own babies' clothes, and continued to support a large family after being widowed much too soon -- who yet, now lies helpless and tethered under harsh lights in a hard and unfamiliar bed in a room with no windows -- tells you a story, while you are visiting her, about the near-magical powers of spiritual transportation possessed by her mother's legendary Christmas mincemeat pie, the mystic recipe for which has been tragically lost to time.

What can a granddaughter-in-law, universally known in her spouse's family for reliably producing cheesecakes, brownies, and holiday pies of several flavors do, under such a circumstance, but promise to return to the hospital with a home-baked mincemeat pie?

Even if said granddaughter-in-law has never before, in fact, cooked, or even tasted, mincemeat pie?

Indeed, it seemed such a logical and obvious notion that I hardly knew the words were leaving my mouth before I heard them hanging in the air: "Oh Grandma, I'll bring you a mincemeat pie! I'll make one."

I didn't really feel the pressure of this promise until later that night, when I got home.

A mincemeat pie?

A mincemeat pie?

What, exactly, goes in a mincemeat pie?

Specifically, what goes in to a mincemeat pie so powerfully good that the mere memory of its taste could transport an ailing woman 80 years back in time to a the heavenly aroma of a warm Christmas Eve kitchen?

I did what any Millennial housewife would do under such a circumstance; I consulted Google.

Do you know that there are approximately eleventy frillion different varieties of mincemeat pie?

Well, now you do.

There is mincemeat pie with meat.

There is mincemeat pie without meat.

There is mincemeat pie without meat, but with beef fat.

There is mincemeat pie with nuts. There is mincemeat pie without nuts. There are mincemeat pies made primarily of apples, and mincemeat pies made mostly of pears; there is mincemeat made with brandy or mincemeat with sherry or mincemeat with bourbon whisky. And there are mincemeat pies that are alcohol-free.

Trying to find some signpost that might point me in the direction of the One True Pie, I studied up on regional variations of mincemeat. On the history of mincemeat. The more I read, the more I realized I was chasing a culinary unicorn.

Mincemeat, you see, was essentially a fancy way for the medieval British lady (who was then, after all, still the Hlaf Dy -- the Giver of Loaves) to say, "It's the middle of winter. We're almost out of everything useful. And you're asking me for a holiday pie? Tell you what. Let's take what ever scraps we've got left in the larger, chop them up, douse it all in sugar, spices and enough alcohol to sterilize rot." It was the original Mom's Famous Leftover Casserole.


I was going to have to gamble on a random internet recipe, or make it up as I went.

When backed into a corner, do true baking heroes follow, or lead?

I decided to make it up as I went.

The only thing I knew for certain going in was that Grandma preferred nuts to meat, and sure as hell would not want me to omit the alcohol.

I went to the store to shop for ingredients. My husband, ever a hunter-style shopper (plan it grab it and go before you have time to realize you are shopping) , followed me, perplexed and annoyed, as I pulled things off shelves and put them back, squeezed and prodded and smelled fruits and nuts and spices, and considered bottles of bourbon with a critical air. "Can I help you?" he asked. "Can I get something? What's on your list?"

"I don't have a list," I said. "I'm making it up as I go depending on what strikes my fancy, and on what else is here in the store. I'm shopping. For the best stuff. Like a cook does. Don't you ever watch Food Network?"

He was not amused. He paced in a way I have seen fictitious fathers-to-be pace on television outside a hospital delivery room. My husband knew this business of Making The Pie for his grandmother was not to be trifled with, and yet, being, as he is, an utter novice to the mysteries of baking, he could do little but watch anxiously, second-guess me, and annoy me with questions.

I can't tell you exactly what I put in the pie.

Not because it's a secret, but because I really don't know. I didn't measure a damn thing. A pinch of this. A splash of that.

I used a base of prunes, raisins, and a shredded fresh Granny Smith apple my son hand-picked off a tree. I added orange and lemon zest I candied at home. I added nutmeg and cinnamon and cardamom and allspice in nebulous quantities. I soaked these things in a liquid mixture of bourbon, Triple Sec, apple cider and lemon juice for over a day. I poured it all over chopped pecans and wrapped it in a butter-based crust out of a 1950s cookbook. I guessed on the oven temperature and the baking time.

I was half-convinced the pie would overflow, or scorch, or melt, or catch on fire and cause my stove to explode.

But it came out looking like this:

Which is pretty much how a mincemeat pie is supposed to look.

When I bought it to my husband's grandmother to taste, resigned to the fact that, whatever it was, it almost certainly wasn't her mother's pie, she took one bite, and said, "Ah, I see you found the secret ingredient!"

"Copious quantities of bourbon?" I asked?

"No," she said. "A pinch of love.

"It's what my mother always put in her pies. It's what she always put into everything she cooked. That's what she taught me to do with my own cooking. That's what I missed. The food here, it's all right. But no one puts any love into any of it. I can tell you put love into the food you make, though. Who cares if your pie tastes like hers? "

Of course you've heard this cliche of a cooking proverb before -- this adding a pinch of love.

I'd heard it before, too.

But I've never heard someone mean it so much. She looked me in the eye as she said it, with the intensity of a sage trying to impart some sort of sacred knowledge to an untutored acolyte. And as she said it, a flood of taste memories returned to me. The impeccable fresh peach ice cream served shyly to me by a silent girl on a Mennonite farm during a feast made as thanks to a midwife. The wine-soaked, melt-in-your-mouth poached pears I made on a whim in a rusty old oven with my best friend in the world. The wedding cake I baked myself, because we had no money to buy one, that managed somehow to come out soft as velvet despite my mixer having broken. The soup my grandmother taught me to make with fresh vegetables out of her garden on the day I first saw beans on a vine. My great-grandmother's apricot preserves that seemed like captured sunlight in a jar. The first tomato of the season plucked off the vine I raised from seed. One thing tied them together: an ingredient that is never in the recipe.

Cliche or not, I have tasted that pinch of love. But I've tasted it less and less often as I've grown older. The bustle of life has, more and more, habituated me to the life of a hurried, distracted cook and a hurried, distracted eater. Once I used to savor an hour spent over the stove, creating some alchemical reaction in my pot; now more often than not, I pop in and out of the kitchen, watching the clock impatiently. Someone or something else always wants my attention. To grant full mental focus to the food I'm creating seems like an indulgence I no longer have time for. After all, I'm a busy woman. I'm somebody's mother!

Which is all the more reason why I need to remember more often to add that pinch of love.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

An Open Letter to Every Teacher of a Child with a Sensory Disorder

Trust me, I really, truly do want my kid to learn to follow the rules we adults set for children in school about sitting still, sitting up straight, being quiet, paying attention, waiting in line, waiting one's turn, following directions in order, focusing on the task at hand, putting things away in their proper place, etc., etc., etc.

In fact, before I became a parent to this particular child, I had very firm notions about how, through the application of strict (but not too strict), rational (but not too rigid), consistent, enlightened, loving discipline at home, I would produce a superior school citizen, who unfailingly said please and thank you, shared playdough equanimously, lettered his own name neatly in crayon at the top of each paper, bussed his own tray at lunchtime, and could pronounce words like equanimously on the first try.

Well, at least I succeeded with that last one.

You see, I am a good parent, with good intentions. I do believe in discipline and in hard work and respect. I understand that most, at least, of your classroom rules exist for a reason. And I sure would like for my child to be able to follow them.

My kid is smart. Really smart. Gifted-smart. He's playful. He's funny. He's kind to other people. He sure does look like a typical child. And heaven knows, I have prayed since the moment I first noticed there was something amiss in reactions to the world that he would just act like what he looks like. A normal kid.

But since his diagnosis, I've had to learn to accept that sometimes he literally can't.

It's not his fault his brain doesn't work in an ordinary way. It's not his fault that when he hears a vacuum cleaner start up in a distant hallway, his nervous system triggers the same alert response that a fire engine siren would cause in another child, and he suddenly can no longer concentrate on his writing lesson. It's not his fault that in a bustling room full of chattering children, he can't always filter signal from noise enough to hear your directions, and sometimes fails to follow them.

It's not his fault that when faulty messages from his vestibular sense leave him with a poor understanding of where his body is in space, he has difficulty figuring out how to hold a pair of scissors properly, or where to direct his crayon on the paper. It's not his fault that his nervous system gets confused and tells him he's off balance when he's climbing a ladder, causing him to freeze halfway up to the slide.

It's not his fault that after running around on the playground or in gym class, trying to keep up with children whose motor planning skills are literally years ahead of his, his compromised senses are so confused that he feels compelled to spin around or shake his head before he can sit still. It's not his fault that he fidgets when he does sit, because he can feel the rivets in the back of his school chair the entire time he is sitting.

It's not his fault that he can't eat well or quickly in a crowded lunchroom where he can't not hear every single conversation happening around him, and can't not smell every last ingredient in everyone else's food.

I know that people can't see, on the surface, just what is different about him when they first meet him. Not in the way you would see a difference of ability in a child who was wearing a hearing aid or sitting in a wheelchair. But that doesn't mean the difference isn't there.

And when you, as a teacher, fail to acknowledge that difference, you are failing him.

And the last thing I want is for a brilliant child to feel like there's no point in trying at school because, in your eyes, he can't do any of the little things right.

It's not that I want him to get some sort of extra-special consideration. I just want him to get the same consideration any child with a professionally diagnosed medical problem would get.

I put my child in a mainstream school despite the fact that I knew he would have difficulties in a typical classroom — despite the fact that I had been told by competent medical professionals that he would have difficulties in a typical classroom — precisely because I DON'T want to coddle him. Because I know that the world won't coddle him.

I want him to understand that if something is harder for him than it is for everyone else, that means he'll just have to try harder. He's a smart kid — really smart, gifted-smart — and I know he can do really well in school, eventually, if we all try.

But that's just it — we all have to try. He has to and I have to and you have to try, too. You have to try to see that he is trying. That he wants to learn. That he loves learning. That he wants to behave. That he wants to show respect. That he wants to get along well with you, and with the other children in his class.

That he knows he is different. That he wants, more than anything else in the world, to be able to act like a typical child. And the effort he expends, every day, to do just that — to do it for himself, for me, for you — is exhausting him.

I know your job is hard. But so is his.

Cut him some slack.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009


In August, I lost my voice.

I don't mean figuratively. I mean literally.

I caught a bad respiratory infection. (The Swine Flu? The Bird Flu? A cold? Who knows.) And then a secondary bacterial infection. Bronchitis. Laryngitis. I developed a fiery sore throat and a hacking cough. My voice grew gravelly, and then it went whispery, and then it started cutting out altogether, without warning, mid-word, and I could no longer make myself understood.

That same week, the week I lost my voice, my son started kindergarten.

There were things, many things, I wanted to tell his teacher. About his sensory disorder. About his difficulty properly holding a crayon, about his inability to sit still for long periods of time, about his inability to concentrate in the presence of certain types of noise. About his facility with language, about his ability to multiply single digit numbers and read chapter books. About his sensitivity — about the time he cried because a girl didn't want to take a card he had made for her. About the fact that he not only knows the names of all the eight planets (and poor demoted dwarf Pluto) but also is capable of explaining that a black hole warps time itself with extreme gravity — that once caught in the trap of a black hole, nothing, not even light, can escape.

I wanted to tell her these things, but I couldn't tell her all of these things, because I had no voice. On Meet the Teacher Night, hopped up on medication, I rasped vaguely and asked whether she had had a chance yet to look over his preschool records.

On the second morning of school he cried and asked not to go. He cried and begged for me not to take him to class on the third and the fourth and the fifth day of school. And the sixth. And the seventh. And the eighth. And on the ninth and tenth days of school the boy who used to hop happily onto the bus for preschool without so much as a wave goodbye refused to eat his breakfast and cried so hard he almost vomited.

And still I could barely speak. I could barely eat. I was prescribed a second round of antibiotics. A chest X-ray.

I left barely audible messages on my son's teacher's voice mail, and received formulaic responses.

During the second week of school, my son did not want to eat dinner, or take baths, or go to sleep. One night, as I sat beside him in a dark room, he asked me to estimate the likelihood of the Earth and everyone on it being swallowed up by a black hole before dawn.

And so when my voice came back, it could only say one thing. And that thing was, help him. Help him. Help him.

It's practically all I've been able to say for almost two months now.

I am not being well listened to.

I'm about to get louder.