The Best Laddie

I want to remember 16 because it’s as good as everything else has been.

He staggers through the front door, having just walked home from robotics practice after school, and in addition to the fully loaded pack on his back, he’s carrying a big box. It’s the new compost bin, delivered onto the front porch earlier in the day. When it arrived, after giving the huge parcel a test tug, I decided to leave it; the thing is ultimately headed out of doors, anyhow.

But he brings it in with him, the kid does, because he saw it there, and we always bring boxes in. He’s helping. When I call out a greeting and ask how his day was, he answers “Fine, especially walking home in the sunshine. You know what’s extra good today? The smell of sap coming from that tree across the street that blew down in the storm. The sap smell is –” He does a chef kiss towards the ceiling.

Before he came in, I’d been upstairs putting in eye drops, so as he speaks I’m wiping my eyes and, thanks to a raging runny nose, snuffling into a tissue. Following him into the kitchen, I complain, “Oh my god, bubs, but my nose is making me crazy today. I am blowing it every two minutes, and it won’t stop. I took the Sudafed thing we have, but it’s not helping at all.”

Pack still on his back, he turns and looks me over. “Could it maybe be allergies? Your eyes do look a bit red around the rims, and they are definitely watery.”

I explain the eye drops but concede it could be allergies although I’ve never had any before; I’ve been sneezing myself hoarse all day. What I’ve ascribed to a cold could, in fact, be spring popping. He squints at me and asks, “Have you used the Flonase that you shoot up your nostrils? That really helped me the other week. It really dried things up.”

Well, no. I didn’t know we had anything like that in the house.

His backpack hits the chair heavily as he eyes the still-frozen iceberg of soup in a saucepan on the stove. It’s been there since morning, gradually thawing, but still: it’s a ball of ice bigger than my skull. “Would it be okay if we start warming that up now? I’ll be ready for it soon.”

100% doable, pup. I turn on the burner under the soup at the same time he says, “Let me go find that Flonase stuff for you.”

In under a minute, he’s back, bottle in hand, peering at the tiny text on the label. “Now, I don’t remember how many squirts you’re supposed to do or how frequently you should take it, and we don’t have the box any more. I’ll look it up.”

He taps his phone a few times before announcing, “Two squirts, once a day. It might take up to 12 hours to start working. Shake the bottle first.”

While he’s been aiding me, I’ve been whittling the edges of the soup iceberg, trying to make it smaller. “Here,” he says, “I’m taller, so I can get a better angle on that thing.” He takes the wooden spoon from my hand and leans over the pot, stabbing at the mass. “Let me Excalibur this thing!”

I snort some stuff and then put on water for the broccoli. “How much broccoli are you going to want tonight? Just a bare covering of the plate, or a mountain?”

“I want one-third of what you make,” he assures me. “I love broccoli.” I ask if he wants parmesan grated over the top. “Oh, yes, I do. I do. Parmesan is delicioso!”

He’s over there, across the counter from me, head over his phone, when I remember. “Oh, hey! I need your skills. So my photo app has crashed and crashed and crashed all day, and I cannot figure out what to do. I restarted my phone, tried googling solutions, and I am flummoxed. I can’t even figure out how to uninstall and reinstall it. Help a mother out?”

The phone is already in his hands, getting triaged. He goes quiet as he assesses the patient, more focused still when he starts reading comments in help forums. “Oh, and also…” I remember something else. “Once you’re done with thinking over there, I have one more thing to tell you.”

Thirty seconds later, his curls tip up, and he says, “Okay, I’m loading something. So you can tell me the other thing.”

Quickly, I run down how I tried using yet another phone we have to access my photos earlier, and as I tried to delete files to free up memory, I ended up deleting them from his account, not mine, because we’d been using the same phone, and he’d re-directed the back-up to his account.

“That’s no biggie,” he says. “I was done with those videos anyhow.”

It’s a wonder, to be in the same room with this young man, a 6′ 2″ linguini noodle who refuses to have a problem even though, for another nine years, his thinking will be amygdala based, the prefrontal cortex a far-off dream.

Two minutes later, he announces, “There. Your app’s all good. Your photos are accessible.”

“Holy crap, Paco, but it’s going to be weird when you go to college, and I move to whatever city you’re in, just so I can show up outside your dorm and hand you my phone periodically. That’ll be weird, right?”

He smiles, just a smidge off kilter, meeting my eyes as he grins. “It would be incredibly fun; that’s what it would be. So fun.”

And in that moment, my eyes still a little wet from the drops, my nose dripping because that’s what it does today, blessings rain down upon my soul.

“It would be crazy fun, poppet. Think about it: Dad would show up at your place with a few freezer bags of soup he’d just made, and I’d always be stopping by with warm cookies…”

His smile grows. “I like soup. And cookies. I am on board with this plan.”

The iceberg has melted. The broccoli has softened. Hoisting his backpack once again, he loads his hands with bowl and plate — off to his room to eat while doing homework.

As he teeters out of the kitchen, he says one more thing — true to form even while awkward and balancing: “Thank you so much for helping with dinner. I’m so excited to eat!”

Somewhere deep inside our phones, people are shouting at each other. Two miles down the road, someone is getting bruised. In the next state over, a family has just lost its apartment. Across the ocean, people are unthinkingly selfish. A plane ride beyond, people cry for water.

But right now, right here, my heart thumping in concert with his footfalls on the stairs, I am witnessing a good thing.

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Five in Five

400 Noodles and Four Hours: Monday, February 19

I knew it was coming, so I’d had a couple days to brace myself.

Mostly, my strategy was to hide upstairs, answer the occasional question, and deliberately pour my soul into a zen acceptance of chaos.

Actually, now that I reread that previous sentence, I think I might ask Byron to stitch a version of it into a sampler with the heading “Tips for Parenting Teens.”

So I knew Allegra and two friends had decided to make dinner at our house Sunday night and that our girl would be calling me after she was done with work and when they got to the grocery store, to ask about items we might already have in stock at the house. Because she is well raised, it was a text, not a call, that came through first. Cake pans. Eggs. Spinach. Tomatoes, Beets. Well, this sounded promising. I knew the plan was to make tricolor pasta from scratch, but BEETS? Nice, ladies. Nice.

A few minutes later, my phone rang. It was Leggy. Stabbing wildly at the screen, I managed to refuse her call as I tried to answer it. Calling her back, I opened with, “So, yeah, I have no idea how to answer my phone. Like, truly. I was trying to answer it. As of tonight, my record for failing to answer all calls is intact.”

Oh, she felt me. Why should anyone know how to answer a phone when phone calls are the devil’s work? We shared a silent moment of mutual understanding that felt like a warm hug. Phone calls. Fuck ’em.

Anyhow, did we have cocoa? 

And so it went. A short time later, I heard the girls come into the house, a rustle of bags and giggles in the kitchen. Adhering to my planned strategy, I stayed upstairs and let them figure themselves out.

Except, then, after a relatively quiet twenty minutes, the top of Allegra’s head rose on the staircase. “Where’s the pasta maker?” In the basement pantry.

Some bit later, I heard the squeaky crank of the pasta maker’s handle. Dang, but something in me is wired towards squeaky cranks (see: the boyfriend of my twenties). I wanted to go down. Take a peek at how it was going. Watch them crank. But nah. If this was their deal, it should be their deal. 

As I kept myself busy at the computer instead of tromping down to ask dull questions and provide overly perky commentary to their actions, I thought about the teenagery-ness of wanting to make three different pastas from scratch when those same chefs had never, say, made spaghetti from a box and red sauce out of a jar all on their own. Although I had tried earlier to suggest there’s no pride lost in opening a box of noodles, my words fell on 17-year-old ears. “But we want to make it from scratch, and we want three colors! Also, we want to make a cake!” From a mix? “From scratch!”

I commend the attitude and the values behind thoughtful, non-instant cooking. Yet, at the same time, I was amused by the desire to take on big goals before mastering smaller building blocks. Although I was chuckling at their ambition, I admired them for it — ah, that glorious stretch of years when anything seems possible because everything is still possible, so why not go big? That confident mindset is something that life’s vagaries can erode; no need for me to act as an instrument of deflation. Hell, when I was about 15, having never before cooked a reasonable pan of brownies, I told my mom I wanted to make a Baked Alaska because I couldn’t believe ice cream could go in the oven. To her eternal credit, my mom’s answer was, “Let’s do it.”

Baked Alaska is really cool, y’all. I haven’t made it since I was 15. But I know it’s cool because I lived in a house where ideas were welcome. 

In addition to confidence and ambition, these teen girls have humor. When Allegra first announced they would be making dinner, she laughed when I replied, “So we should plan on eating around 10, then?” 

“Well, last time we did this, it did take us five hours, so yeah, it will be late. You should make some eggs for Paco so he doesn’t get crabby,” she nodded. “But, I mean, last time we did make homemade fettucine and sauce and noodles and soup and salad and bread and pie, so it was understandable that it took us five hours.”

Please, for the love of James Beard, girls, stick to tricolor pasta and a cake. Don’t go getting notions about a protein, I prayed.

In the kitchen, the squeaks and shouts continued. Then, through the banister railings, Allegra’s head rose again. “Do we have more flour?” Yes, downstairs in the basement pantry, by the Fischer-Price village.

Although I’d been following my strategies like a boss, a look at the screen told me it was Shot of Scotch O’Clock. Could I maybe contribute to the evening’s memories by being the mom who only showed her face when in search of booze?

Bravely, I headed down.

Well, now. Things were happening. Allegra was separating threads of tomato noodles while Natalie worked spinach dough through the machine. Elizabeth was on frosting duty, except

“Mom, do we have more butter somewhere?”

Yes, down in the basement in the freezer. Here, let me get it.

A moment later, a pound of frozen butter in hand, I suggested they might want to soften a stick in the microwave on low power — or, alternately, “Jam it into your armpit, honey.” 

“Hey,” Allegra said. “That’s what I did earlier, and it worked great!”

Leaving them to the softening, I headed upstairs.

Forty-five minutes later, the pasta maker still cranking, I decided a glass of wine might be in order, what with dinner being a distant hope. This time when I got to the kitchen, Natalie decided her arm was tired, so Allegra took over; in return, Natalie tucked the stick of butter under the front of her shirt, nesting it at her waistline. Within minutes, her chi had made the stuff malleable. In one corner, beet pasta covered the counter. In another, chocolate frosting came to life. Duties were traded and handed off, and somehow, synergistically, the food was happening.

Back upstairs, I recalled the time my sister, some other neighbor girls, and I decided to make a special summer lunch for some of the neighborhood boys. After finding them at Mike’s house, we told them to come to our house in an hour for some good food. Minutes later, having scrambled down the hill into our kitchen, we had water boiling for a box of mac ‘n cheese and a pan heating for hamburgers.

Mostly what I remember about that afternoon with “strange” boys sitting at our dining room table is that I felt special — that we girls had presented ourselves as capable and domestic…in some bizarre hope of gaining a boyfriend? — that our efforts proved our value.

Because life is beautiful, a dynamic thing allowing for change and growth, I would, thirty-odd years later, accept a social media friend request from the lead boy on Hamburger Day and then, less than a week later, unfriend him, thinking, “I can’t stand you, and I can’t see why I need to pretend otherwise.”

Eventually, Allegra’s voice rose up the staircase again, this time with welcome news, especially for her brother who had been on a school bus at 6:45 a.m. that morning, heading to a robotics meet in another city. Even though he was dubious about the potential of tricolor pasta, he was, at 10:30 p.m., both hungry and ready to sleep. 

“The pasta’s ready!”


“Stay on your bed, kid,” I told Paco. “I’ll bring you a small bowl, and if you like it, you can have more.”

By the time I got to the kitchen, the girls were loading bowls for themselves, apologizing about the noodles (“They just taste like pasta, not like spinach or beets or tomatoes”); apologizing about the sauce, which they had made up once they realized they were missing Alfredo ingredients and had refused my offer of a frozen red sauce (“It’s kind of, um, weird. We just put Parmesan, butter, cream, and some leftover tomatoes together”); exclaiming about how much pasta they’d made when I told them I could boil up some more if they wanted to finish what was in the pot (their idea of “a lot of pasta” was modest); wondering where they should eat (the kitchen being inhospitable due to every possible dish and utensil having been used during the cooking, the dining room table full of Paco’s toothpick bridge he’s making for science class); and thinking it could be good to watch some DVR-ed Olympic skiing while they ate.

After a quick primer on how to navigate through Hulu using our Fire stick remote, I left them to enjoy their tiny bowls of noodles, big pieces of cake, and admiration of the skills required by biathlon. Back in the kitchen, I tried to keep my sigh inaudible. They. had. trashed. the. place.

I had known it would be a mess, but they had exceeded my expectations. Were I a set designer for a sitcom, and were it my job to stage a helter-skelter kitchen scene because — haha! — Dad had tried to cook, I could not have come up with what these three high school girls accomplished organically.

They had noticed the mess. They had said they’d clean up. They needed to be the ones who cleaned up.

But still. As long as I was there, before I scooped noodles for the boy and me, I just had to put a twist tie on that open bag of confectioner’s sugar, tuck it into the drawer, put those oven mitts away, collect the five empty butter wrappers, and stick the flour container back in its nook.

There. I did ten things. The rest was up to the girls.

From the next room, the easy, happy energy of three young women — longtime teammates — watching skiing and eating food they had made “just because” washed into the kitchen. I tucked and threw and stuck, and I was hungry, and I was afraid of the clean-up they would do, but, oh, I felt complete.

In every dream of my future back before I knew the shape my life would take, the kitchen was filled with light and noise, filled with the cacophony of friends coming together around food and communal creation.

As I walked up the stairs with pasta and cake ready to hand to the sleepy 15-year-old, I thought about my childhood friend, Lisa. She lived next door and was a constant playmate and companion, often staying with our family when her parents would take junkets to Vegas to gamble. Even as adolescents, Lisa and I would sleep head-to-foot on my waterbed, and during the days when we were hungry, and there were no moms around to feed us, we would make our favorite snack.

Pouring one cup of white rice into a pot, followed by two cups of water, we’d count down the twenty minutes until we could pull our snack of cooked fluff off the electric burner. Setting it on the floor in the middle of the kitchen — a dishtowel folded beneath it to keep the rug from melting — we’d add chunks of butter and generous shakes of salt to our work.

Then, leaning our heads over the pot, foreheads knocking, we’d dig our forks into the mounds of white grains, murmuring “Yummmm” to each other until the whole thing was gone.

All they did was take a notion to make a meal together.

What they achieved was so much more.

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But Wilt Thou Woo This Wild Cat?

She’s doing her nightly thing: listening to music; checking her social media, chipping away at homework. When a favorite song comes on, the volume goes up. When a new text comes in, her fingers tap. When a page of Spanish is memorized, I hear it flip.

I’m standing eight feet away, folding laundry. She has no idea I’m engaging in one of my most-successful strategies for parenting a teenager. From where she sits, I’m pairing socks, folding sheets, making stacks of shirts. From where I stand, I’m conveniently nearby in case my fourteen-year-old cares to share. Although the patent is still pending, this strategy is known as Catching the Conversational Crumb, or C3.

Fourteen is not an age that responds well to direct questions. If I ask, “So how was your day? Anything up in your world?” she’s apt to stare silently at me for a beat and then bend her head over her backpack and start rustling around, in search of an important pencil. If she’s in a chatty mood, she might allow, “What would be up in my world? I’m fourteen. I went to school. Now I’m home.”

I actually enjoy such answers. They give me a chance to spout nonsense: “Yea, but what if one day Selena Gomez stopped by gym class and taught you all how to gaze mournfully into a camera while singing about ex-boyfriends? And what if you forgot to tell me unless I asked?”

Her terse answers also let me appreciate that the girl who was once labeled a “no-bullshit baby” is growing up true to self.  Even more, her unwillingness to let conversations with her parents become interviews is, in its I-Will-Shut-You-Down fashion, somehow charming. Indeed, while teenagers may strike adults as close-lipped or stubbornly removed, there’s another way to view it.  If I flip the dynamic and consider being greeted at the door with “How was your day? Anything new happen? Learn anything interesting? What’s up with your friends? Are you hungry? Do you have anything due tomorrow?”–the whole scenario makes me screamy because FOR THE LOVE OF BIEBER, A LITTLE SPACE, PLEASE.

Teenagers are cats, not dogs. I get that.

Thus, my  C3 laundry-folding strategy is feline. I’m not in the room because of her. I don’t need to look at or talk to her. I’m just there, doing my thing. I can take or leave her.

Naturally, my indifference is attractive. Like a prickly Siamese, she crawls–figuratively–into my lap, kneading her paws and claws into my thigh before settling in. I keep my back to her, and she offers, “I love this new song,” turning it up.

Still not looking at her, I ask, “Is it off a new album?” She tells me about tour dates and opening acts. On the heels of that, she tells me how her friend Amy stumbled across a really great cover of this one awesome song on YouTube.

“Can I hear it?” I dare.

Nothing would give her more pleasure, in fact. While the cover of the really awesome song plays, she tells me something corny her geometry teacher said. Still not looking at her, still folding clothes, I do not ask a question; instead I note, “I really liked Mrs. Peterson when we went to the open house at the start of the school year. She seemed like someone I would have enjoyed as an English teacher–very in touch, in love with books, down-to-earth…”

And with that, my kitten becomes a puppy. The light inside her flips on, and she bounces in her chair. “Oh my God, that reminds me of something that happened in English! It was so funny!”

Now that she’s in dog mode, I can pet her. Turning, looking at her, I give her my full attention and demand, “Do tell.”

Sitting with one foot tucked under her, spinning around in the desk chair, she recaps, “When we were reading Romeo and Juliet out loud today, there was this moment at the ball when a couple of the characters announced they were going off into another room to have some drinks. After we read that part, a boy in my class goes, ‘My mom calls that book group.’

I hoot. She giggles. We repeat her classmate’s line and agree: that’s hilarious.

Apparently, Mrs. Peterson thought so, too. After snorting with laughter, she told the wise-cracking student, “I don’t know your mom, but I think I like her.”

And then. My teenager, who sometimes can’t be bothered to say “Fine” when asked about her day, makes mine.

She tells me, “When he said that about his mom, I immediately thought of you, too. In a good way.”

Flattered to have been a thought in my fourteen-year-old’s mind, I acknowledge, “I surely do love to go into a room with friends and have some drinks.”

“I know. I mean, you’re not a crazy lady who has to drink all the time, but you’re a lady who is crazy for her drinks.”

With that subtle, accurate parsing of her mother’s controlled but passionate love of a cocktail, my girl confirmed it: between her observational skills and her ability to make connections, she’d make one hell of an English major.

Actually, she’ll make one hell of an anything.

Even though she’s currently in the feline teenage years, all of her everything is there, inside her, ripening. Sometimes I know what’s in there. Many days, I don’t.

However, no matter how much or little she feels like sharing, one thing is certain: tumbling around with her music and her friends and her skiing and her running and her homework and her classmates and her love of travel and her passion for chocolate, I am inside her, too–fermenting more than ripening, but I’m there.

And being there is one of the greatest honors of my life.



I could type more about my teenager and her astute observations, but she’s on the floor next to me right now, having crawled into the living room on her knees, holding open a book of cities around the world, propping it on my lap while reading aloud about super cool island cities that she wants to visit.

All it took to get her there, on her knees beside me, was this:

I left her in the kitchen alone and ignored her.

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