Espresso and Independence

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27 Mar 2008

Somehow, while I slept (and did laundry and washed dishes and made dentist appointments), my kids began to grow up. The changes were so subtle that they were lost on me as the days slid by one another like dominos dropping in a row. No child is that different from one day to the next, so the changes since last year, or even last month, often went undetected as I only compared today with yesterday.

But there is only so long one can remain oblivious to the fact that her little chicks are fast growing wings and attempting to fly on their own. And that process is not so simple for the protective mother bird used to life the way it was, when her chicks simply sat in the nest and awaited her care.

My eight-year-old Shoshana started a cooking class a few months back. Unlike the baking class she took two years ago, this wasn’t about being handed a lump of dough, rolling it into cookies while eating half the dough, and then bringing the finished product home to a grateful family. This course was meant to give the girls the ability to cook on their own. They learned how to peel, chop vegetables, prepare basic dishes and, most important in my mind, how to clean up after themselves.

Every Tuesday, Shoshana has come home with a fragrant dish and a beaming smile. We’ve enjoyed her round challahs and her roast chicken, her meatballs and her potato knishes. But she’s never taken the plunge and offered to replicate any of the dishes at home. And I didn’t have the fortitude to suggest that she do so, but I promised myself that as soon as she would express interest, I’d be supportive and encouraging.

Then, on Friday afternoon, a mere three hours before Shabbos, she had a sudden urge. She decided she wanted to make a potato kugel for the family. I blanched. “Now, three hours before Shabbos?! I have to get the chicken in the oven and clean up the house. You need a shower. This is NOT the time to make kugel.” So much for my support and encouragement. I noticed her face crumple, and quickly tried to soften the blow. “You know honey,” I said, “it’s a matter of timing. Next time, ask me to make kugel on Thursday afternoon, and I’ll be happy to help you.”

The following Thursday, I was drowning under deadlines, a Shabbos guest, and less help than usual. But when Shoshana gave me her winning smile and said, “I’m going to make kugel today, right?” I just gave her a cheery smile back and said, “Sure.”

I decided that I’d give her free reign, and foster her independence by allowing her to complete every step of the kugel making process. I had her find the recipe, and let her read that the first step was peeling a dozen potatoes. Then I counted out twelve potatoes and lay them on the table alongside a peeler and a bowl.

“Here you go,” I said. She looked at the potatoes, then back at me.

“I don’t really like peeling,” she admitted candidly. “Can I go upstairs to jump rope? I’ll peel them later.”

“OK” I said.

The potatoes sat on the table all afternoon. I moved them off to serve supper. I began to think that perhaps I had been spared. But then Bubby came for a visit.

“You’re making potato kugel, Shoshana? How wonderful! Do you need some help with these potatoes?” So Bubby peeled while Shoshana ate supper.

After supper, Bubby offered to drive everyone to the local toy store to pick out Chanukah presents. All thoughts of kugel flew out the window as the kids struggled into jackets and ran out of the house.

We got home two hours later, happy, exhausted, and laden with packages. On the kitchen table sat a bowl of peeled potatoes. I tried to suppress my shudder at the sight. All I had on the evening’s agenda for the kids at this point was teeth brushing and bedtime, but there was another hurdle to be crossed.

“So what do we do next, Shoshana?” She carefully consulted her recipe.

“Three onions,” was the reply. Not surprisingly, Shoshana didn’t like peeling onions either. She hit upon a novel solution. She gave one onion to her five-year-old sister, one to her three-year-old brother and kept one herself. Soon, three little people were trying valiantly to peel onions by hand. Every flaky bit of peel that was removed ended up either on my kitchen counter or on my floor. I pushed the garbage can in their direction.

“Please,” I implored. “Use this.” So then the peels ended up on the floor near the garbage can.

Ten minutes later the onions were peeled. I tried not to calculate how many onions I could have peeled in that amount of time. I set up the food processor. Then we hit the next glitch. Shoshana couldn’t manage to fully close the balky machine. My nine-year-old offered to help her. But once he closed it, he insisted that he feed the potatoes into the chute.

“No,” Shoshana wailed. “I’m making this kugel.” I quickly served my son the supper he had missed and offered to be the food-processor-closer. It took several batches, but finally the vegetables were grated. Next came the eggs. Tziporah called me to help her unzip her dress. Sruli screamed that he needed the bathroom. “You can do it yourself,” I called as I raced out of the kitchen.

I was brushing teeth in the bathroom when Shoshana appeared at my side.

“I’m not allowed to check eggs,” she reminded me. “I’m not yet twelve.”

“Right,” I said through gritted teeth. “So I’ll do it.”

I went to the kitchen and checked her first egg. I popped supper in the oven to reheat and checked her second egg. I was being paged from the bathroom. The baby was starting to protest the amount of time she had been left in the high chair.

“Hurry” I urged. I checked the third egg. It seemed to take forever for her to crack the fourth. Some distant part of my brain noted the care with which she was opening the eggs and how she didn’t spill any of it on the counter. But the rest of my brain was sizzling with impatience. A fifth egg, a sixth. I started breading the fish for my husband’s supper. The baby’s screams were getting louder. Finally, the last egg.

“Just add salt and pepper,” I called over my shoulder as I ran out again.

“But I don’t know how much” came the plaintive call behind me. I helped her add the salt and pepper. I found a pan for the kugel. I showed her how to oil it. I poured the potato mixture into the pan and slid it into the oven.

There, Shoshana had made a potato kugel! I wondered if the price had been worth the results.

Friday night. We finished our soup. I brought out cucumber salad and then served the roast chicken and the potato kugel.

“This kugel was brought to you by a very special person,” I announced as I placed it on the table. “Shoshana made it all by herself.” She tried to hide the grin that split her face, but I caught it. We began eating.

“Wow – this is so good!”

“Unbelievable! This is the best potato kugel I had in a long time.”

“Great job!”

The compliments poured in. And, looking at Shoshana’s face, I realized I hadn’t overpaid.

The following Sunday found Shoshana and me at the eye doctor in Yerushalayim. The lines were long, the eye drops stung, and she squirmed through the eye exam. When we finally finished, it was time for a treat. I took her to a nice bagel store nearby. They had a breakfast special – a buttered bagel, an omelet, a salad and a jumbo coffee, all at a great price. I ordered two. We picked out the type of bagels we wanted and decided which vegetables should be added to our omelet. Then it was time for the drinks. I ordered an espresso for myself.

“Maybe they have orange juice for you?” I wondered out loud to Shoshana. She looked at me with pleading eyes.

“I want a coffee just like you. Please.” I swallowed hard. A jumbo coffee? At eight years old? I looked down at my daughter. She stood poised by the counter, looking over the selections. Her head reached my chest. She was growing up.

“Make that two,” I told the man behind the counter.

A few minutes later we were seated at the cozy round table Shoshana had picked out. She carefully cut her omelet and added three packets of sugar to her espresso. We ate in companionable silence for a bit and then started schmoozing about everything and anything. I was nearly finished my meal when Shoshana leaned across the table and looked me in the eye.

“Mommy,” she said sincerely, “thank you very, very, very, very, very much.” Then she took another long sip of espresso.

This piece originally appeared in the Front Page and is reprinted with permission. Bassi Gruen is a licensed social worker and a professional writer. She’s published hundreds of articles in myriad Jewish publications, and does commercial writing as well. She lives with her husband and children in Beitar Illit.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.