Sitting down for dinner with my husband and children – or whatever combination of the five of them is home – is one of my favorite, ordinary pleasures.
Almost nightly, one of my sons fixes his gaze on the butter plate and then saws thick, neat squares from the stick and arranges them on his bread. My son’s passion for butter reminds me of my brother’s promise, when we were children ourselves, that he would someday name his first child “Butter” as a testament to his love for it. (Happily for all involved, he later changed his mind.)
Whenever she has spaghetti, my older daughter sighs with gratification after she sweeps up a strand of pasta, swirls it in the puddle of marinara on her plate, and closes her mouth over her folk. “Pasta,” she says, speaking the word as if it were made of silk.
My oldest child, the only picky eater in the bunch, is inexplicably fond of legumes, especially if they are prepared with curry. These foods add nice color to his repertoire of favorites, the same few foods he’s craved since he was tiny. Grilled cheese sandwiches. Boxed macaroni and cheese. Caesar salads. I get special pleasure watching him greedily consume a bowl of spicy split pea soup.
In watching my children eat, I’m reminded that not all mothers can do the same. For many women around the world, the task of securing food for their children is an endless, often futile, struggle. I’m also reminded that some parents in more affluent cultures bear the excruciating burden of having children with eating disorders. Those grim realities, paired with the undeniable satisfaction I get from watching my children eat well, make feeding them – and considering what I am doing to help those in need – all the more important to me.
From the moment my children came into my life, feeding them – literally keeping them alive – has been a responsibility I’ve been glad to shoulder. I’m aware of how fortunate I am to be able to do so. Of course now that they are tweens and teens – not the terrifyingly vulnerable infants they once were – I don’t track every ounce of nourishment that enters and exits their bodies. They are strong and healthy and can serve themselves bowls of cereal or reach into the fridge for a yogurt when hunger whispers at them.
I’ve recently become aware of another pleasure I derive related to feeding my family. It’s not – much as I love it – listening to the stories my children tell to describe their days, but it is played out in the half hour before we sit down to dinner. When children are very young, that period of time (also known as “the witching hour”) is possibly the most dreaded and dreadful part of a parent’s day, but when they are older, it can be a time to savor.
A few nights ago, as store-bought spanakopita baked in the oven and I spooned hummus into a bowl, I stopped for a moment to listen to and look around at my children. All four of them had congregated at the kitchen counter about thirty minutes earlier.
“When’s dinner?” they asked.
“In a little while,” I said. “Twenty minutes. Maybe half an hour.”
They wandered from the room. One began practicing the piano. Another flopped onto the couch to read. The other two went out back and started a game of whiffle ball. In a few minutes, drawn by the crack of the bat and the laughter outside, the other two had joined the game. I watched from the window above the kitchen sink as my nearly sixteen year-old son hit the ball and raced to first base (the pear tree) and then second (the play set). My youngest batted next and all four kids broke into laughter when she hit a foul ball over the fence into the neighbor’s yard. My oldest won’t be a part of these ordinary scenes in two short years. He’ll be away at college, rendering the whiffle ball teams – and the gender balance in our home – uneven.
After more than a decade and a half of mothering, as I sliced red pepper for the salad, I could hear echoes of those well-meaning older women at the grocery store who, on seeing me with my four little ones many years ago, took me aside and told me to cherish every moment.
“It goes by so fast,” they said, wistfully. “Are you sure you’re treasuring this special time?”
The familiar sights and sounds of my kids out back as I put the finishing touches on our dinner transported me to a place – unlike that exhausted, blurred land of caring for very young children – where I knew I would be able to answer those ladies at the grocery store with a confident “Yes!”
“Yes, I am cherishing these days! I know they are precious.”
I sprinkled a little feta cheese on the salad, tossed a dishtowel onto the counter, and called out from the open window: “Dinner time!”
Jennifer Grant is the author of two memoirs about family life: Love You More: The Divine Surprise of Adopting My Daughter and MOMumental: Adventures in the Messy Art of Raising a Family. Find her online at jennifergrant.com.