Upstairs, my son hums a violin-like, Flight of the Bumblebee melody. A volley of ceiling-shaking hops accompanies his next tune, which morphs into a chorus of odd fluty noises– part Oster blender, part baby’s babble. Nasal “mmm—mmmm—mmmm’s” and toneless, almost sinister laughter follows. More hops. The water in my glass ripples Jurassic Park-style.
Not even a minute has passed.
Now he runs–percussive footfalls sound like boulders bouncing down a wooden hill.
Then silence, calm and uncanny. In stillness, minutes are twice as long.
I peek in the computer room. Soft keyboard clicks whisper. Rapt, Liev composes a bedtime plan as tidy as any accountant.
“Look at this mama. I’ve decided to modify my bedtime schedule…”
As he rattles on, I smile. He speaks at me, rather than to me. Therapists might shake their heads at this observation, but I have a different perspective. Liev is energized, passionate. Ask yourself–when your favorite team scores and you cry out, “Hooray!” is your “hooray” a conversation or an exclamation from your heart? My son’s Super bowl is composing schedules.
After his plan is printed, violin humming and bouncing boulders resume.
Not fearful words, descriptive ones. His whirlwind of tics, hops, and songs are as a beautiful as his quiet typing. Nourish every child as a whole person. We are all part nature and nurture, but nurture is for nature, not against it. By accepting neurology instead of suppressing it, the worth and dignity you give now will sustain a child through a lifetime of difficult moments and judging glances.
Fifteen years ago, my mother and I fixed our last Thanksgiving Dinner together.
Mom, who is our usual chef and organizer of fantastic feasts, declined hosting the celebration due to a painful hip. Since my husband and I recently purchased our first home, I jumped at the chance to hold an All-Lori, All-About Me Thanksgiving Spectacle. Our aging Montgomery Ward table would creak under the weight of my homemade repast.
The day before the dinner, I invited Mom over to prep. Vegetables would be chopped, bread cubed, and chardonnay sipped.
Mom pulled up at noon in the family ¾-ton van. Limping heavily, she asked me to unload boxes. I swung open van doors to a staggering assortment of containers. I should not have been surprised. Mom’s approach to everything is militaristic—a task to conquer and subdue. Incredible detail goes into her perfect dinners.
Box one contained two quarts of crystal clear turkey stock for gravy. Formulated from organic turkey necks, gizzards, and her proprietary bouquet garni, Mom detailed its production and the how to achieve the broth’s jewel-like clarity. I discretely poured my murky, gritty broth into our dog’s dish, making a mental note that furious and prolonged boiling of animal parts is better suited to making glue than gravy.
Mom’s second box held her seasoning blends. Handpicked and hand mixed, the aroma evoked decades of Quaker Thanksgiving pasts. Generations of women before us used these same herbs, perhaps even diced and rubbed with the same fastidiousness. Butter, margarine, and two kinds of cooking oil nestled in the third box. I smiled, remembering Mom teaching me about the properties of cooking oils. Peanut oil is flavorless and rarely smokes. Butter needs special attention lest it burns. I make a mental note to scoop my recently charred onions into the compost pile.
Box four held folded parchment paper and ancient copper cookware. “Always buy quality,” Mom reminded me, “Good equipment means good cooking.”
I opened box five, a 12-gallon metal-hinged storage container. Mom’s bundled cutlery collection shared space with her favorite chopping blocks and a hodgepodge of, plates, dishes, and 1970’s Tupperware. Mismatched measuring cups and favorite stirring spoons protruded from items wrapped in decades-old (but immaculate!) dishtowels. As I hauled in a sixth box (Favorite frying pan! Gargantuan whisk! Metal bowls I remember from first grade! ), I felt overwhelmed by the Mom-stuff, crowding my newly appointed Dollar Store kitchen. Was the idea of post-Thanksgiving washing and packing up thirty years of loved kitchen supplies daunting? Not as much as feeling small and un-hostess-like.
I equipped Mom’s cooking station, according to detailed directions. Each instruction rendered me younger and younger until at last, I was six years old. My broth sucked. My onions burned. My spices stank. How could I host such a special event? Tension stirred my shoulders, but remembering my real age, I poured us each a glass of wine. Conviviality resumed.
Back to following instructions, I handed Mom her largest cutting board delicately wrapped in a pillowcase that once belonged to my grandmother. Mom unmasked it with a musical “Tada!”
I cringed. Satan’s unsavory, punched-out-by-Jesus incisor would have looked more wholesome. An abundance of crisscrossing knife marks etched and blackened its putrid yellow surface. Mom, noting my grimace, reminded me that her chopping block was quite sanitary since she microwaves it daily. “Bleaching your chopping block,” she said, “ruins the taste of the food you cut on it.” The knowing twinkle in her eye tells me she is teasing–I disinfect with swathes of Tilex Mold & Mildew Remover with Bleach, which she finds revolting.
Mom launched into her chopping ceremony with a knife sharpening ritual (she also brought her sharpening kit). I washed veggies and used the food processor to mince Vidalia onions for my famous green chile cranberry sauce. My mechanical dicing scandalized mom, who discussed it with our dog Misty (“Food processing destroys the cellular structure of the onions, Misty!”). I joined Mom at the cooking station, with my super-ultra-white bleached cutting board.
Mom’s freshly sharpened knives gleamed before her. She described the particulars of her favorite cutting tools selected to optimize the paring, chopping, dicing and trimming of specific ingredients for tomorrow’s meal. When Mom sensed me drifting off, she addressed Misty. Here is a knife for onions, a knife for celery, a knife for bread, a knife for me to stab myself in the head with, and so on.
The more she instructed, the more irritable I became. I was the hostess! This was my meal to screw up or succeed. I wanted her to listen to me, be proud of me, and accept me and my burnt onions as good enough because I was her daughter. Of course, I didn’t say this. Instead, I snapped at her when she asked Misty why I forgot to buy shallots.
“I didn’t forget them, Mom! I burned the shallots along with the onions,” I said, showing her my pan of shame.
Mom pursed her lips and eyed Misty, but wisely stayed silent. I huffed around the kitchen for a bit, until I noticed Mom and Misty regarding me with amused affection. I shook my head and laughed, meeting Mom’s warm eyes. She laughed, too and Misty dashed around the house in celebration. An unspoken peace presided. Mom praised my green chile cranberry sauce, and I offered her my special nut-chopping knife. Compliments flowed. With her guidance, we served an excellent meal.
As I look back, I realize I missed what was happening. Mom was passing the torch to me. I became the maker of Thanksgiving Feasts, and Mom was showing me how to do it right. She packed up her whole kitchen with delicate care. She assembled ancestral herbs spices and took her time to walk me through it step by step. I was so enamored by the thrill of being the host; I forgot the tradition, deliciousness, and my dear mothers place in our family history.
Mom and I now live 2,000 miles apart, so we don’t cook together any longer. Her lessons, however, are still with me. I burn onions and dry out the turkey, but now these misadventures are funny stories we share. Maybe the biggest lesson I learned was to accept myself as imperfect and know that I am loved.
When he was five, my son decided that apricots had souls. His spiritual journey began the day Lull Farm had a sale on fresh apricots. Their unblemished perfection reminded me of the two immense apricot trees that grew in my childhood backyard. These fruit powerhouses kept Mom busy making jams, cobblers, yogurts, and every conceivable confection. Even our dogs harvested apricots, navigating the inner branches to reach choice fruit. Summer wasn’t official until I collected the first pit-filled scat from our scrubby lawn.
To make my favorite treat, fruit leather, Mom boiled apricots into a paste in a two-day marathon. The sweet, almost tropical aroma clung to Naugahyde chairs and bead curtains for weeks. Thick, sticky apricot goop got everywhere, and I licked spoons and fingers until my stomach grumbled ominous warnings. My son deserved a taste of that glorious tradition, so I purchased a few quarts of fruit.
At home, I cleared the table to make a dramatic presentation to him. Like my mother before me, I offered an apricot to him and asked him to admire its beauty:
“Feel its soft fuzz? Soft, like velvet. Like a horse’s snout. See its colors? Yellow-orange, orange, and pinkish-red? Smell it, almost like a peach…”
“Now, take a bite,”
Liev blinked, his eyes filled with tears.
He shook his head.
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s too beautiful. I cannot bear to kill it. I feel sorry for it.”
Even though I followed the script that won me over as a child, it did not work for Liev. He is a child who loves the fragile and defenseless — a rescuer of slugs, earthworms, and pill bugs. He understood that fruit is likewise helpless. So, his apricot friend rested on our kitchen table until it shrunk and moldered. “Fruit have souls,” Liev stated as he chose a sunny spot for an apricot grave. He buried it with a song, hoping for a baby tree to grow from its seed.
As he grew older, Liev adopted occasional fruits and vegetables. Anxiety and stress triggered bouts of fruit hoarding. Perhaps he longed to preserve order in the universe by saying, “No, not this one!” After missing three weeks of fourth grade for an infected finger, a family of winter squash moved into his bedroom. Our new guests became bedtime story celebrities, offering sage advice about taking antibiotics and returning to school.
Liev, savior of produce, is also a champion of spiders. His affection sprang from toddlerhood when I taught him that capturing and releasing spiders is better than eating them. Saving spiders became a public affair when Liev turned six. At a nearby Rite-Aid, he chased a swift wolf spider across an expanse of white linoleum near a checkout. Confused patrons and employees scattered as he corralled the wriggling creature on to a sales circular. Shrill squeals erupted from the gathered crowd as the wily spider escaped twice on its journey outside.
So, our home is Halloween-ready year-round. Plump arachnids perch in corners, their children unafraid of newspaper swats. Ghostly wisps of deserted webs remain intact until we are confident the occupants are deceased. If malaria and cholera did not petrify him, Liev would fling doors and windows wide open so spiders could feast on neighborhood mosquitoes and houseflies.
Which brings me to the Cupcake Incident.
Remember Liev’s extended absence? Well, his return day fell on the class Halloween party. An unsuspecting parent hosted the party with a Pinterest inspired activity. She handed out pretzels, chocolate cupcakes, and mournful candy eyes to make “Spider Cupcakes.” Liev was so thrilled to make his a little spider that he stabbed half the pretzel legs deep into the cake and broke the rest. It was his spider! His spider named “Speeder.”
Then his classmates began to eat their spiders. While the details of his outburst are sketchy, it was epic enough for me to pick him up early. Not only did he shout, “No, no, no you’re killing the spiders! You made them! How could you!” but he also and tried to rescue the spider cupcakes by plucking them from his peer’s hands. Paraeducators appealed to his sweet tooth to tame his uproar, “These spiders are for eating Liev, they are delicious! Yum!” Bad idea. Tears arrived in torrents, “I don’t wanna eat my Speeder! No! No! Don’t make me eat him! I LOVE HIM!” Red-faced and tearful, staff escorted him to the nurse’s office, promising that he did not have to eat his cupcake nor watch others eat theirs.
Liev’s upset vanished in a quiet setting with quiet words:
“Liev, the other children don’t see the spiders as real. I know spiders are special to you, and you do not need to eat yours. You can take him home and keep him for as long as you like.”
Some compassion and a way to control a situation that caused big emotions was what he needed. After school, when we walked to the car, he wiped away still-falling tears and said, “Mama, it’s okay for the other kids to eat their spiders, but we should keep this one forever.” To this day, the spider lives tucked away atop the kitchen cabinets—a testament to the durability of grocery store baked goods and one boy’s love.
At twelve, Liev shrugs when I remind him of the Cupcake Incident:
“My brain understood that Speeder was not real, but the thought that he could get hurt was huge. I still worry about hurting helpless creatures. I even feel sorry if I smoosh a banana. It’s an OCD thing. Some people wash their hands. I want to rescue things.”
The voice of OCD csounds like the voice of your conscience urging you to do the right thing. Liev and I bear the crush of this righteousness upon our brows; a forever voice in our ears that calls to us to be virtuous, to do no harm, and to protect the weak. While care and responsibility are traits precious to the human condition, balancing scrupulosity is hard work. Liev is off to a wonderful start!
In high school, I laughed too loud and too long. Shushed a thousand times, I never realized how annoying I was until our French class videotaped a comic recital. When we re-watched it after school, my lusty guffaws drown out the players on stage. My whole body blushed. Adding to my mortification, our teacher, Ms. Lucia, commented, “And here is Lori laughing…”
She did not say this in a jovial manner, to ease my embarrassment. She sounded defeated, sad for me, as if my laughter was a sign of incurable illness or impending disaster.
This hurt. I thought Ms. Lucia enjoyed my good spirits. After all, I spent hours writing comical journals and assignments for class. Classmates encouraged my boisterous antics and skits. I longed to be her favorite! But that honor went to another. Michelle. Plop a Tonya Harding haircut on Snow White, add mom jeans and a Peter Pan collar and you have Michelle. Starched and stalwart, her seriousness contrasted sharply with my over the top exuberance. If I sat next to her, she scooted her erasers and highlighters opposite me. (I was in the habit of transforming them into smiley faces mid-lesson). She stifled her discomfort but eventually, I felt it–an electric current of stay away.
We did not begin as adversaries. French class meant the world to me and I liked Michelle. She worked hard for every quiz, test, and assignment. I, however, aced exams and sailed through lessons with barely a glance at the material.
Since routine classwork bored me, I created little narratives. I never handed in six-sentence verb exercises or blasé paragraphs about the library. Instead, I illustrated three-page epics replete with new vocabulary and painstakingly researched grammar. My teacher commended my stories, but since I took my time handing them in, I seldom got credit.
Michelle, however, was always on time. She completed assignments as instructed, in neat and precise handwriting. I worked, when and how it suited me. Below average grades on my late masterpieces didn’t matter because I enjoyed writing them. Michelle worked with daily determination for good grades. She was the ant, and I was the grasshopper, except winter never came.
My senior year showed me where I stood with Ms. Lucia. Without enough students for a French III class, the ambitious could petition to study an extra year under her guidance. Michelle was accepted, and I was not. When I made a fuss, Ms. Lucia handed me a book and told me to study on my own during a free period. Without support, I drifted away. Decades have passed, but her rejection still visits me. In dreams, I sit forever alone before an open textbook, sad, bored, and failing French III.
Twice-exceptional* students struggle with rote and repetitive classwork. This grind is hard in a non-intellectual way. Results seem so distant that it feels like climbing an endless stairway to a pointless destination. Just sitting still was an effort for me, so I respected Michelle’s tenacity as she hauled herself up each long and boring step. I managed by completing projects with a flourish. Unfortunately, the world finds flourishes less valuable than deadlines, so I’ve failed plenty of courses. Every time, the recipe was the same–I mired myself in interesting tangents and details while neglecting routine assignments. Somehow, I skipped over skills that others had been building since kindergarten.
I’d like to change the past–but not to improve my grade. I want to go back for Michelle. She never realized that I equated her between-class studiousness with my story-writing industriousness. We both worked hard for French and thus, were sisters. I tried my awkward best to be friendly, to make her smile, but somehow I managed to only alienate her further. The more I bumbled, the more anxious I became. Anxiety fueled future stupid and off-putting behavior, to my eternal chagrin. Friendship isn’t something Michelle owed me, but if she understood that my behavior was neurological and not conceit or ridicule, my heart would be at ease.
In retrospect, I wonder if Ms. Lucia was worthy of the affection I held for her. She could have spoken kindly to me about my unintended laugh track. She could have sat me further from the microphone. She could have paired me with Michelle instead of setting me adrift in an empty classroom. Michelle and I could have collaborated and emerged twice as capable. Come to think of it, Ms. Lucia’s every wince, sigh, and impatient gesture taught students like Michelle that I was somehow less-than.
Fortunately, the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” educational philosophy of the 80s is vanishing. Feeling less-than, unliked, and discarded can haunt students well beyond grade school. I am grateful my son’s school has a progressive and positive atmosphere. When his neurology kicks into overdrive, his teachers support him and set a strong example of acceptance. As I write, he has found his own Michelle, and I cannot wait to see what they create together.
*My exceptionalities are autism and Tourette’s syndrome