She Who Burns the Bread, Laughs Last

Today is my mother’s birthday. To my knowledge, she hasn’t burned anything yet.

While that may sound a vaguely harsh criticism of her cooking abilities, or perhaps insinuating arsonist tendencies, you have to know first that this is a good thing. My mom can cook, I can’t argue that. She was a fantastic provider. She raised three of us on a creative buffet of inexpensive delights and potpourri leftover bathed-in-cheese-casserole type things. She fished, bringing home fresh flounder, sea bass, and shrimp. She stocked the freezer with mountains of peaches and blueberries she picked herself (which is not entirely true, unless “picking” them out at roadside produce markets count, which would practically qualify her as a farmer). She taught us the one million ways in which eggs can be eaten, cost effective uses of ground beef, why macaroni and cheese is the most underrated vegetable on the planet, how anything can sound appetizing if you just name it properly (Shit on a Shingle, no thanks–Hamburger Gravy on Toast, LINE ME UP!), and why come chocolate tastes better when it’s an appetizer.

Most importantly, she learned us the value of properly cooked/baked/toasted bread. Whether toast, biscuits, muffins, grilled sandwiches, it was vitally important to get the bread cooked perfectly. Mess up the bread and the entire meal unravels faster than a cheating politician’s career. Or something like that. I’ve forgotten all references appropriate to the 80’s or earlier. If you can’t deal with that, build me a time machine so I can go back, learn them again, find myself and hand over a list of things it will be necessary to forget. Wait, why does that sound more like a memory than an idea?

Hm.

Well, anyway, mom was very specific about the importance of learning to cook. Actually, she was very specific about the importance of learning to do dishes, clean counters, mop floors, vacuum, and do your own laundry. She said she was raising adults, not children, which may well be the most clever thing I’ve heard in my life. I mean, not only is it a sage perspective on raising kids, but it’s the biggest Get Out of Jail Free card ever invented.

Don’t have clean jeans? Well, whose fault is that? Roaches in your bedroom? Maybe you should try vacuuming once in a while. Want a sandwich? Go for it. I’ll just be over here gutting this Flounder I caught so you won’t starve tonight.

Really, it’s genius. By age thirteen, I had no excuses. We each had weeks in which we were supposed to create a menu, build a shopping list, hunt for coupons for the products we needed, shop, then take charge of the Chef’s hat. If you’ve never heard a twelve-year-old boy shout, “I don’t care if you don’t want it. You’ll eat your dinner and you’ll like it!” you’re truly missing out.

She did this with everything, tutoring us in a way that specifically stated, “You’ll need to know how to do this when you move out at eighteen, please.” And we, the blissfully ignorant triumvirate we were, marched onward, somewhat certain we were fine with it, but always a bit shy on complete confidence we weren’t being duped.

Then something happened that changed everything. Something that turned our world on its end, shook us free to float away in zero gravity, and scoffed at our hapless attempts to fight our way back. Mom burned the bread. At first it was just toast. Nothing trivial, but hardly catastrophic. We came to terms with it. We started making our own toast. No big deal. Then she burned our grilled cheese. Ok, so this was getting a bit serious. Not only was she ruining the bread, but she was putting cheese in the line of fire. Unacceptable. Move over, woman, you’re off the line. No more grilled sandwiches.

Then the coup de grâce. The unforgivable. The misstep that gets you whooped in the shed. Or, if it’s your mother, of whom you will not be whooping in the shed, a stern look of both disappointment and shock.

Mom burned the biscuits.

Not just burned, mind you. All but reduced to ash. “Blackened” and “charred” ran for cover in fear of being tabbed. This was apocalyptic darkness. Meal. Ruined. Oh sure, there was something else on the plate, who even knows what now. Does it really matter? It probably had a sauce of some kind, though. A SAUCE BUT NO BISCUIT! What do you do? You’re just left with all of this uneaten sauce all over your plate and nothing to sop it up with. Food gets soggy, you can’t tilt your plate. There were vegetable on the plate, for crying out loud! How do you mask the horrific taste of sprouts without the buttery bliss of golden brown biscuits? YOU CAN’T!

My brother, sister, and I shared looks at the table. No words were spoken, but we knew the awful truth. We knew what it meant. We knew this was the end of an Era. We could never let her near any bread product again. Ever. Oh, she would offer. We knew she would always offer. But, no mom, no thanks, have a seat, we’ll get the bread. Unwritten, unspoken, forever protected.

True to our pact, we made the bread. And things were good. Dinners were fine. We were content.

Then she left water boiling too long. She burned the popcorn, nearly blazing the eyebrows off my face when I made the less-than-intelligent lift of the lid to see what she had done (for the record, do not do this. Oxygen gets scared of burnt popcorn and turns to flame out of absolute disbelief anyone would render such a wonderful treat to blackened nubs.). She overcooked the chicken, leaving us with a dry-to-the-bone bird. There was probably no sauce, given she cooked the meal and was disallowed to make biscuits. Just dry chicken and, I don’t know, something green I didn’t like.

Inexplicably, time had taken mom’s ability to cook. She couldn’t be trusted. She was too forgetful. It was time to set aside our sibling banter and do what needed to be done. We started cooking the meals. Mom, again true to her nature as a kind and loving woman, protested, but we politely declined.

It was some years later, Thanksgiving as I recall, the three of us busting our asses to get the meal ready, my mom sitting calmly at the table reading a magazine, glancing up periodically to offer help, smiling her way back to her articles when we shushed her, that it finally occurred to me we had been duped by a master. I remember wanting to call her out on it, but I was stunned by the revelation. In a state of disbelief that we had so easily been snookered. Not only had we been blindsided, we were happy with it. We wanted to cook.

I probably should have bowed to her then. It would have been more appropriate.

So, I suppose this serves a dual purpose. One the one side, to the kids of the world who are not only not reading this but entirely unaware I exist, it’s a cautionary tale. Beware a mother’s trickery. On the other, for the mothers of young children, I beg of you, I plead, I offer whatever it is I must: Do this to your kids. I don’t want us to be the only group of kids this has happened to. The shame is unbearable.

Happy birthday to most clever, trixy, mother I know.

So much 70's. So much.

So much 70’s. So much.

All Hail the Empress of Doom

The past nine days have been longer than normal.

That’s not a euphemism, nor is it a reference to the summer solstice. Neither is it an effort to recount the days as only Navin can. It’s a Puppy Thing. After much consideration, I made the mistake of being talked into visiting some puppies in order to decompress and let go of some unwanted stress. Which, I suppose is to say, “normal stress”. It isn’t as if any stress is wanted, is it? Ah. Yes. True. I could edit that, but I’m not going to. You’re just going to have to deal with it, and take your aggression out on someone unsuspecting Violator of English who dares mention the phrase unwanted stress in your presence. It won’t affect me. I’m too tired. Right, so there we were, trying to let go of life’s Force Choke, when we willfully agreed to forgo sleep in exchange for the cutest ball of fur we’d ever seen. It didn’t happen quickly. We were there for four hours. Most of those four hours involved us staring at each other, perhaps desperately hoping the other had the will power to say no, while simultaneously ready to defend our right to make impetuous decisions about cute balls of fur thank you very much.

There was a lot of this:

“Well, what do you think?”

“I think she’s cute.”

“But what do you think?”

“I think we’re in trouble is what I think.”

That moment when you walk away, puppy in arms, backseat loaded down with crate, food, puppy vitamins, leash and collar/harness, eight million toys that either squeak four millions versions of ear-splitting pain or have beady black plastic eyes that are way too easy to chew off and potentially choke to death on, treats, puppy pads, bowls, the realization that MANY trips to the vet are in your future, and a stunned look of uneasy joy that says, “Dear God, we have a puppy and no true feel for whether or not we’ll survive it.”  That.

And it’s impossible not to be elated, despite the surviving unease with your ability to make rational decisions. At least until she pees on the carpet thirty minutes after you get her home. Or when she does it thirty minutes later. Or thirty minutes after that. And no matter how many times you tell yourself to be patient, she’s just a puppy, she’ll learn, no worries she’ll sleep through the night eventually, your wonderful glorious dream-laden nights of peaceful sleep are gone, perhaps forever. You begin to realize how much more your little bundle of fur is sleeping than you. Sure, you can attempt a nap during the day, but you do so with the knocking presence of fear that she’s emptied her bladder in her crate and is now swimming in a piddle puddle of piss. Which is an awful image, but hardly the matter that concerns you most. No, instead it occurs to you that you’re going to have to clean a pee sponge because you selfishly chose sleep over constant vigilance. So you bypass the nap in favor of staring at a blank wall, trying to remember the last time you wondered about Heffalumps and Woozles. You attempt to plan dinner, but decide hot dogs and mac n’ cheese has never sounded better. You stock up on wine.

Still, it’s just one night. So you only managed 3 hours sleep, one ear concentrating on any sound that might be a whimper of I Just Peed Oh No It’s Everywhere. So you haven’t been up at six in the morning in years. So you reach eleven in the morning wondering how the hell it isn’t four in the afternoon yet. It’s all good. You have a puppy! Isn’t she cute? Who cares if she’s peed everywhere except the pad? At this point, I should also mention that we’re in a fifth floor apartment. There’s a lengthy hallway to the elevator. So when I say she’s peed everywhere, I do feel justified in the exaggeration. Fortunately the property management is changing out the hallway carpet soon. Hopefully not too soon, but soon enough for me to feel fine and dandy in a shrug each time my squirmy little fur ball squats in the hall because she can’t wait for the elevator.

You begin to feel like it’ll never change. That the reminder of life will result in conversations you never thought you’d have.

“Does she have to pee? She looks like she has to pee?”

“How can you tell?”

“She’s sniffing everywhere. Oh God, she’s peeing!”

“No she isn’t. She just sat down to chew on her foot. Honestly, you don’t have to … oh, wait. Yup. Now she’s peeing.”

Days begin to drag along with the speed and deliberate insensitivity of that not-quite-handicapped person in the motorized cart at the grocery store. Sleep is an ever-elusive prod in your weary mind. You spend hours watching the puppy, circling her, waiting for the merest of twitches in the back legs that might indicate a new pee stain to clean. Every movement says, “I have to pee.” Every whimper has you reaching for the leash, and onward to another frustrating walk with no results. You’re edgy, impatient, feeling the life force drain away, realizing the harbinger of doom was, in fact, not the floppy-eared seven-pound creature of cuteness, but you and your reckless impulsive decision-making self. It never ends.

Then, one day, unprompted, she walks over to the pad and pees dead center. She walks to the door because she has to go. She stops waking up at three in the morning, maintaining her bladder until six. It’s not much, you admit, but it’s something. Three hours of sleep becomes five or six. You and your mind-weary partner can go to the store, leave her in the crate knowing she’ll just nap. You finally allow that you no longer both have to be up at the same time, and alternate sleeping late and taking naps. You still have to keep an eye on her, but the torment of the squeaky toy is now a blessing. You know where she is, at least. You only have to panic when the squeaking stops. So, instead of Defcon 3 Pee Alert, you downgrade to Defcon 3.

You almost relax.

She learns to sit. She kinda will stay, providing the treat is visible or you sound like Zeus issuing commands from Olympus. She has no idea what her name is, or why you insist on yelling at her when she runs from outstretched arms that will surely destroy her. She falls to the floor in a crumpled mess of despair, head on her paws, drifting into an emotional coma when you call her a Bad Girl. She gains a few pounds and suddenly she doesn’t fit as well in one hand. She greets you with unbridled excitement when you return from the other room, looking as though she feared you’d never return. She has little puppy dreams of psycho cats hissing at her around every corner, whimpering, kicking her furry feet. She shuts down into a deep sleep every time you rub her belly. She’s so warm you might just fall asleep with her.

Suddenly, six in the morning feels refreshing. You’re tired, but rested. You look at her, she looks at you, and you realize, no matter the cost, no matter the nature of the decision, it was worth it.

Molly, the Empress of Doom. Look into her eyes and she will own your soul.

Molly, the Empress of Doom. Look into her eyes and she will own your soul.