Cooking with Marlowe
To love is to pay attention. And it is never more obvious than with our children.
A friend is expecting her first baby and fighting last-hour jitters: “How will I know when she is hungry? When she is tired?” You’ll learn, I say. Most of it is unconscious, but you have never studied something so intensely as you will study her.
I study mine. At 16 months Marlowe doesn’t like to be hot and she hates it when I cook. Brown bananas are splitting their skins on the counter and I’m just setting out measuring spoons and bowls when the whining starts. I tug off her cardigan and tiny socks and she rewards me with a howl of protest that weakens when I sit her on the cool kitchen tiles. She quiets when I place a baking sheet before her and dump out a baby-sized mountain of flour. With spoons and cups she gets to work. I crack and stir and sweeten, get the banana bread in the oven, clean the counter and make coffee as she scoops and sifts and instructs (“More this please and more this and this. Yes, and this. Thank you!”). For 35 minutes she “bakes,” a lifetime for a toddler and a triumph for the mom still learning to meet her needs.
Watching her, the absorption with which she swirls her flour, I finally understand that her cries of “nocook!” aren’t about cooking, but the attention I give to the process. Attention that would otherwise be hers. In all the cities I’ve lived, through all the jobs and friends I’ve called my own, the kitchen has been my holy ground. It took Marlowe, with all of a few months’ life experience, to sense what has taken me a decade to learn: My daily acts of love are opening the fridge, turning on the tap, and holding an egg in my hand.
Because, of course, Marlowe has been watching me with an intensity that outstrips my own. She has the infant will to survive and that means mapping everything her mom does. To be the focus of that locked gaze—“tracking” the doctors call it, appropriately—feels more sacred than anything I’ve known. But it takes getting used to. My pre-baby instinct, when caught in the crosshairs, was to go still until the hunter lost interest. With a child hungry to learn, that’s not an option. She is relentless in her pursuit of knowing me. She knew where to find me before she could speak.
“Mom?” she asked recently, “Were you lost? You weren’t with me or in the kitchen!” She’s still not ready to expand my range.
Suddenly she is 2 and whipping cream in my favorite blue bowl, white clouds cupped in an upside-down sky. She mimics what she has seen, moving the mixer through and around, pausing to “test” with the spoon she keeps in her lap for such purposes. When the time comes, I hand her the bowl and watch, heart full, as she carries it to the table.
“Would you like whipped cream with your cake? Would you like whipped cream with your cake? Would you like to share some whipped cream and cake?”
It is Thanksgiving and we are having pie, but what matters is the sense of pride I hear, her realization that she can contribute.
Now it is Christmas and she is 2 years and 2 months. In plaid pajamas she sits on the kitchen island, pounding candy canes with a mortar and pestle. I melt chocolate at the stove and try not to caution her against pounding her own fingers. She finishes, sets the pestle down and turns to me, spoon in hand.
“Not yet,” I say. “It needs to cool.”
She takes a Clementine from the fruit bowl and tears through the rind and some of the fruit, juice spraying her thumbs and still-dimpled paws. This is the first citrus season that she is able to peel and she has risen to the occasion. I find small, fragrant gifts drying in the linen closet and in my boot. But for now she is content to stay put, orange scraps stacking up beside her. She separates the fruit, first in half and then into individual segments, eating them one by one. When she reaches the last, she does something unexpected; dunking one end into the warm pool of melted chocolate.
She dips with precision, leaving exactly one half of the orange exposed. She’s not done. Reaching across the counter with one hand, she protects her dipped orange with the other. Her head-heavy body wobbles and I squeeze my spatula to keep myself from “helping.” Her goal is the box of Maldon sea salt. She takes a pinch and, steadying herself for one scary moment on her elbow, sprinkles. Salt flakes settle like gems in the still-wet chocolate. In her mouth this delicately dipped and salted treat goes and when she grins it is with chocolate juice dribbling down her chin.
I am silenced. When she is done I wipe her mouth and lift her down, holding her to me for one extra moment before she squirms. So it begins, I think. There are two of us here now, in this kitchen and beyond. She’s ready to do things I’ve never dreamed of doing.
If it happens that I’m not there to see, she’ll know where to find me.