When I imagined having a daughter I pictured a mini-me: strawberry blond hair and freckles, an introvert, maybe a bit shy, who is happiest snuggled on the couch with a hot cup of tea and a crossword. When she was born with a thick tuft of jet black hair, I was undeterred – babies often lose their first hair and what grows back can be dramatically different. We could still share the red-headed gene, and sit together under the umbrella on the beach after playing in the water, applying our SPF 50 and moaning about how pale we were in summer and admiring our lovely skin in winter.
By age 3, her soft brown hair had settled over olive-skinned ears, and it was clear our bond would not be over freckling and sun burns. But no matter, there was still the bond we would share over the things we would both surely love – and I was convinced we’d spend time snuggling on the couch watching the latest BBC mini-series in no time.
When she turned 4, her extroverted personality really began to shine through and it did not include anything quiet. And while she will find me for a quick hug, snuggling takes much longer than she has time for. She developed into a leader – sharp and brave, never hesitating to solve problems or set the rules (sometimes too many rules), with a level of confidence I have never had. She hates walks unless we have an approved destination. When she enters a room, she makes sure everyone knows it, and when she stays home sick from school, she never fails to point out how, “All the kids at school will really miss me.” Add to this that she is very, very loud – at all times.
Images of quiet walks and tea time began to fade away and, for a long time, I struggled to connect with her beyond being there when she needed me – but she rarely does beyond the regular skinned knee or bad cold. When a friend asked my son whether he protected his little sister, he replied with surprise, “Bridget? Oh no, she is brave enough to protect herself.”
I noticed it wasn’t only me struggling. She was jealous over my easy relationship with my son (my actual mini-me, freckles, books and all). He and I have long discussions and find humor and interest in what we did in our day – laughing over jokes that only we get, and he loves to sit next to me on the couch and help me with my crossword.
The best I could hope for was that Bridget and I could find something we shared when she was older. But I worried that time would never come.
One May afternoon, I had the window open, one ear listening to the kids playing outside while I chopped vegetables for dinner and one ear to NPR. We live in a developing country, so good prepared foods are not available, making each dinner a long process of going to several stores for meats and vegetables and cooking that starts from scratch. And I admit cooking is not my forte. I cook to provide healthy food for my family. I cook to save money. I do not cook because I love it. But I have made it a meditative part of my day – baking away while I listen to the radio or some mindless show on TV.
But on this warm, spring afternoon, it became too quiet outside, which as any parent knows means trouble. I turned off the radio, and called through the screen, “Everyone okay?” My son replied, “Just looking for bugs. I’ll show you later.” But I didn’t hear my daughter’s voice.
“Bridget, everything ok?” I called again.
I almost chopped off my thumb mid-onion when my daughter loudly replied directly over my shoulder, standing on a stool she had silently moved just behind me. “You’re chopping it wrong Mommy,” she said. “It won’t look nice that way. Can I do it?”
I shooed her off the stool and out of the kitchen, saying she was too young for knives, irritated she had surprised me like that. Plus, the idea that the child who treats every dinner like she is a magazine food critic (and a cranky one at that), wanting to help with dinner was ridiculous. I turned my NPR back on low and heard them both looking for bugs outside - my son complaining that her loud voice was scaring them away.
The next afternoon, as I stood facing the chicken I had to separate, rinse and marinade, and a mountain of vegetables to wash and rewash before chopping; I heard the kitchen stool dragging along the floor behind me. And then there Bridget was again, asking me what was for dinner. I replied with one of the usual dishes. “I think I can help you make it really good,” she said in her ever-confident voice.
“No, no, you can’t handle raw chicken – you might get sick. Go play with your brother outside,” I said maybe a little too sharply. She stomped off again – this time with a few tears.
Twenty minutes later, halfway through making my marinade, I saw that Bridget had quietly returned to the kitchen and was sitting on the floor, petting the dog, and watching me. That the loudest child in any room of children (we actually got her hearing checked because she speaks so loudly) was willing to sit quietly to observe me cooking dinner brought on a shock of realization that she loves cooking so much she is willing to do whatever it takes to be a part of it.
I turned off the radio and asked if she wanted to help. Bridget jumped up off the floor, brought a small apron out from behind her back that had come with a child’s kitchen set, pulled up a stool, grabbed a piece of raw chicken and begin to rinse it in the sink before dropping it in the bowl of marinade.
She cracked eggs, basted meat, and sautéed onions – handling the kitchen like she had been doing it for years. I wondered how many times she had been watching me when I didn’t notice. Or did this skill come to her naturally?
From that moment on, as long as I am in the kitchen, she is by my side – literally. She actually leans on me a bit while we work – occasionally giving me a kiss on the cheek. Maybe it wasn’t only the cooking. Maybe we finally had something we could do together; and although we are in the kitchen for different reasons, maybe that doesn’t matter so much.
When I hosted a baby shower a few weeks ago, she had the menu planned before I had even sent the invites (which she also asked to pre-approve). And she stood by me that long Sunday morning chopping, sautéing, arranging. She insisted on coming with me to choose the flower centerpiece because, she explained, “I am just better at that than you Mommy.” And she’s right. The only thing I did on my own was to choose the cakes to buy, and nobody ate them. She shook her head after the party and sighed, “You should have let me come to the bakery.”
Bridget is still 6 – at the baby shower she had too many cookies and got fussy and fell asleep on my lap with crumbs all over her dress. But the next afternoon she was back by my side while I chopped my way through a lentil stew.
My kitchen is different now. The music and the TV are gone so we can discuss preparation and presentation (the latter I never gave a thought too until she joined me). It is certainly much less Zen. I spend half the time over her shoulder making sure she doesn’t chop her finger off, burn her arm, or put her hand in her mouth after touching raw meat. My sister and I call this kind of kitchen assistance, “kitchen hell-p.” But I never shoo her away anymore and I’m not sure if I did, she’d listen.
The kitchen is her domain, her happy place, and it is a place she knows she can find me every afternoon. I look forward to returning to the states this summer, with the ease of takeout and the vast array of prepared dinner options. But I think I will cook a little more from scratch than I used to when I come to live in the U.S.
By Suzette Lohmeyer