You Have to Make a Mess Sometimes

I scrolled down the recipe, my all-purpose-flour-smudged finger clouding the laptop screen. On wax paper, roll dough into a 1/2-inch thick square. Yes, that was what I had forgotten during our grocery-store run an hour ago: wax paper.

“What do we do next, Mom?” Grace smiled at me expectantly.

“Hmm…we’re going to improvise.” I pulled out aluminum foil.

“Does the recipe say to improvise?”

I looked at my older, by-the-book daughter. She looked back. “Work with me here, honey,” I said.

“Yum, yum, yum.” Anna was sitting cross-legged on the countertop, scooping up rainbow nonpareils—we had accidentally spilled half the jar a few minutes earlier—and stuffing them into her mouth. Our baking adventure could be going a bit smoother.

(P.S. A fun fact: Aluminum foil is not a good substitute for wax paper, at least in terms of a surface on which to roll dough and then freeze it.)

Beeeeep.

“Mom!” both girls yelled simultaneously.

I held up my hands. “The oven is ready,” I explained. “Everything is OK.”

I peered at the screen. Bake until cookies are light brown, 18 to 20 minutes. I got them into the oven and set the timer.

“I can’t wait to eat them,” Grace said.

Anna looked up from her fistful of a sugar rush. “Me too.”

“We’re making these for Pop, for his birthday,” I reminded my daughters. “We have to save some for him too.”

The girls looked at each other, having a silent, sister-to-sister tête-à-tête in front of me. “Pop can have two,” Grace told me.

Anna nodded her agreement. “He’ll be fine.”

Two cookies out of twenty for the birthday boy—sure, that seemed fair.

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Approximately half an hour later, I let the girls sample a cookie—”Just one, ladies!”—as I’d promised. I poured milk into two glasses too, because everyone knows you can’t really enjoy a cookie without a glass of milk (or cup of coffee).

Then I knocked over one of the glasses of milk.

Milk splashed across the countertop, onto my legs, into a white pool on the floor. I closed my eyes, sighed.

“Mom.” Anna poked her head around the corner. “Do you have our milk yet?”

“Just one second, honey…”

Later that evening, I emailed a picture I took of the girls baking (snapped before things got messy) to my parents and Stanton’s. I shared with the grandparents that making the Funfetti shortbread cookies had resulted in a disaster of a kitchen.

Stanton’s mom always replies to my emails with thoughtful ones of her own. This time, she wrote back, “Just think how discouraging it would have been to have a messed-up kitchen and a not-so-yummy sweet!”

This note struck a chord with me. Because it’s true. You have to make a mess sometimes.

And sometimes, if we’re lucky, our mess yields something sweet. Funfetti shortbread cookies, for example. As I was writing this, I remembered a quote I’ve always liked: “One of the most glorious messes in the world is the mess created in the living room on Christmas Day. Don’t clean it up too quickly.” (Andy Rooney)

Cookies, Christmas morning—worthwhile messes, for sure.

…sometimes, if we’re lucky, our mess yields something sweet.

What about the messes we make that are far from sweet? The ones that are, simply, trouble?

Mistakes. Miscalculations. Faux pas and false steps.

Decisions that turned out to be bad ideas.

Around the time of my baking (mis)adventure with my daughters, I was talking with someone I care about. She expressed some doubts, some pain to me. I responded to her with my usual spiel about finding silver linings, things happening for a reason.

The more I thought about it, though…the more I thought, it’s OK to acknowledge you made a mess, plain and simple. It’s OK to look for silver linings…and not find them here. To say, “Here, we simply have a mess.

“I’m human. I made a mess. Now let’s move forward.”

We can recognize the humanity in others, but at the same time struggle to accept it in ourselves.

It can be difficult to forgive people. It can be even more difficult to forgive ourselves. But we do need to forgive ourselves…to recognize and accept our humanity…to move forward.

It’s OK to look for silver linings…and not find them here. To say, “Here, we simply have a mess.”

Even where we can’t find silver linings, we probably can uncover some learning experiences. Oh, learning experiences. Who doesn’t love those, right? 😉

Years ago, I made a mistake I still remember. I could have helped somebody more than I did. Why didn’t I? Partly, I was young and immature.

I’ve come to forgive myself for that lapse in judgment. Looking back now, I still cringe and think, Ugh, I could have been a better person. There was no silver lining there—none that I know of, at least.

There was a learning experience, though. When I have the opportunity, these days, to help people in a similar way, I do. I try to be a better person.

You have to make a mess sometimes, to become a better person.

And if you’re lucky, you make a mess, and you get two cookies on your birthday.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

 

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On Making French Onion Soup

It was a rainy day. A drizzle in the beginning, and then a downpour.

“The earth needs a drink of water,” Anna said. This is how I explained rain to her, once upon a time, and she remembered.

I don’t mind rainy days. Every now and then, especially during summertime, it’s refreshing to take a break from sunscreen, water bottles and hours-long outdoor fun (swimming! sandboxes! biking!) and simply hang out.

Read on the front porch. Watch a movie. Go to the coffee shop (my personal favorite).

Or make French onion soup, as I recently did.

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For Christmas, my brother Jared gave me a copy of The Skinnytaste Cookbook by Gina Homolka. I’ve made several recipes from it since then, and liked them all. My favorite one probably is the recipe for French onion soup.

Do you like French onion soup, friends? It might be an acquired taste; I don’t know.

When I was growing up, there was a local restaurant called Jim Dandy’s. My family and I often dined there. And when we did, I ordered their French onion soup. It was hot and cheesy—what was there not to love? Jim Dandy’s made me fall, hard, for French onion soup.

The foods we prefer now, as adults, usually are the ones we loved as children. It’s why, even at the swankiest restaurants, you often find some version of macaroni and cheese on the menu. Sure, maybe it features bites of lobster. Maybe it boasts Beaufort D’Ete. But you know, and the restaurant knows, that underneath all the glamour and gourmet ingredients, you’ll take a bite and happily remember the Kraft version your mom or dad threw together way back when.

So I recreated that happy childhood memory—French onion soup—that rainy day.

But you know, and the restaurant knows, that underneath all the glamour and gourmet ingredients, you’ll take a bite and happily remember the Kraft version your mom or dad threw together way back when.

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The Skinnytaste recipe for French onion soup estimates that it takes about an hour and a half to cook, start to finish.

I read once that you can’t rush soup…and the home cook in me begs to differ. You can rush pretty much anything if you’re hungry enough, friends.

In this recipe, the onions go through three stages of cooking: 1) softening, 2) caramelizing and 3) simmering. Each stage is supposed to consist of 30 minutes each, but I’ve found you can get the job done in about 25 minutes per stage.

It’s pretty cool, I think, to watch onions transform through softening in the beginning…

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and then caramelizing…

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and finally simmering. I took this picture before adding the dry sherry, white wine and beef stock…but hopefully, you get a sense of the distinctions in the three stages here:

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I didn’t really start cooking until after Grace was born. Before parenthood, Stanton and I loved trying out different local restaurants together, and becoming regulars at our favorites. Given the choice, I still would rather make a reservation than make dinner. 😉

Over the years, though, I have found a fulfillment in feeding the people I love. There must be something innate or biological about this, because I really do love eating out. But when Grace or Anna ask for a second helping of the pasta and meatballs I make every week, or the dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets we always have on hand in the freezer (that counts as semi-homemade, right?)…I feel good.

Given the choice, I still would rather make a reservation than make dinner.

Grace and Stanton share similar tastes. Basically, they both love red meat. Burgers, steak, tacos. Grace’s favorite fast-food chain is Five Guys. Do they like my French onion soup? The answer is no, although they will politely have a few spoonfuls. Anna, however, will sit down and enjoy a bowl with me.

Because French onion soup isn’t a crowd favorite in my house, I don’t make it all the time. Just on chance rainy days.

“Some people walk in the rain; others just get wet.” (Roger Miller)

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I didn’t think, when I was younger, that I would grow up into the kind of person who makes soup on a rainy day, and enjoys it. Instead of, say, the kind of person who does something just a bit more interesting.

In the moment, as we’re living life, it’s easy to forget the value in our many, seemingly mundane tasks. Preparing food for a family. Answering the phone when a friend calls, even though we don’t have much time to talk. Helping a co-worker save face. Waving another driver into our lane from the parking lot, even though it means we may not make the green light ahead.

It’s also easy to forget, or maybe not even consider, that who we are now…what we’re doing right now…maybe this is what was meant to be all along, even if the route to our current destination was circuitous, confusing or all-out crazy.

I’m not a great cook. I can’t create a recipe like I can create story. What I can do is (mostly) follow a recipe. I can make sure nobody is hungry. I can offer second helpings and listen to what happened during everyone’s day, and share some of my own.

I offered our neighbor, who told me she had a cold, some French onion soup. She said thanks, but no thanks. “I never really got into French onion soup,” she said.

“It’s an acquired taste,” I agreed.

Anna, who was with me, crossed her arms. “My mom?” she said to our neighbor. “Her soup is delicious.”

Our neighbor laughed; I did too. It’s nice to have somebody in your corner. “I’ll have to give it another try,” she said.

“It’s OK if you don’t,” I assured her.

Some things are acquired tastes.

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

Ready (or Not) for Some Quality Time?

On Monday afternoon, Anna and I walked to the bus stop to pick up Grace, as we usually do. During our walk back home, Anna told Grace that earlier, I had let her eat the last of the rainbow sherbet in the freezer (half a cup, tops—nothing worth bragging about, nothing to get upset about). But of course…

“What?!”

“Come on, Grace,” I said. “Didn’t I pack you a special treat in your lunch box today?”

Grace remembered, and smirked at her little sister. “Guess what, Anna,” she said. “Mom gave me the last juice box of pink lemonade.”

I groaned. “Was that necessary? Did you have to say that, Grace?”

Meanwhile, Anna had flopped onto the sidewalk, tears sparkling in her eyes. “I love pink lemo-lade!” she cried. “I want pink lemo-lade too, Mom!”

I tried to be reasonable. “Anna, you have nothing to cry about…”

“WAAAHHH!”

Why doesn’t reasonable ever work? “Stop having a fit, or…or you lose TV.”

Anna sniffled one last time. “I love TV.” I helped her back up, and the three of us continued walking home.

Why doesn’t reasonable ever work?

My hope, every weekday afternoon, is that the hours between 4 and 6 p.m. will be good quality time before the end-of-day rush of dinner, baths and bedtime. (Ahh…quality time.) That was my hope that Monday afternoon, after the pink lemo-lade meltdown. We got home, the sun was shining…

“Let’s play outside,” I suggested.

Now it was Grace’s turn to behave disagreeably. “There are bugs outside,” she informed me.

“They won’t bother you,” I said.

“No, they do bother me,” she replied, sighing. “I wish it were winter again. There are no bugs in winter.”

“Please, let’s enjoy this beautiful day,” I said—practically begged. “Let’s have some quality time!”

“Mom.” Anna was tugging at my arm.

I glanced down at her. “Yes, honey?”

“I want to build a snow girl, Mom.”

You’re killing me, Smalls.

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My vision of good, old-fashioned afternoon quality time never materialized. In fact, it would be accurate to say the afternoon spiraled downhill…almost immediately.

When the three of us got inside the house, I saw an email from Grace’s school, requesting that we return a bag of 10 books we had borrowed from the school’s reading program (two months previously) ASAP. I found nine of the books quickly, but the last one—Bernelly and Harriet: The Country Mouse and the City Mouse—remained elusive. I began thumbing through bookshelves, peering under couches and beds, searching through various junk drawers…

Then I received another communication, this time a phone call from my better half. “Something came up with work,” Stanton said. “I’m not sure when I’ll be home.”

“Do you have any idea?” I wondered.

“No, I have no idea,” Stanton confirmed.

“Mom.”

I turned my attention to Grace (multitasking!).

“Did you find Bernelly and Harriet yet?”

“I’m still looking…”

“I have to go, Mel.” Click.

“MOM!” Anna dashed into the guest bedroom (where the 9th out of 10 books wasn’t). “There’s a bug on top of the TV!”

Grace peered over Anna’s head. “There is! You have to kill it, Mom!”

“AAAHH! Kill it, Mom!”

(In case, at this point, you’re wondering…no, I did not make up any of these details. No, I did not embellish anything for dramatic effect. This is, unfortunately…a true story.)

Anna dashed into the guest bedroom (where the 9th out of 10 books wasn’t).

Every good story has the reader, or listener, wondering what happens next. So if you’re wondering, friends…what happened next was, I did indeed kill it (the bug). Then I heated up some meatballs for dinner, and boiled water for pasta. Next, I emailed Grace’s school to apologize for temporarily misplacing or possibly permanently losing Bernelly and Harriet (“Will you have to pay for a new book, like when you lost the book from the library?”), and requested advice on next steps.

Around 6:30 p.m., the girls and I sat down for dinner.

Now, these meatballs I heated up—we all love them. They’re store-bought, from my local grocery store, but they give any Italian mamma’s homemade, love-is-the-secret-ingredient meatballs a run for their money.

“I want another meatball, Mom,” Grace said.

“Me too,” Anna added.

“And what do you say, girls?”

“You’re welcome,” Anna replied.

Grace and I looked at each other and smiled. “Please, Anna,” Grace said. “And thank you.”

Anna looked at Grace. “You’re welcome,” she repeated.

I don’t remember much more of our conversation that evening. I do remember that at that moment, Grace laughed. Then Anna did, and soon I joined in too.

I also remember that I got each of us a second serving of meatballs. And I remember that I really appreciated sitting there with my daughters, around the table…just being together.

Sometimes quality time happens when we least expect it—when we’re in the moment, in communion with the ones we love.

It’s shortsighted for us to think we can say, “This is when it gets good. The good stuff is going to happen…now. Go, quality time!”

We have no way of knowing what, exactly, will happen next. We’re writing our story moment by moment—sometimes, imperfect moment by imperfect moment. We can try really hard and plan really well, but we don’t know what happens next…not in our real-life story.

We can try really hard and plan really well, but we don’t know what happens next…not in our real-life story.

Sometimes, quality time isn’t a perfectly planned, sunny afternoon, but a thrown-together dinner featuring store-bought meatballs (which you dig into after killing a bug…but before looking, one last time, for Bernelly and Harriet).

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

A First-Timer’s Guide to Napa and Sonoma

A few weeks ago, my husband and I celebrated our 10-year anniversary with a three-day trip to Napa and Sonoma. It was our first time in California wine country, from New York. (We also were in the Golden State to attend our friend’s wedding in San Diego later that week—more about that adventure here.)

Before we left, I read everything I could find about Napa and Sonoma: various experts’ and visitors’ rankings of the best wineries in each valley; which valley, Napa or Sonoma, was more “you”; where to eat. I also asked friends who had been to offer up their recommendations, which they kindly did.

In this case, though, the best education was experience. Not until I set foot in Napa and Sonoma did I have a true feel for the place(s). Disclaimer: I’m not a travel expert, just someone who was recently there and would like to pass along what I learned, in the hopes it will help others.

Here’s what I figured out, then, along with some specific recommendations regarding wineries and restaurants. I hope this information helps you plan your upcoming trip.

And when you get there, enjoy.

Napa or Sonoma, or Both?

The Napa and Sonoma valleys are next to each other, separated by a mountain range (I believe it’s called the Mayacamas). It takes about 20 minutes or so to drive between Napa and Sonoma on State Highway 121—they’re super close.

A major difference is that Sonoma is more spread out, geographically, than Napa. It has roughly the same number of wineries, but on twice the land—an outdoorsman’s paradise, you might say. Napa, meanwhile, features a (breathtaking) landscape of one winery after another: vineyard after vineyard for miles.

When I was researching Napa and Sonoma, I read some reviewers’ perspectives that Napa and Sonoma differ in terms of vibe as well as geography. For example, Napa is more luxury SUV, reviewers wrote, while Sonoma is more Subaru. Napa is to Ralph Lauren what Sonoma is to T-shirts and jeans—those kinds of comparisons. I didn’t find these comparisons to be true, though.

In my experience, both Napa and Sonoma are friendly, welcoming places. Stanton and I loved them both (and we’re Subaru-type folks, in case you were wondering 😉 ).

If you’re making the trip to California wine country, then I recommend stopping by both valleys for a taste (literally) of both Napa and Sonoma, if you can.

Upon arriving in this picturesque part of the country, our first stop was Napa’s Domaine Carneros, known for their sparkling wines and gracious table service. Two thumbs up:

Domaine Carneros Winery

Where to Go in Napa?

There are two main roads in Napa: State Highway 29, and the Silverado Trail. I much preferred driving along the Silverado Trail than Highway 29.

If you like scenic routes, the Silverado Trail is absolutely beautiful, and much less commercial than Highway 29. The Silverado Trail is also home to some wonderful “hidden gem” wineries. (Stanton and I loved Paraduxx, our favorite winery in Napa, and Frog’s Leap.)

A view of Frog’s Leap, from the charming back porch:

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Highway 29, however, features big-name brands like Robert Mondavi and Cakebread, which you may not want to miss. We did stop by V. Sattui for a picnic lunch, and can highly recommend V. Sattui (Napa’s most visited winery, according to reports) for fresh, delicious food options and an easygoing ambiance. Next time we’ll have to try their wine too (we were in between tastings!).

Post-lunch, I napped in a chair in V. Sattui’s courtyard, and the staff didn’t (seem to) mind:

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A note about wine, and wine tastings. Which wineries you choose to visit may (should?) depend upon what kind of wine you prefer to drink. If a winery is known for Chardonnay, and you live and die by bold reds, then you may not enjoy a winery that specializes in white wines, despite that spot’s numerous five-star TripAdvisor reviews.

On the other hand, let yourself be open to discovery, and pleasant surprise. Personally, I love red wine—Cabernet and red blends are my favorites—yet I tried a Zinfandel at Frog’s Leap, and was amazed by how much I enjoyed it.

…let yourself be open to discovery, and pleasant surprise.

Remember not to drink on an empty stomach, friends. For breakfast in Napa, I strongly encourage you to stop by The Model Bakery, recommended to me by my in-the-know friend Haeley of Design Improvised. Stanton and I went to their Oxbow Public Market location two mornings in a row. The breakfast sandwiches are fabulous, and I can’t say enough about the Chocolate Rad cookie. Trust me on this: Whatever you order, get a Chocolate Rad cookie to go with it. 🙂

Oprah (as in Winfrey) loves The Model Bakery’s English muffins so much that she has them flown in to her. The breakfast sandwiches feature these English muffins:

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Where to Go in Sonoma?

When you’re in Sonoma, be sure to check out Sonoma Plaza, the central gathering space. It includes a variety of art galleries, shops and restaurants, as well as historic sites such as Mission San Francisco Solano.

We visited Mission Solano during a morning walk through the Plaza. The nature here is beautiful:

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Of all the wineries we visited in both Napa and Sonoma, we had the most fun at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma. It bills itself as the oldest premium winery in California, and is an Historic Landmark very close to the Plaza. The staff members dress up in 19th-century costumes (the winery’s founder was a European count), and their customer service is excellent (our tour guide, Tim, gave us amazingly generous pours!).

You are bound to have fun wine tasting inside one of Buena Vista’s caves:

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We also enjoyed our Biodynamic Vineyard Tram Tour at Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen, about 10 miles from the Plaza. An enlightening tour, with amazing views of Sonoma Mountain opposite the vineyards.

If you’re eating in Sonoma, then I highly recommend the Sunflower Caffe and the girl & the fig as excellent lunch and/or dinner options.

In between wine tastings, I devoured the Smoked Duck sandwich at the Sunflower Caffe. Stanton and I split the Griddled Johnny Cake in the middle of the table; it is to die for:

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I hope what I’ve shared here helps you make the most of your visit to Napa and Sonoma. Cheers!

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

The Best Part Was the Hot Dogs

I read once, somewhere, to ask your child, “What was the best part of your day?” Not, “Did you have a nice day?” which tends to elicit a one-word response, but “What was the best part?” because that question can open up a bigger, more meaningful conversation.

Sometimes, I do ask my children the question, “What was the best part of your day?” Other times, my 8 p.m. inquiries are more along the lines of, “Why did you just push your sister?” or “Did you remember to brush your teeth?”

But sometimes, sometimes, everyday life lends itself to moments of reflection deeper than sibling shenanigans and personal hygiene.

On Saturday evening, I asked my 6-year-old daughter, “What was the best part of your day?” I was giving her and my little daughter, Anna, a bath.

Grace thought for a minute.

“Was it our bike ride?” I prompted. That morning, the girls rode their bikes along the nature trail near our house. I walked along with them, until Anna asked me to carry her (and her trike) the rest of the way.

(If you and I are Facebook friends, then you already know this, because I posted a picture of this moment after it happened. 😉 )

Grace shook her head—no, not the bike ride. I rinsed shampoo out of her hair.

“Was it your play date?” Two girls from Grace’s class had come over to play that afternoon. All three kids kindly included Anna in their fun: playing with dolls, make-believe games of “Sleepover” and “Firefighters,” simply running around in the backyard.

(Like most younger siblings, Anna believed her big sister’s friends were there to play with her as much as they were there to play with Grace. Ignorance is bliss.)

“I loved the play date, but…no, that wasn’t the best part either.”

I handed Grace a washcloth. “I know,” I said, smiling. “It was when Dad came home.” Stanton had been traveling for work and walked through the front door moments earlier.

Grace smiled back at me. “Actually, Mom,” she said, “the best part was the hot dogs.”

“No way.”

Grace nodded. “Yes.”

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Around the block from us is a fire station. The red-brick building was built nearly 100 years ago, and is staffed by volunteer firefighters. Throughout the year, the firefighters host a number of community events for our neighborhood: a biweekly fish fry during Lent, educational workshops for kids, a bounce house at Halloween.

As it happened that Saturday, the firefighters were holding an open house to recruit new volunteers. Grace, Anna and I saw them outside when we were heading back home after our bike ride (which had turned into my lugging Anna and her trike, remember).

The firefighters waved us over. I could feel sweat pouring down my face. Great—I was looking presentable as usual.

“Hi, guys,” I said, setting Anna down for a minute. “Sorry, but now’s not a great time for me to volunteer.” (I knew they were working on their female enrollment.)

The firefighters smiled. “No problem. Would you all like some hot dogs?”

Grace and Anna exchanged a glance, then a smile.

“We have a lot,” they told us. “And Gatorade too.”

“Grace!” Anna exclaimed. “We love Gatorade!”

“And hot dogs,” Grace added. So the three of us sat down outside the fire station for an impromptu lunch of hot dogs and Gatorade. When we picked up our short walk home a little later, the girls concluded the firefighters were very nice.

(But let’s be serious, folks: Who doesn’t love firefighters?)

I could feel sweat pouring down my face. Great—I was looking presentable as usual.

“That was the best part of your day?” I asked Grace that night. “Why?”

Grace shrugged. “It was nice. I love hot dogs, and you never buy us Gatorade.”

“Mom!” Anna waved at me, reminding me she was there too. “We love Gatorade!”

I’ve written before about “the little things.” About how little things (like an unexpected hot dog and some Gatorade) can make us smile, can stick with us.

I’ve also written about moments in our lives that become stories, when we never might have guessed they’d be story-worthy. But then they were.

So I’m trying not to repeat myself here. Trying to find a new inspiration to pass along.

Here’s what I’ve come up with, friends.

Sometimes, things don’t go according to plan. (Stanton was supposed to come home on Friday, not Saturday, but his work plans changed.) And then you try to make the best of things, and Plan B falls apart too. (Carrying Anna and her trike for what felt like miles.) And then—then—out of the blue, someone asks if you’d like a hot dog.

Just…say…yes.

Put the kid down. Let the trike fall to the sidewalk. Let Plan C be that hot dog.

Sometimes, the best part of your day will be a hot dog. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

Mom, Why Did You Have Two Kids?

Grace, Anna and I were driving home on a weekday afternoon. Grace had had an early dismissal from school. After picking her up at the bus stop, the three of us ate a hasty lunch of leftovers from the night before and then zoomed over to her pediatrician’s office for an overdue annual well visit. Following the well visit, we ran a few more needed errands, the last of which was a stop at the grocery store for, of course, milk, plus a few other things.

Every time, without fail, the first item I write on the grocery list is milk. Maybe you do too.

That afternoon at the grocery store, I was about to pay when Anna clasped her hands together and yelled, “Mom! I need to go potty now!”

“OK,” I said, paying and then asking a kind store employee to keep an eye on our cart of groceries while I hurried Anna to the restroom, with Grace trailing behind.

Eventually, we were back in the car, our groceries stowed in the back. I don’t remember exactly what happened next, but something happened that caused Anna to throw a tantrum as I buckled her into her car seat. I shook my head as I climbed into the driver’s seat. There was always something.

I began driving home.

“Mom.” Grace’s thoughtful voice interjected Anna’s continued yelling. “Why did you have two kids?”

I paused, surprised. (The way Grace asked the question, I couldn’t be sure if her implication was that wrapping it up at one kid—herself, Grace—might have been the way to go.)

I wanted to tell Grace the truth, and not simply respond with a trite explanation. I smiled at a memory that was crystal-clear in my head. “What happened, Grace, is that…”

Two Kids

About four years ago, Stanton and I were having dinner out together—a somewhat rare date night. Grace was about 2½. We had gotten through our first couple of years of parenthood, and life felt manageable. Grace was sleeping well at night and enjoying her preschool. Things were good with both Stanton’s work and mine—I was glad to have found a part-time writing job at a marketing company after taking some time away from full-time work. Our life had a good rhythm.

So Stanton and I were sitting together at a table for two. Our food hadn’t come out yet. To my left, I saw a middle-aged couple sitting together in a booth. Across from them sat a teenage girl, whom I guessed was their daughter. The three of them seemed happy and comfortable together.

In that moment, I saw a flash forward of Stanton, Grace and me, ten or twelve years down the road. To this day, I still remember that moment—picturing a future of our own (current) family of three, enjoying dinner together.

I looked across our table, at Stanton, and gestured to the booth to my left. “That could be us someday. You, Grace and me.”

Stanton glanced over and nodded. “Could be,” he agreed.

I looked at the booth again, and then closed my eyes to consider the flash-forwarded picture in my mind. There was something about that picture I just didn’t feel. Something felt off, to me.

Someone was missing.

Someone was missing at our dinner table.

The connection between food and family played a major role in my Italian-American upbringing. It makes sense to me, then, that my thoughts about motherhood, in that moment, were tied to food, and a dinner table, and the people at that table.

“I feel like someone else should be there with us,” I told Stanton. “At our table.”

Stanton paused. He had two brothers and a sister, just as I did. He appreciated the meaning that siblings could bring to a person’s life. He also knew—as I did—that our first years of parenthood had been so hard. Did we really want to do all that again?

We both gave it some more thought, and obviously, the answer was yes.

I’m so happy and grateful we found our way to “yes.”

I told a shorter version of this story to Grace (ultimately, Anna calmed down to listen too). I pulled into the driveway and glanced in the rearview mirror. “What do you think?”

Grace met my gaze in the mirror. “I’m happy we have Anna.”

I smiled. “Me too. And I’m happy we have you.”

Grace smiled back.

We each find our way into the family that makes sense for us. There is no “one size fits all.” What makes sense for one person may not make sense for someone else.

On a related note… The girls recently asked Stanton and me if we would get them a baby brother, a puppy or a fish. This was, perhaps, the easiest multiple-choice question we ever had to answer.

No deep thinking needed, friends: We’re getting a fish. 😉

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

Book Review: Devoured—How What We Eat Defines Who We Are

Devoured CoverWhen I was growing up, I loved taking the quizzes in magazines like All About You and Cosmopolitan. All I had to do was choose scenario A, B or C for, say, 20 questions, and instantly, I had the answers to, “Which celebrity style is most like yours?” and “What kind of friend are you—true blue, fair weather or just an acquaintance?” Pressing questions, friends.

These days, I don’t click on every BuzzFeed quiz that comes across my Facebook news feed. But I still do a double-take when a quiz, magazine article or book promises to reveal to me some secret of my psyche.

This time, the book turned out to be “Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale Smoothies—How What We Eat Defines Who We Are” by Sophie Egan (2016). Ms. Egan works for The Culinary Institute of America as its director of programs and culinary nutrition. She also holds impressive degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford.

What most impressed me about her book, though, was her love for the subject matter. Through her writing (always enlightening, while at times laugh-out-loud funny), I could tell she really wanted to write this book. And she really wanted to share this information with people—everyday people, not just academics. These genuine passions, then, made “Devoured” a compelling and fun read about our culture and its cuisine and eating habits.

Egan begins with an introduction into “the American food psyche” and then notes that “convenience has always been part of our national heritage.” (Yet another thing for Americans to be proud of…) “Devoured” blends psychology, anthropology and various other fields of study.

Through her writing (always enlightening, while at times laugh-out-loud funny), I could tell she really wanted to write this book.

In these early pages, a fact that struck me, because it hit close to home, was this one: “Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, signed legislation crowning yogurt as that state’s official snack. Yes, yogurt is a fan favorite, but this might also have something to do with the fact that Chobani and Fage have major production facilities upstate” (page 34). I didn’t know that yogurt was my state’s official snack (what’s yours?), and was interested to learn that. And once again, I was interested to see a probable connection between business and politics.

I loved Egan’s chapter on “The Democratization of Wine,” and especially her discussion of Trader Joe’s and its “Two-Buck Chuck” here. For those who may not know, Trader Joe’s store-brand wine sells under the label Charles Shaw, which fans nickname “Two-Buck Chuck” because it retails for about $1.99 per bottle. That is, obviously, incredibly cheap for wine, and incredibly cheap in general. A quart of Tropicana costs more than Two-Buck Chuck.

People…love…Two-Buck Chuck. Just like they (we) love Trader Joe’s. Here’s why, according to Egan: “Part of what makes Charles Shaw, like Trader Joe’s itself, so widely appealing and so American is the way it shrugs at refinement…We’re the country of the T-shirt and jeans” (pages 197-218).

That we are, friends: T-shirts and jeans, convenience, and a mosaic of other customs and institutions that, whatever their imperfections, signal America.

“One of the traits we sought to shed from our British roots during the American Revolution was the snootiness,” Egan writes on page 218, as she sums up the chapter on wine (and Trader Joe’s/Two-Buck Chuck). “So it’s exciting to think that lowering the snobbery of wine—in the wine itself, and in how we market and deliver it—can also boost its sustainability.”

…T-shirts and jeans, convenience, and a mosaic of other customs and institutions that, whatever their imperfections, signal America.

So, 200 pages in, did I figure out yet who I am, based on what I eat? Two hundred pages in, I would say I’m a fairly average American. (You probably are too.)

After “The Democratization of Wine,” Egan explores stunt foods, such as the Doritos Locos Taco (Taco Bell) and the Strawberry Pop-Tart Ice Cream Sandwich (Carl’s Jr.). Many folks loved these creations—Jimmy Kimmel said, Egan remarks, “‘Is Carl’s Jr. reading my dream journal?’” (page 231)—but just the thought of them makes me gag. Still, though, I’m a fairly average American, because I’m open to trying new things, including new foods (but hold that Strawberry Pop-Tart Ice Cream Sandwich, please).

In case you’re keeping track, our America list now includes convenience, T-shirts and jeans, mosaic-ism, and a sense of adventure.

“Just as we collect wine corks or shot glasses, coins or seashells, we collect life experiences,” Egan writes on page 243, adding that “checking off items on our bucket list of personal experiences seems a way of measuring how full a life we’re leading. It’s also about projecting a self-image of having done a lot of exciting things. And for many people, an important component of that experiential résumé is trying new foods.”

Egan’s comment about “projecting a self-image” made me think of a meme I saw floating around the Internet the other day. The meme said something to the effect of, “I’m so old I remember when people ate food without taking pictures of it.” I do wonder if Egan might have spent a little more time on the topic of how social media and self-image-representation may affect Americans’ eating habits.

(For those who are curious, a quick Google search produced this article from The Guardian: “Click plate: how Instagram is changing the way we eat.”)

All in all, “Devoured” is a wonderfully researched and immensely engaging read. It touches on everything from Americans’ love for customization (Chapter 3: Having It Our Way) to the contemporary gluten-free trend (Chapter 4: Selling Absence) to the devotion to brunch, or “Secular Church” (Chapter 5). And it concludes with a chapter whose name makes me smile: “The Story of Spaghetti.”

All in all, “Devoured” is a wonderfully researched and immensely engaging read.

In “The Story of Spaghetti,” Egan explains why Italian cuisine wins the popularity contest for most Americans: “Italian cuisine has on its side not only easy preparation but also easily accessible ingredients” (page 303)—pasta, sauce, cheese. She notes, “If as a child the first thing you learned to cook on the stove top was Kraft Mac and Cheese, your first encounter with the inside of an oven probably involved a frozen pizza…So Italian American food’s popularity both in and outside the home is what truly sets it apart.”

Egan notes, too, that pasta is a plain, simple food that children will eat. No spices to worry about. And for parents, how easy is it to prepare—just boil some water, right? We grow up with pasta, with Italian-American food. It’s why we’ll always say yes to spaghetti and meatballs, or pizza…because “the foods we like as kids get special status for life” (page 301).

Our childhood. Nostalgia. Our comfort food.

“When you ask what comfort food means, different people will likely offer different answers,” Egan says. “Perhaps it’s something very simple that doesn’t set your mouth on fire or upset your stomach. But a common thread will surely relate to what we ate as children” (page 301).

Let me be honest here, friends: When I read that line, my eyes teared up.

I thought about my own Italian-American upbringing: my mom’s homemade Christmas ravioli, and the hundreds (really, hundreds) of cookies she makes throughout the year for family members and friends. When my mom comes to visit me these days, she comes with coolers of her meatballs, stromboli and zucchini fritters. She takes care of me still, with the food she nourished me with as a child.

I also thought about my husband and our own two children. Many a Saturday morning, Stanton gets up with the girls so that I can sleep in a little. And many a Saturday morning, when I join them in the kitchen, I find that he’s made cinnamon toast for them—a recipe his mom used to make for him.

“Look what Dad did!” Grace and Anna will exclaim.

We grow up with pasta, with Italian-American food. It’s why we’ll always say yes to spaghetti and meatballs, or pizza…because “the foods we like as kids get special status for life” (page 301).

What we ate as children, whatever it was—someone who loved us prepared that food. They made it—the cinnamon toast, the ravioli—because they loved us. And even if our tastes have changed over time, that made-with-love food can bring up happy, cared-for memories.

When my daughters are grown, and making Saturday breakfasts of their own, I hope they remember their dad’s cinnamon toast—their grandmother’s cinnamon toast, really—and the love and the history behind it. I hope they remember my mom pulling up with a car trunk full of meatball-stuffed coolers. I hope they remember how much they were loved.

“Nostalgic sentiments tend to be shared by people with a common history,” Egan writes, as she wraps up “Devoured.” “Part of that has to do with geography. For example, Rabobank’s Nicholas Fereday was raised in the UK. He says, ‘You can keep your Reese’s Pieces—they mean nothing to me. But if you put a Cadbury Crème [Egg] in front of me, it would be gone in a minute’” (page 271).

What would be gone in a minute, if someone put it in front of you? Well, friends…that’s who you are.

Photo credit: HarperCollins Publishers

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.