My hands operate by memory, pulling salt, thyme, garlic, breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese out of cupboards and drawers and pouring them in a bowl. My mind and body relax as I follow the familiar steps of dredging pieces of chicken in olive oil and then plunging them into the breadcrumbs. Soon the smell of crispy chicken fills the kitchen as I line up toasted buns, pepperjack cheese, lettuce and sriracha mayo with the precision of an artist setting up a still life.
I’ve made this dish almost every week the last few years—it is my favorite family ritual.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a family where we ate together and actually talked most nights. I remember the routine well. Mom began to prepare dinner as the late afternoon sun warmed the yellow kitchen walls. She would turn on our small kitchen TV to the network news. I would help set the table and listen to Walter Cronkite. Mom’s comfort foods came straight from her Midwestern roots—pot roast, pork chops and applesauce, and sloppy joe’s. Spaghetti was as ethnic as we got.
Mostly the conversation would revolve around topics that included my brother and me but occasionally my parents would become engrossed in a discussion related to their work or church business and I would become impatient. When could we talk more about Dad’s plans to build us a go-cart or go skiing? It was hard for me to understand that my parents had a life separate from mine.
After three calls to my son, who is absorbed in playing Overwatch in another room, he sits down at the dinner table. He’ll devour his sandwich with his favorite jalapeño chips. Hopefully he’ll have a few sugar snap peas I’ve set out as well. Even though he’s technically an adult now, having just turned 18, I’m still trying to slip him some vegetables.
As TJ gobbles down his food with a big glass of milk I feel nostalgic. This week he turned in the last of his college applications. He will be gone next year and this long unbroken string of evening meals together—really an institution in our family—will come to a close. I’ll miss the pleasure of preparing food he likes and the way he spins the ring on my right hand as we hold hands for grace.
Once I did so much for my children—helping them get dressed, overseeing brushing their teeth, navigating school pickup, arranging playdates and getting them ready for bed. At that time, our family dinners were boisterous affairs. My husband and I sang songs with the boys and pleaded with them not to feed the dog from the table.
These days my care is much less focused on the physical acts of nurturing, but I still insist on holding on to this one ritual act of motherhood.
“What’s for dinner Mom?” my son asks nightly. “Did you get the good bread?”
I smile as I tell him I’m making Lono’s curry dish or Grammy’s spaghetti and I got the “good bread” – a seeded baguette he loves. I add special touches by pouring fresh water from a pretty glass decanter into his favorite giant glass and placing it at his seat.
My mom also had a knack for thoughtful details, with red napkins around Valentine’s Day and homemade apple pie in the fall. She would turn the TV off at dinner, light two candles and Dad would say grace. Then we would talk about our days.
When I dine with my son, it also feels like we share our own private language. I wonder what it will feel like next year when I hang up my nightly dinner cooking hat? Will I be lonely or sad? One friend recently told me that she cried for three months when her youngest went off to college.
Mostly our dinner conversation focuses on “safe” topics.
“What did you have for lunch today?” I’ll ask. “What funny things did Mrs. McManus do in class?”
Sometimes we get TJ to forget his aversion to long discussions.
“Mom,” TJ said to me right before Thanksgiving. “I was thinking about having friends over for a Friendsgiving party. Is that OK? Will you help me plan it?”
“Sure, let’s talk about it,” I said, thrilled he wanted my advice.
Lately, I’ve noticed, TJ thanks me for making dinner before clearing his plate and rushing back to his computer.
Now it seems, just as our relationship is maturing, he will be heading off on his own.
I have to admit that cooking every night sometimes has felt like drudgery. To avoid that, I tried a lot of new recipes over the years. My spice drawer is filled with leftover experiments—garam masala and cumin seeds for an Indian dish and Cajun spice and cayenne pepper for Creole chicken. Preparing dinner has been like my own private cooking competition with three judges: my husband, my older son now in college and TJ.
Sometimes I succeed… and sometimes I don’t.
“Mom, please don’t sign up for this again,” said my son after I tried a meal kit service for a few weeks. “These meals taste weird and the packaging wastes a lot of resources.”
Other times a new food will be a surprise hit. One day I came across a recipe online for shakshuka, a middle-eastern dish made with eggs, stewed tomatoes, bell peppers and feta cheese, and it’s now a regular on our dinner rotations—with the “good bread.”
After dinner is over, our family retreats into their own spaces for the night, lost in a book or a screen. I listen to my son giggling about someone’s Snapchat or talking to friends on TeamSpeak. As the clock edges to 11:30, I say goodnight. I hug him a little tighter these days, knowing next year our nightly ritual will be a memory. He hugs me back and asks if I can tuck him in, like the old days.
Allison de Laveaga is a spiritual director living in Berkeley, California. She writes a blog on parenting, spirituality and other topics at www.allisondelaveaga.com and she enjoy traveling with her family to Spanish-speaking countries whenever possible! Find her on Twitter: @allisondelav.