I peel apples. Today it’s juicy, sweet, Pink Ladies. I also enjoy Braeburn, Honey crisp, Granny Smith. Of course, Gravenstein’s are the best, but have the shortest growing season. As I peel, my seven-month-old sits gurgling in his highchair.
People say having kids changes you. I have five, so I feel pretty confident in attesting that there is truth to this. But even I am amazed by how much I’ve been transformed.
I stand next to my son, enjoying his coos and the rhythmic sensation of my hands as they core, quarter and slice apples into a secon- hand Le Creuset pot.
I hum along to Erasure as I anticipate what a nice batch of apple sauce I’ll have to pass out to my family, friends… maybe I’ll have enough to bring to the local women’s shelter.
Don’t misunderstand; I’m far from a happy homemaker — actually, I consider myself a reformed “opt-out” gift giver. There was a time when I felt homemade food gifts were what cheap people gave instead of spending money.
I became an “opt-out” giver after receiving my first homemade food gift from a neighbor.
Her name was Atiya.
On the surface, we were unlikely friends. She worked as a cleaning lady. But her joy was being a grandmother. She wore a head scarf and modest attire. I was midway through my twenties, wore fitted skirt suits and worked as a sales manager in telecommunications. At the time, I was proud of earning the nickname, “phone ho” for being top sales person on the “fast track.”
The year was 1997, before smartphones distracted people from conversing with one another.
Otherwise, I’m certain I would have been glued to my screen, avoiding eye contact, as we waited for our bus to come at 5:11 a.m. five days a week at the lonely suburban outpost.
Most days, we shared an umbrella and everyday conversation.
Atiya commuted to downtown Seattle for a paycheck. She lived with her adult son and his family and they were the joy of her life.
I loved walking among the shiny skyscrapers, sipping Starbucks and listening to the sound of my high heels clicking on the sidewalk, fantasizing about the money I was earning. And for the first time in my life, I wasn’t that desperate little kid.
Growing up, there wasn’t a lot of money in our family — my mom was the single parent of two daughters. She had a form of Muscular Dystrophy that atrophied her hands. We had a father, but he was a deadbeat. Life was hard on and off welfare. For a time, we were homeless.
But our mother was diligent and found low-income housing or cheap apartments near middle class neighborhoods. Which meant we went to decent schools.
Except that my entire childhood felt like my nose was pressed up against a glass window looking in on other people’s happy celebrations and never quite experiencing it myself. I grew up envious, angry and sensitive to any slight.
We were fringe dwellers, the “apartment kids” never a part of a community.
We certainly never received a neighborly gift of treats.
In fact, gifts of any kind were a rarity in our household. And so became an expression of love and sacrifice in our family.
As a kid, I internalized the feeling that nothing was ever good enough, either the present or my expression of thankfulness. How many times do you say “thank you” when mom forgoes buying groceries for the week to splurge on a birthday present, knowing that you won’t eat until mom got paid again?
How do you reconcile shoplifting a stuffed bear gift at 10 years old because you were so desperate to go to a birthday party and your mom couldn’t afford to pay the rent, let alone a gift for some rich kid? Where do you put the shame when you walk home from the store, the bear burning a hole in your pocket, certain you were going to hell for the crime?
I laid all my expectations on the kid… who, of course, was clueless. I wanted her to shower me with appreciation. After all, I had made such a huge sacrifice for her, (my immortal soul and all), but she didn’t give that stupid bear a second glance.
By the time I was out on my own as an adult, I carried these invisible expectations everywhere I went.
Nothing was ever good enough.
I wasn’t worthy.
Gifts needed reciprocation.
Atiya listened to me and saw something deeper in me at that bus stop than what I saw in myself at the time.
That “something” I discovered after having my first child was that I wanted more in my life than being the corporate “phone ‘ho.”
But the day she handed me that plate of baklava wearing a sweet smile, I wasn’t even close to getting it.
I pretended to fawn all over the soggy-looking triangles on the plate because that’s what I thought she wanted. But inside, my gut was churning.
What the hell was I supposed to do with a homemade gift?
I didn’t yet know that preparing food for others in many parts of the world is the ultimate expression of caring and love.
How was I going to reciprocate?
I had no idea how to cook or bake. And zero desire to learn.
The gift felt like most gifts I had received in my life — an emotional burden. I wanted to erase Atiya’s baklava from my conscience. When I stepped off the bus, I waited for Atiya to turn the corner. Then I threw away that baklava in the nearest garbage can without eating a bite.
If I didn’t eat it, I reasoned, I didn’t owe her a thing.
Opting out of gifts for the most part became a viable way to protect myself from the unresolved pain I was still holding on to from childhood.
That is, until I had children of my own — they have a way of forcing your hand.
I ultimately understood this when I had a C-section after the birth of my fourth child.
I had three kids and a newborn. A week after baby and I were home, the incision unexpectedly burst open. I was a “hurtin’ unit” in a way I had never been before.
That’s when the meals began arriving. No showy displays of gratefulness were required. No pound of flesh needed to be given on another date. We opened the door and they were just there, magically, every day.
I can still remember the moment, standing at my kitchen counter and biting into a golden brown fried drumstick that was made for me by someone I didn’t even know. I began to weep because I was so grateful and I finally felt free because I understood at my core that I could receive this gift of kindness fully because I was worth it.
And after I had healed, I began making jam, pumpkin butter, granola and apple sauce… bites of me on a plate.
I understood the power and spirit with which cooking a dish for someone is all about: it’s not just about the person who receives the gift, there is a joy the cook feels in giving of themselves AND THEY DON’T EXPECT ANYTHING IN RETURN!!!
I add about a cup of water to my apple filled crock pot when my oldest daughter, hops onto a barstool. I smile at her as I sprinkle in brown sugar, hand squeeze in lemon juice and spoon in a bit of cinnamon.
I stir and just as I’m closing the lid for the apple mixture to boil down in a hot bath of cinnamon and sugar bliss my daughter says, “Tell me a story about you and auntie and grandma when you were growing up.”
I line up the Mason Jars, grab a glue stick, black marker pen, scissors and brown paper bag.
A couple more of my kids slide up to the bar. With five kids, there are always bodies buzzing about the kitchen. I’ve learned that cooking together has been a great way to spend time with the kids and teach them about life, too.
Patrick and Amelia help me write “Apple Sauce” over and over on the paper bag, cutting out each label and adhering them to the jars.
As a mom, it’s hard for me to find the right balance between wanting to overindulge my kids because I had so little and at times being upset by their entitlements.
I want them to understand the true meaning of a gift. But also compassion for other people and what they go through. Their curious, so I tell them bits of my story.
“Auntie and I would have sleepovers at our friends and then when we came home the next day we would describe what our meals were like to each other… You know, what kind of name brand sugared cereals we were allowed to eat for breakfast?” I say. And I realize I sound more like a “Survivor” contestant describing a reward challenge to the losers back at camp as they pick grubs out of their teeth with bamboo splinters.
Poverty is complicated.
Judging by my daughter’s expression, I can see she’s trying to understand.
But to her, sugared cereals are just sugared cereals and the only thing she knows is that they overflow our stocked pantry.
So, I do things like cook with them and take the food to tent cities and write about our experiences. As a journalist, I can do that. Though with five kids, I am often mistaken as a resident, which makes it even more real for them and me.
“Mom, I saw the jam we gave to the Frederickson’s the other day and they hadn’t even touched it,” my other daughter says, as we spoon the apple sauce into the jars.
It has taken me half a life time to evolve my thinking on the subject of gifts thanks to being a mother, writer, cook and some time champion of underdogs like myself… these are the things that ultimately fill me up.
“These gifts we make for people are bites of kindness, it feels good to give of yourself and then once you give the gift you let it go without any expectation. That is the true meaning and spirit of a gift.” I said.
“Ok, Mom.” She replies. “Can I bring this one to my friend at school? Her parents don’t cook much.”
I nod and think of Atiya.
Not too long after the baklava, I moved downtown and Atiya and I lost touch.
I know now that Baklava is a layered dessert of phyllo dough, separated with melted butter and chopped nuts cut into lozenge-shaped treats topped with a sweetener like honey that soaks into the skin. It tastes delicious.
I have changed. And yet I’m not so different that I can’t remember who I was and where I came from.
I have Atiya and her Baklava to thank for that.