Brendan stops pushing his little trucks across the floor when he hears the bounce of the soccer ball on the stone terrace at street level. It’s been a long damp stretch of weeks when we’d normally have snow, but the weather has merely been cold, and precipitation has been rain or sleet. So his brows raise and he scampers to the window. I’m trying to train our cat to sit in a chair with a human being, which can only be achieved by scratching his chin so much that Satchmo closes his eyes, so that he forgets his skittishness for a few moments.
“It’s Isaac!” Brendan says, and Satchmo jumps as quickly as he can wiggle free, onto the big bay window where the horses stand in their wooden barn. Each is carefully saddled with a purple ribbon sash, and all are looking out the barn windows, out of our window.
“Ask if you can play.”
He is weighing his decision. Isaac is twelve, tall and confident. His new afro makes him appear taller, and shows off his dark eyes. Brendan caused a whole neighborhood scuffle a few months ago, by demanding to take back his whiffle ball and halting a huge ballgame. Sometimes Isaac has friends visit, also. Sometimes Isaac says no, which is his right. He is twelve. He doesn’t have to say yes just to be nice.
Brendan runs to the porch, calling, “Can I play with you, Isaac? Can I play?”
He returns from the porch. “He said yes, mama. But I don’t know. There are so many things I could do inside, too.”
“Go, you! The sky will be dark in just a few minutes. You haven’t played with Isaac in a few weeks. You don’t want to miss it.” Brendan puts on his coat and chooses his slippy-soled shoes—he’s dying to free his feet from the heavy thermal hiking boots he wears in case of snow and mud. “Stay where I can see you from the window,” I call. The “okay” trails off as he scampers down the steps.
I peek out the window just as Brendan snags the ball and Isaac greets him with a big grin, nodding at the small boy’s play. Brendan has learned a lot about soccer in the past four months, now that he is playing on a team in a league. And he looks taller and more confident, himself. I walk to the stove to scramble up a dinner.
Just the children and me tonight—Scott is tutoring, so I make kid-friendly foods. Tomato soup, a leftover baked potato cut in wedges and browned in butter, red pepper rings and slices of a delicious pork loin steak. For a treat, we will follow all the healthy foods with tortilla chips served with peach salsa (my favorite) and sour cream (Madeleine’s favorite). Three vegetables, a bit of protein, salty crunchy things, perfect. Dinner will require a lot of dishes but there’s very little preparation.
Madeleine peeks up from her book and looks out the window. “No soccer for me,” she said. “Wait, is Mariah coming out?” I watch her run for her coat and hat, and I turn off the heat under the potatoes and the soup. It will wait.
Madeleine and Brendan have known these neighbors all of their lives. Isaac and Mariah visited on New Years Day, the year Madeleine was born. They were each four years old that first winter we lived here. They visited often, as soon as Madeleine was old enough to walk and play toss. Madeleine’s first word after “mama” and “daddy” was “kids!” which she would shout out the window of our third floor perch. Brendan, born two years later, called them both “I,” then later “I and Ri,” with a fun mispronunciation sounding like “Ay and Wye,” also shouted out the window. Both children spent hours setting up Brio train tracks and eagerly gobbling my snacks while entertaining my little ones. I was sad when I needed to describe, later, that big kids need to play with big kids sometimes, and while they love us, they sometimes choose to play with others. Neither of those “big kids” has siblings. Both are endlessly affectionate and kind, especially for adolescents, but they are no longer an everyday part of our lives. We take them when we can get them.
So I postpone our little beggar’s feast of dinner offerings until it’s too dark to see.
When I finally call them, they run in the door, hurriedly washing hands and starting the tub running (in advance of a post-dinner dip). “Something smells YUMMY,” gasps Brendan. “I am one hungry mungry,” Madeleine whispers with her eyes wide. A candle-lighting, a table grace, and they tear into everything with great glee.
After our little supper, Brendan heads to the bath and Madeleine pulls the violin out for her practice.
“Just so you know, we want hot chocolate for dessert,” Madeleine calls, as she begins Ode to Joy.
“Is that something like ‘please?’” I ask. She nods brightly. “It’s covered,” I say. The pan of milk is already heating on the stove.
Heavy cream and maple syrup go into the whipping bowl on the counter. A quarter cup of sugar and a heaping spoonful of German cocoa go into a mug. The sugar and cocoa are mixed in the mug with a bit of hot milk, then poured into the pan and whisked. The cream whips into peaks after a minute in the food processor. A splash of vanilla goes into the hot pan and a dash of wintergreen into my mug and Madeleine’s, then I haul the dinner dishes into the dishwasher and sink. When the cocoa steams, I pour it in mugs, topped with big dollops of whipped cream and a last sprinkle of cocoa. Brendan already has donned his pjs and comes running. Madeleine’s violin is tucked back into its case. We gather around our candle and talk about our day for the length of one slowly sipped mug of chocolate.
Then it’s Madeleine’s turn in the bath, and Brendan makes his bed and practically falls into it. There is no time to choose tomorrow’s clothes—both children are tired from running and the cold evening air. They insist I “tuck them in,” which is actually me hauling their sleeping bags closer to the heads of their beds. It’s a silly request, but they won’t be asking me for this attention in a few years, so I oblige them with a hug and a smooch.
And it’s another day.
I’m having a long argument with winter, this long drizzly winter without snow. I’m having a long argument with the God who has gifted me with this love for writing, though no corresponding gift of income, as of yet. But I have no argument with my role as a parent these days. Whatever their needs and whatever the hassles, it’s a good season for parenting, for simple dinners and long mugs of hot cocoa drunk around the light of a single candle.