Chicken Soup Makes Me Happy

December 24, 2013

It goes without saying that the late Maurice Sendak (z”l) was in possession of a fabulous mind and a singular talent. His classics Where the Wild Things Are and Chicken Soup with Rice emerged wonderfully into the world just a few years before I did, and have always been a cherished part of my reading life.

I still have my original copies of these and other books from my childhood, though I tend to be the only one here who looks at them anymore. Admittedly, even I do so only on rare occasion. My boys long ago graduated to chapter books, the newspaper, and Sports Illustrated. Picture books have receded into their distant memory, eclipsed entirely by i-everythings and eye-rolling at whatever I happen to do, say, or wear. 

We’ve reached the era of begging them for some time in, as in some time in the presence of their mom, instead of sending them to their rooms for a timeout. 

But I was once a child, and Where the Wild Things Are resonated with me then in the way it was meant to: I shared Max’s frustration with his mother, who wanted him to be quiet and stop running through the house. As a teenager, I found myself wresting with his feelings of anger and loneliness (No one understands me!), and longed to get to a place where I had some say, could possibly even be in charge of at least one tiny outpost of my own life.

Recently, after a small bit of surprise surgery that has, thank G-d, passed well under the bridge, I found myself couch-ridden in the room with our bookshelves. Perhaps because it has been quite a while since I last read Wild Things with my youngest, I turned to it for some nostalgic comfort, encountering it for the first time as a parent reading solely for my own enrichment. 

Opening the familiar pages, I grinned as Max made his boyish ruckus, and bade him farewell as he sailed off to the wild things. On this read, however, I noticed something I’d never seen before in those grotesque creatures issuing their terrible roars: I saw myself. I had become some real-life version of the adults in Max’s (wild) imagination. I slammed the book shut in horror.

Unlike the roars of the wild things in the story, my real life ones tend to be quite specific: Clean your room! Shabbes starts in ten minutes and you still haven’t showered? Can’t you be nice to your brother? Put your basketball shoes away before someone trips and breaks his neck! 

It is true. My job description includes making sure my sons tend to their hygiene, respect their environment, and know that they are not the only beings in the universe. Yet I gasped with shame at how I must sound. 

To be fair, the boys do their share of roaring (at me, at one another), and my husband also contributes to the parental din (What did you do to your hair? What are you listening to at that volume? Pick up your clothes from the floor!). But they are all somehow immune to the effects of their own rumblings, and I’m the fool who found trouble in a picture book. 

Soon enough, the boys arrived home from school, interrupting my little crisis. To my relief, no one mentioned our harried morning exchange (What on earth is taking you so long? You’ll miss the bus!), the one that ended with a declaration of my approaching redundancy (Mom, we’re big boys!). In fact, they hardly remembered the conversation at all (What are you talking about?). I finally resolved to take a page from their book and just ignore what I don’t want to hear. 

Still unsteady on my post-operative feet, I hadn’t made them an impressive dinner, but I let their disappointment (roar) pass right through me. I did, however, promise that with their help, I’d be able to pull off most of our usual Shabbes menu. One offered to roll the meatballs if I could manage the sauce. Another begged out because he would be away for the weekend at a school shabbaton. My youngest said he always wanted to learn how to make chicken soup.

Early Thursday morning, the latter bounded down the steps and announced that it was time to put the chicken in the pot. I’d already washed the vegetables and herbs and he took over from there, cleaning the chicken, chopping the carrots and celery, and filling the enormous stockpot with water. He asked me to handle the seasoning, which I did, and we took a commemorative photo to celebrate our collaboration.

The pot simmered all day, keeping me company while everyone else was out. The delicious aroma transported me far away, to an imaginary place where no one roars, where everything follows quietly along a simple, peaceful plot line. As it is for Max in Sendak’s brilliant tale, this give and take is ultimately all part of the bigger picture of parenting by imperfect adults and individuating by imperfect children and adolescents. 

I play my role, and they play theirs. Sometimes we roar. But like Max, at the end of the day, we all return to one another in the place where we are loved best, where a hot supper awaits.

Happy once, happy twice, happy chicken soup with rice.