When Reed was born, my mom came to stay for a few days, offering comfort, advice, and an extra pair of willing arms. In my very-emotional postpartum state (my Unexplainable Crying would hit at about 4:00 every afternoon...), she joined forces with Phill to help me navigate that rocky terrain. It is one of those times when you just need your mother. I hung on her every word; I looked to her with each new unknown.
During her visit, I mentioned that I didn't know how to make chili, and wanted her to help me make some. She was more than willing to help. The day she was to leave, we decided it would be helpful to make the chili to have ahead of time for dinner that night. She got the beans simmering and showed me how to make everything just so; I'm afraid I was too much in turmoil to listen. She was leaving, and it was now solely up to me and Phill to figure out how to be parents (armed with the answers to desperate prayers, of course). She told me, "Just remove them from the heat after I leave."
When Phill left to take her to the airport, I sat down in the cushy armchair in our basement, staring at brand-new Reed as he slept nearby in his pack-n-play. I began to feel a disturbing sense that my anchor had been dislodged, a feeling of Oh No What If He Does Something I Don't Know How To Fix, and began to cry helplessly, as helplessly as my newborn did when awake and hungry. I let every feeling wash over me; my fears, my anxieties, my aching wish that my mother could still be next to me. Then I calmed down, wiped my tears, and resolved to be hopeful.
And then I remembered the beans.
The beans! The beans I was supposed to remove from the heat right after she left! The beans....oh, beans.
I went upstairs and dissolved into a(nother) crying mess when I saw the blackened mess that had adhered to the bottom of the pot. I sobbed over the pot, staring into the smelly mixture and saying, "Stupid beans...stupid, stupid, stupid beans! Who wants chili anyway?!" and then, defeated and purely sad, "Oh, Mom....I burnt the beans." And at my lowest: "How will I take care of a baby if I can't take care of beans?"
Eventually Phill came home and helped me piece myself back together. Eventually my hormones stopped their drowning tides. Eventually I learned to take care of my baby, and beans, too. But at times when I would think of my mom, wondering if I was doing this right, or thinking it might be easier to have her living closer by, I thought of the beans again. How much I missed her. How I forgot about time because the aching was too much.
Today I had parent-teacher conference. I tend to brace myself for this sort of thing, since I often drive home making a mental list of all my inadequacies, and feeling in general unworthy to be a mom. This time wasn't too bad--the areas of concern were my own, and I felt (for once) that his teacher and I are on the same track. We discussed his wandering focus, and how it affects his performance. I quietly pondered ways to help him learn to concentrate, and came up empty-handed....what am I supposed to say? "Reed, let's talk about concentrating." No-go. He is seven.
On the drive home, with that un-anchored feeling settling into my chest, I prayed for some sort of inspiration. And I thought to call my mom.
Far away in Boston in that school of brains, she is learning about learning. She is honing her gift for understanding how a person's brain works and tailoring her teaching to fit that need.
I started the white bean turkey chili that Phill loves, and while I cooked, I pressed a few buttons on my phone and felt immense relief at hearing her voice.
"We had parent-teacher conferences today--"
"Oh, sometimes you just have to throw that out the window..."
"Right. I'm okay; I had my shields up."
I minced the garlic and onions while delivering the minutes of my meeting, then asked,
"Mom, how do I help Reed focus?"
"Well, you can ask him some questions that help you figure out where his attention tends to wander."
I added the turkey.
I added a little bit of broth.
"You could say, 'Reed, when is it fun for you to pay attention? When is it hard to pay attention? What do you like to pay attention to? What helps you pay attention?"
There it was. As always, her approach was so simple, so laid-back, and so direct. The same message I always got from her: You have all the tools to be the kind of mother your children need. You can do this.
We said our goodbyes, I put the lid on the pot, set the timer, and went to sit down and let my thoughts simmer with the chili. I thought about how intelligent she is, and how determined she is to become informed about those things that are foreign to her. I thought about our few homeschooling years together, remembering how arduously she tried to help me focus....and how I didn't really learn to focus until years of her efforts and my own. How I still struggle to narrow my focus, now and then, and how she manages still to bring my eyes back to where they need to be.
And I ached. I wished fiercely and silently that she lived next door, so that I could bring her french fries (she loves them) and talk to her about learning and mothering and maybe laugh until we cry. I even pondered how I could maybe bring her chili sometimes, as a little joke.
The timer went off and I hurried to the pot, lifting the lid to enjoy the beautiful dinner I had prepared....and smelled smoke. Before me was a perfect-looking chili, but devoid of liquid, and when I scooped some of it aside, black charred beans--the product of not near-enough broth--greeted me.
I broke out the cereal and milk, and sat at the table with a lump growing in my throat until Reed said, "It's okay, Mom. You're still a great cook."
Some days I burn the beans.
And then some days my mom doesn't seem too far away.
It will all be alright. I can do this. I have all the tools.
Who wants chili anyway?