In the list of biggest life challenges, we usually hear of jobs, marriages, moves, kids. I would respectfully like to add: school. It’s a transition that, in early parenthood, seems glorious in the way that pumpkin spiced lattes sound appealing in August. You like the idea of it, can picture yourself wrapped in plaid and enjoying it, but there is so much that must be overcome to get there.
I approached the year that my son, Charlie, started kindergarten as you would a tidal wave, in awe of its beauty and also its potential destruction. Because Charlie has cerebral palsy, is in a wheelchair, and is limited verbally, it terrified me that he might not be understood and be known as I knew him simply because he couldn’t speak or walk like everyone else.
And since baking is both my therapy and love language, a great deal of cupcakes and cookies and Bundt cakes and challah rolled through my house in the months before school began. It was a way for Charlie and me to connect. In everything he helped me stir and frost and taste, we silently communed. Baking became our thing. You don’t need a loud voice or legs that run to make something delicious. You just need to know your people well enough to make something they love and so we baked for each other.
Then kindergarten began. And to my delighted surprise, he aced it. He began using his speaking device more often and waving at all his friends as he rolled down the hallway like the tiny class president.
But he was exhausted when he came home. The first afternoon, he fell asleep face first in his snack, little bits of strawberries sticking to his chin. And when I pulled out the bowls and mixer to make brownies a few week into September, he burst into tears. I knelt on the kitchen floor in front of his chair, hugged him, and cried too, because I’m pretty sure our tear ducts are linked.
The first afternoon, he fell asleep face first in his snack, little bits of strawberries sticking to his chin. And when I pulled out the bowls and mixer to make brownies a few week into September, he burst into tears.
“Don’t you want to make brownies?” I asked and held up two hands, the left for “yes” and the right for “no” – literally our shorthand.
He tapped the right.
“Do you want to make something different?”
The right, again.
“Well,” I sat back on my heels and thought. “Do you want to go to the grocery store with me, just the two of us?”
He smacked my left hand so hard it stung—his version of an exclamation point.
We strolled up and down the baking aisle. I figured he could show me the things that looked good and we could make something he’d like. I’d seen enough seasons of “Chopped” to know the best creations come out of desperation. But he wanted nothing to do with it. Instead, he kept pointing towards the bakery.
When we wandered over, he gestured towards the display case where the free cookies sat in their little box on top. He chose one with sprinkles. While he ate it with gusto, we made a lap of the store without putting a thing in the cart.
I talked about his day, narrated back the things his aide had written on his note and told him I was proud of him for how hard he was working, and when we arrived at the bakery again, he signed for “more.” So we got another cookie, a few actually, one for me and one for him, because it’s rude to let someone eat alone.
I chewed the slightly stale cookie and brushed sprinkles off my shirt and wondered what made this so much better for him than baking at home. Then again, home was also where his brother and sister and dad and dog ricocheted through the house like pinballs. After the chaos of school, he wanted a quiet place to himself, with me. In the end, it wasn’t the food he craved, but the time that was just ours.
The time together matters just as much as the food.
A year later and we’re back to school once again. We’ve already resumed our late night grocery store trips. I don’t grab a basket anymore. Instead, I wheel him in his wheelchair straight to the bakery, where they see us coming and wave with a few cookies in tissue paper already in hand. Then we walk and talk, with nothing to do and nowhere particular to be.
Julia Child once wrote that “dining with one’s friends and beloved family is certainly one of life’s primal and most innocent delights,” and I’d have to agree. I also think she would forgive my stale grocery store cookie substitute. The time together matters just as much as the food.
Jamie Sumner is a mom and the author of the middle grade novel, ROLL WITH IT, that tells the story of 12-year-old Ellie, who has cerebral palsy and wants more than anything to be a famous chef.