There are not many moments in my daily life that are sitcom-perfect, but last Sunday was one of them. The weather was finally, blessedly, gorgeous, and my husband and daughter were outside planting sweet olive and jasmine, making my backyard smell like New Orleans, while I was inside cooking jambalaya, making my kitchen smell like New Orleans.
When Ruby wandered in, she was fascinated by all of my chopping and stirring, and I, in an alarmingly good mood and two glasses into a bottle of wine, picked her up and started dancing around the kitchen singing “Jambalaya” to her.
“I want to make jambalaya and crawfish pie and filé gumbo,” she said and wandered off.
I assumed she was headed to her play kitchen … until I heard the sound of running water followed by a crash.
“Ruby?” I said, walking toward the bathroom.
“NO!” she yelled. “You can’t come in! This is for sale only! For sale to little people! Little people only!”
I opened the bathroom door to a scene that was about as shocking as Carrie at the prom –– only with Sparkle Crest toothpaste and cheddar cheese in place of pig blood. It was everywhere. It was on my child. It was on the walls, the faucet, the floor, the toilet seat. When I looked in the sink, it was full of cheese fragments, toothpaste and water. She was only out of my sight for about three minutes, but the level of foulness she had created looked like it had taken much, much longer. It was a very efficient use of her time.
“Ruby, what were you thinking?” I asked.
“I’m not sure, Mommy,” she said with pure 3-year-old honesty. “I thought it was a good idea, but now I’m sorry.”
Considering how many things in my life can be summed up that way, I couldn’t stay mad for long.
“Were you … making something?” I asked.
“Yes, this is my jambalaya,” she told me.
I know as well as anyone that there are no hard and fast rules about what goes into jambalaya. It’s a delicious hodgepodge of whatever you have handy. That said, I’m pretty certain that no recipe anywhere would condone the use of blue bubble gum toothpaste and cheese as the basis of a good jambalaya.
I’m also pretty certain that no one would see a child covered in blue bubble gum toothpaste and cheese as an indication of good parenting.
And yet, even as I stood in the bathroom doorway too overwhelmed by the cleanup that lay ahead to do anything more than stare, I was proud of her, proud of her curiosity, her inventiveness. I was proud that she wanted to cook like a New Orleanian, even if her “trinity” of toothpaste, cheese and water is not quite as palatable as onions, bell peppers and celery.
Over my stove, there’s a ‘70s-era plaque that says, “Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.” I bought it at a yard sale when I was maybe 17 years old –– I didn’t know all that much about cooking or love back then, but I liked the sentiment, and it’s hung in every kitchen I’ve had since then, gradually collecting grease spatters as I learned about “deglazing” and “getting my heart broken.”
Ruby’s efforts give new meaning to “cooking with abandon,” but then again, having a child gives new meaning to “loving with abandon.”
Hours later, after the bathroom had been cleaned and Ruby had been bathed and put to bed, I stood in her room and watched her sleep. In the future, I saw almost equally horrific culinary attempts that I would have to eat with a smile and effusive praise on Mother’s Day. And further in the future, I saw broken curfews and boyfriends and a million other ways she would scare me.
Over the years, I know that her cooking will get better, and her misbehavior will get worse –– toothpaste all over the bathroom is annoying; what she has in store for me in her teenage years is flat-out terrifying.
But I know that I will never, ever stop loving her with abandon.