((This was written as an entry for a contest. The idea is to tell of a :30 second friendship. The details of the contest are here.))
I catch the last train home.
I delay the trip as long as possible, avoiding returning to a house full of resentful strangers, but it is time to go or risk the police coming to find me later. The bright lights inside and dark night without combine to turn the windows into mirrors.
The only other person on the train is a man who is wearing too many coats. He sits at the other end of the car. The doors slide closed and I take a seat as far from him as possible.
I want to be alone.
I sit as close to the wall as I can, hugging the glass. I stare at the reflection of my hopeless tears falling onto my coat as we start to move. I am 17 and alone in the world. I have just decided to accept that my life has no meaning. I contemplate suicide, but know that I can not actually harm myself. It is not a happy thought.
Suddenly, she is there.
Behind me in the glass, her reflection looks like a middle-aged woman carrying too many shopping bags. She and her bags crowd onto the seat right next to me. I shift my back toward her resentfully, wondering why she doesn’t sit anywhere else.
I wipe my tears with my sleeves. I can only cry alone.
We ride in tense silence until she begins searching her bags.
“Look at this,” the angel says, holding out a small tissue paper envelope with the top folded over. I turn in the seat, somehow knowing she will not let up unless I do. I take the envelope, confused.
Inside the envelope is a beaded bracelet. They are very popular. I have seen the cool kids at school wearing them in a variety of colors. It is not the sort of thing I can afford.
This one is pale pink.
“It’s rose quartz,” she says. Seeing that I won’t respond, she adds, “they are real stones, not just plastic beads. Rose quartz are for love.”
“It’s pretty,” I say meekly, trying to pass it back to her.
She shakes her short dark hair and gives me a small smile. “You keep it.”
She gathers up her bags with a sense of finality, refusing to take back the gift. “Even if it doesn’t seem likely, there are people that love you.”
Her words shatter my tenuous calm and I sob openly into my hands, crinkling the paper envelope but unable to stop. I am broken by the kindness of this stranger when my own family cannot see my worth. When I collect myself and look up again, she is gone.
I stand up and turn around, searching the car. I see that she is no longer on the train. There are only rows of empty seats and that one man, who still doesn’t turn around.
The train has not stopped, we are still between stations. I look around, confused. I know there is no way to move between cars while the train is moving, she is either here, or she never was.
My angel disappeared as quickly and quietly as she appeared. She left behind her words of kindness and that bracelet made of love. I wore those stone beads for years, a constant reminder that I was loved, even if I couldn’t see by whom
With 5000 nominees from all over the US, the choice was a difficult one. Read about the finalists and the winner here. I thought the creation of the new award category was a sensational idea. Adults seem to be making a mess of our world, maybe it is time to incorporate the ideas of innovative children in creating solutions for the problems they will inherit.
Like me, some of my readers may have grown up without meals at a table. For those of us who grew up watching family meals on shows like “Leave it to Beaver,” and “The Brady Bunch,” longing to build the experience into their own future family culture, I have decided to share my tips and experience.
How does one make the cultural leap from eating all meals (if there were meals) from your lap at the TV to weaving a routine of eating together at a table, without distractions?
First, I realized you need to have a dinner meal every day. I find it hard, though, to stick with routines. Having had none when I was young, I find it exceedingly difficult to maintain a routine for anything. Even for family meals, which are a high priority for me, I can slag and waiver if the executive functioning needed feels overwhelming. I may adopt a new routine and *love* it, then fall off the wagon and abandon it completely after a few days or weeks. I might leave everyone to find leftovers while I spend time trying to complete an article and hope they don’t notice my absence. This is especially true if there is any barrier to success, like having a difficult or tedious reset-system on a ‘to-do’ list app. I have found that setting an alarm that goes off daily has made a big difference. My “make dinner” alarm is set for 5 pm every day. With the daily alarm, we are guaranteed to have enough time to thaw supplies and cook before our hopeful dinnertime of 6:30. Or we have time to order food, if budget and schedule dictate.
Another issue many people have is what to eat. We couldn’t really have the same food every time and maintain interest for everyone. If you’re trying to build a new culture in an existing family system, the switch from purchased meals or packaged foods can be eased if you can make better meals at home, but that difficulty is exacerbated for people with childhood trauma and neglect because those things are often accompanied by a lack of skills and experience. The best meals from my childhood involved white bread and Spaghetti-O’s, so I longed to try making meals my childhood peers complained about: meatloaf and steamed Brussels sprouts sounded like magic, tuna casserole sounded like heaven, and homemade soups and stews sounded like myths.
I began trying to cook for my family when I was 14. I completed a course on Home Economics, which gave me a boost of confidence in the kitchen, and taught me about basic nutrition. Unfortunately that did not translate to all my meals turning out well. After many disasters that did *not* lead to any property damage, I managed to achieve a short-list of about a dozen meals I can consistently make which my children will eat. If you are one of millions who “don’t know how to cook,” I hope you will find it in yourself to be brave and look for lists of 20-30 minute meals you can make with everyday-ingredients. YouTube is full of easy-to-follow videos (with ingredient lists in the description) where you can follow along making simple meals. Family meals do not have to be extravagant but they should include a source of protein, at least two colors of vegetables, and some grains or starches.
Even with some skill and experience, and a schedule that worked, I struggled to solve the primary complaint I hear from all home-cooks. This is that *deciding* what to cook for meals each day is harder for them than *cooking* the meals each day. I tried menu-planning but that meant having to do all the brain-work for a period of time only to have to adjust when needed ingredients were not in-stock or when life left me with less time than I needed for a particular meal prep. This meant it did not save me time in the end.
What worked for me is that I developed a set of index-card meal ideas which can be shuffled to create a plan for the week in seconds. I created a list of items I keep on hand (because we are blessed with an income that supports such a plan). The ingredients can be used to make various meals. This is a similar strategy to having versatile clothing items that work well in different ways when paired with accessories, jeans, or slacks. Ground beef can be turned into chili, burgers, meatloaf, tacos, goulash, Sloppy Joes, Bolognese, Stroganoff, or meatballs. Chicken can be baked, fried, boiled, shredded, or made into cold chicken salad. A whole chicken can be used for several meals before the bones become broth (best with added vegetable scraps from a storage bag in your freezer). Rice, pasta, potatoes, onions, eggs, spices, and frozen vegetables can turn into a meal all by themselves without much prep. I can make simple, nutritious meals for most days in around half an hour. If I know I won’t have much time for meal prep due to appointments or other issues, I can set up a meal in a Crockpot in the morning and have it warm and ready by dinner.
Once I have the food decided upon, manage my schedule enough to make sure it’s ready at about the same time each day, and actually do the work to prepare it, how do I get my family to join in?
Well, I ask them. I make sure we have a table and chairs to sit at. I (at first) set the table and make it easy for them to sit down and enjoy the meals. I tell them it is important to me, and ask them to sit and eat with me without distractions. Once everyone gets in the habit of leaving books, toys, and devices to share a meal every evening, they can be given tasks like setting the table, moving food to the table, calling others to join us, and cleaning up. We have each child wash one dish for each year they are old.
To keep conversation going and engage everyone we try to have prompts ready. Sometimes we ask everyone to share a positive thing they think of. Recently, a friend of mine gave us a “chat Pack” to use. It consists of a stack of cards with conversation starters on them. We sometimes pull out a card and take turns responding to the prompts or listening to everyone else. Family meals are finally starting to feel like a positive and ‘normal’ part of our culture. They give us the opportunity (pre-Covid at least) to invite others over to share these times with us without it being a special event.
Connecting is a part of our family culture that feels good to us all, and heals those parts of me that wished for connection when I was young. I would love to hear from you about how you make ways to connect with your people. Please leave a comment below with your favorite strategies and tips?
Cooking rules I created for myself:
1) Read the whole recipe before you decide if you are ready to try it.
2) Verify that you have all the needed ingredients and tools before starting.
3) Set Timers.
Rules for the table:
1) No books, toys, or devices.
2) Take what you want, and eat what you take.
3) Aim for at least 4 (natural) colors of food on your plate at every meal.
4) Take small portions to begin with and then take more if you are still hungry.