22 Oct Broccoli & Bedtimes
First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 26 October 2020
Fish fingers and macaroni cheese. That’s it. If you asked my granddaughter to draw you a picture of nana’s cooking, that’s what you’d see. Maybe there’d be a chocolate pudding discernible in a corner of the artwork if nana was being fancy and had the time. But dinner at my place? You don’t even need to ask.
This is not because that’s all I can cook. Indeed, Ariana has seen me whip up spicy enchiladas with smashed avocado (her mother’s favourite) or roast lamb and winter vegetables, or that lemon and wholegrain mustard thing I do with whole chicken legs and serve on couscous. At all of which she wrinkles her little nose, and turns instead with satisfaction to her plate of fish fingers and side dish of macaroni cheese.
Children should, of course, be encouraged to try new foods – educate their palates, widen their culinary horizons. But not by me. Because I am the nana, and I have decreed that broccoli and bedtimes are not in my purview. At Nana Michy’s House, carrot sticks and mandarins will be offered but not compulsory, and there is every chance you will stay up watching Disney movies till you fall asleep in her lap.
It hasn’t always been like this. When Ariana was two, she lived here with us (and her mama, and her great-grandparents) and all the necessary rules and routines were in place. There was a bath-bed-book routine preceded by meals which would have required many different coloured crayons to draw. (Green, certainly, on a daily basis, and also orange, plus red for tomato sauce which seemed to make everything palatable.)
But now, almost seven years old, she and her little brother live three hours away and travel here every few weekends so, operating on the basis that broccoli and bedtimes are correctly observed there in between visits here, I have adopted a different approach.
You can map it back to my own childhood when visits to Grandma – before she came to live near us – had its own ritual of treats. Jet plane lollies in a dish on her brass table, toffees in a purple jar. We knew without being told which bath towels were ours – routine and certainty amongst the strangeness of sleeping away from home, and away from our mother.
Even more clearly, you can trace it back to every school holiday and another each summer when we were bused to Hawkes Bay to stay with our great-aunt and great-uncle. Ruth and Frank arranged their home to make space for us – a camp stretcher in the sunroom, a particular eiderdown in the back bedroom, books on the bookshelves, egg cups designated for each of us, a crate of soda pop in the garage. Familiar things in our away-place you could count on that said, “You belong here, we keep a place for you”. So much so that, when we visited with our parents, not staying, I found it a little shocking that those things – the extra bed, the special china – had been put away. I think I had imagined that Ruth and Frank’s house was always set up for us, and that perhaps they always spent their days as they did when we were with them – feeding the ducks, visiting the local pool, finding all the things that enchanted small children.
It is impossible to measure how much all of this contributes to your sense of confidence, security and belonging as we grow up, except to say “a lot”. When the world feels uncertain, or you don’t quite fit in it, knowing there is a place – or several places – where you are welcome, expected and treasured casts a protective spell.
So at Nana Michy’s house, our moko have their own spaces. There’s a drawer filled with toys and nonsense – ones they remember and the occasional surprise. Books on the shelves and another basket of particular favourites beside the bed. Plates and cups in the cupboard, playdough, paper and pens. Stuff they can count on to be waiting for them so they know that, even when we are going on without them, they can slip right back in.
My favourite trip to the supermarket is the one just before they are due. Animal biscuits, honey yoghurt, rice crackers, and the pancake mix their mother expertly turns into breakfast each morning here. Also on the list, of course, fish fingers and macaroni cheese.
There is a theory that, to become the best version yourself, you need at least one person to believe in you. A teacher, or an uncle, or a nana, or a friend. A whole village would be even better, but one will do it. And at this stage in my life, I can’t tell you which is better – to have one of those people, or to be one.