First Step To Independence….At A Price…

I am sure that those of you who regularly read my various rambling stories and rants on this GenForward Living Legacy genealogy blog, are more than aware of my ongoing struggle to get some more independence of action out of my son. Well, it was Mother’s Day in the USA yesterday (its on different dates in different places), and I saw the first signs that there’s a mind capable if independent thought and action in my son’s head. That, for me, was a big positive, but it did come at a cost.

When I was a small boy, I never needed reminding of my mother’s birthday or mother’s day. From quite an early age, I would always make sure there was the appropriate gift delivered, albeit usually in a plastic bag, to her by my own fair hand. The form of this gift changed over the years. Very early on it was always a box of ‘Black Magic’. This was basically a dark chocolate selection box.

When I say dark chocolate, I’m talking about what passed for it in the 1970’s, way before you could really get your hands on the stuff I personally eat today which runs a minimum of 80% cocoa solids. This stuff was more like a 30-40% cocoa mix. I guess it would be called “semi-sweet” here in the USA.

Then after some years her taste moved on to Bourneville selection. Similar thing, still all dark chocolate selection, but different manufacturer because she preferred their chocolate. Then after a few years of those she swapped to Guylian sea shells as her treat of choice.

Every year, birthday and mothers day, I’d go riding off to the shops on my bike; cash in sweaty hand, to go fetch the appropriate chocolate based gift. As I got older she’d predominantly get flowers delivered, with the occasional curve ball of a houseplant (she had loads and loved them). In fact if you go to my mother’s house today, in the conservatory you will see, climbing the walls and across the ceiling, a vine that I bought her probably 35 years ago. She’s cut it back a lot now, as at one point it had taken over half of the conservatory.

Never prompted, never forgotten across all the years. A record I maintained for the best part of 40 years until recently when she stated spending a lot of time away from home, so there was nowhere to get things delivered to.

Compare to usual routine in our house where his nibs barely knows what day of the week it is, let alone mothers day or her birthday (despite it being only a couple of days apart from his own, which of course he always remembers from months in advance). Mother’s day and mother’s birthday would usually consist of me getting him a card and or gift and basically telling him to put his mark on it.

Sometimes he would present one of his pieces of “art” as the gift. This consists mainly of random scribblings in crayon, depicting multi limbed mutants and other symbols, that quite frankly an Egyptologist would be hard pushed to decipher. Ok, so he’s not an artist, that’s fine, do something you can do and let’s not pretend there was effort put into it.

We had progressed in the last 12 months or so, as far as me dragging him out to the shop to choose something personally, and even as far as last Christmas when he actually paid for her present with the pocket money we were giving him. So, there was some light at the end of the tunnel, but it was still captain oblivious until the remembering was done for him.

This year however saw a new leaf! We happened to be sitting watching a bit of Eddie Izzard live comedy on DVD. He was doing a bit about being a kid and being given the spoon to lick clean of cake mix, when your mum was baking cakes. The whole bit revolved around the mix actually tasting better than the baked cake so why not just eat the mix? Then Eddie was talking about making mum a cake for mother’s day.

I’m not sure if this was the trigger for him even realising it was mother’s day coming up, or if he had remembered and it was just the cake idea he took. I also happened to make a quick Madeira cake the next day which he went mad on. Whatever the prompt, the following day he walks into my home office triumphantly clutching a bit of screwed up note pad in his hand, and announces that he’s going to bake a cake for his mum on mother’s day. All on his own!

This last bit is key here. Basically I do all the cooking in the house. I like it and am a damn site better at it than my wife. It’s something I work at getting him involved in and helping out with, because I think that the ability to make food from scratch is an important skill that is a bit lost these days. The simple ability to turn raw ingredients into meals, instead of having to rely on frozen ready meal junk that’s full of god knows what, is a basic part of controlling what you put into your body.

It’s been a struggle getting him involved as he was a bit wary of flames and heat to start with, and it’s taken a while to get him more comfortable. But once he got the hang of the simplest things, he liked being able to do it. His real level thus far, if left totally to his own devices, had been eggs. He could fry them or boil them so he could make himself a bit of egg on toast, although we all got fed eggs for a while, until the novelty of his discovery that he could do it wore off.

Now, he was clearly feeling confident! The quantum leap from boiled egg to iced birthday cake was nothing to be concerned about. Not to pour water on his parade, I had a look at his bit of notepaper. For some reason the top half was in pencil, the bottom half in pen. It was a list of what he needed for his cake, so he’d clearly looked up some kind of recipe. There were no quantities listed, he just needed these items for his creation.

His plan was that we would dump his mum on Saturday morning and volunteer to go and do the shopping without her. Regardless of anything else, this is generally a wise move. The trip takes half the time, is invariably cheaper, and has the same net effect just minus a lot of “faffing” (my wife is a world class faffer when left without proper supervision). We would then purchase the required ingredients. Next his plan went off the rails a bit as it seemed to involve putting all the ingredients together on Saturday in secret somehow, and then making the cake on Sunday, ready for presentation.

So, I went into “keep him on the rails” mode. First off I got him to show me the recipe so I could see the amounts vs what’s always in the house anyway. It turned out he’d picked a cake recipe I’d actually made before and knew was ok, but we had a look for some more just to check. Finally, decided on the first cake I checked the ingredients and discerned that the only thing we’d need was some extra cocoa (it was a chocolate cake), and a top up on our vanilla stock. All the rest we had in quantity.

Then I pointed out that when I had made this cake I’d used a single cake tin with a drop out bottom. The recipe was designed to use 2 separate cake tins and, due to the fact that the mix was fairly thin, it had leaked a little out of the bottom of our tin before starting to bake, so I added 2 cake tins to the list for him. He was most pleased.

Saturday comes and there’s a bit of a change of plan, the end result of which was that, after much griping from wife, I was going to go shopping on my own and my son would stay at home with her. This of course resulted in immediate panic mode and much gesturing on his part to talk to me away from earshot of his mum. I assured him however that this was the best we were going to get away with and that I would get his ingredients.

Shopping got done; I even got a card for him to give to her. He hadn’t mentioned this bit but I guess he’s not old enough to understand the ‘woman rule’ that the card matters, so I just cut him some slack as he was on a roll. Got home, card hidden, ingredients blended in with normal shopping and cake tins hidden in the cupboard without getting caught. Again, he was most pleased.

At this point my expectation was that we’d be up and about the following morning and there would be a supervised cake making session. Him doing all the work, me keeping things from turning into a disaster. Fair enough, I’d keep my fingers out of the mix and make sure he could say honestly that it was all his own work, when he presented his culinary masterpiece to his mum. I didn’t discuss this with him, I just expect that this was the way it would play out as even the smallest bump in the road or decision being required always resulted in a call of “Daaaad”.

That night I had a few whisky’s while I watched “The Accountant” on Blu-ray with my wife. After half a bottle or so I went to bed and crashed out, contented.

The next morning I woke up a bit slowly. Not hung over by any means, just heavy headed as is often the case when one passes out instead of sleeps. I had half woken up much earlier and heard some movement in the kitchen which I had figured was him getting his breakfast as he’s trained to do if he wakes up early. Now I looked at my watch and saw it was nearly 9, much later than I had intended to get up, so I dragged myself out of bed and went out of the door trying to pull my head together to get into cake making mode.

A quite pleasant smell reached my nostrils, but I really wasn’t ready for the sight that reached my eyes. My wife was up and drinking her first cup of coffee of the day (she doesn’t function properly till after the second, and even then not very well, bless her). The far side of the kitchen looked like someone had stuck a frag grenade in each of the kitchen cupboards.

The electric mixer was fitted with the wrong attachment for cake making, but it had clearly been used for the purpose as it was covered it cake mix. The bowl however was missing, and later turned up clean on the draining rack which somewhat confused me. Near to the mixer, plonked on top of the gas hob and looking like it had been used as a mixing bowl, was the pan from the electronic kitchen scales. This was full to capacity (and beyond as it was dripping all over the side) with a dark brown watery liquid.

Next to catch my eye were two cake tins. One was one of the two that I had bought the day before, the other was 2 inches smaller, a tin that we had previously owned. Both looked like they had been painted on the inside with a dark brown film. The other tin I had bought was at the other end of the counter but also had dark brown stuff on it. The rest of the kitchen work surfaces were covered with ingredients that I had seen on the list the previous day. Same of them were even partly still in their containers. The whole scene was then liberally dusted with what had to be a combination of flour and icing sugar.

My son was looking proud, my wife was looking amused. I think it was safe to say that she wasn’t expecting this kind of surprise for mother’s day.  He was enthusiastically explaining to my wife how he had got up at 6am and done this all on his own, without any help, a fact which I am fairly sure she had assessed all by herself, even after only half a coffee.

After I got up off the floor, I made my way slowly into what used to be the kitchen and inspected the cake tins. As I mentioned, the smell wasn’t bad at all. IT also appeared that the film on the bottom of the cake pans was about ¼ of an inch thick and fairly solid. I turned the tins upside down and tapped the bottom. Out plopped two, different sized, dark brown disks. They both had a fairly good weight to them and I’m sure an ancient Greek would have made a decent weapon out of them.

I then inquired about the chocolate lake in the measuring pan from the scales. Apparently this was supposed to be for the icing. It had stared out as butter and cocoa but had gone a “bit thick” so he’d added a cup of boiling water to remedy the issue. I think that by this point the recipe had taken a complete back seat and he was now just free styling.

I asked about what he’d done in comparison to the recipe (as mentioned before I knew this recipe was decent as I’d used it myself) to get the result that he had. First thing he’d done was to use a totally different type of recipe for a completely different type of cake. Not to matter, we’d had the ingredients anyway. The biggest issue seems to have come next, when he seems to have treated Jamie Oliver’s recipe and method as merely, advice. A rough guideline. To be used only by those less expert in the kitchen than himself.

Proceedings were brought to a halt there, and he resorted to dipping strawberries in the chocolate water mix to try to make chocolate coated berries. There was however no way that the liquid he had created was ever going to set, short of a trip to the freezer so that just made more mess. Given that the “cakes” were still warm and smelled ok we figured we had better get the obligatory tasting out of the way before they set brick hard. The icing phase was not even going to get on radar.

The taste was, unusual. It was fairly chocolatey, but overly so, and had a bit of a raw batter aftertaste. The taste wasn’t the biggest issue though. It was the way it dried you mouth up like “Acme Alum” on Wylie Coyote in a Road Runner cartoon. I prised my jaws open with a butter knife, ready for my second bite. My wife was doing her best “yummy” face but again, lack of saliva was affecting the shapes she could make with her mouth.

I decided to bite the bullet and quietly start clearing all of the debris, not a job I had fancied first thing in the morning. Within about half an hour, something like normality had returned to the kitchen. My wife dealt with the floors and all that remained were the two chocolate Frisbees, each with a bit missing. Well worth the effort.

But we couldn’t be annoyed. It was a first step. For the first time in his life he’s actually not only had a thought for someone other than himself, he’d come up with a plan, secured assistance, and carried it through to, almost, the end. All without being instructed, prompted, reminded or guilted into doing it. Really the only issue was he’d really overreached a bit in trying to go from fried egg, to full on iced and decorated birthday cake, all in one step. To quote another family favourite he’d gone a bit “Top Gear” (the proper one with Jeremy and the boys not the American tragedy), definitely “Ambitious But Useless”.

But what the hell, it was his first step. So what if he’d tried to make it a big one and come up a bit short, that’s learning. The thing that gave me hope was that it happened at all. I hear people say that they are great parents because they’d do anything for their children. I say nonsense; great parenting is about what you teach them to do for themselves. That’s your real job, not to breed some needy, helpless individual that can’t function without their hand being held.

I’m sure we will add this one to the tales to embarrass him with in later years when he brings girlfriends home, or when he has his own kids, but for now its victory we can all be proud of. Let’s just hope it’s not a one hit wonder!

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