Samuel has weaned.
He goes to sleep with water and wakes up with vanilla syrup in cow’s milk. He is officially off the breast. Dawn has been happily adjusting. She has eaten nothing but forbidden food for days now. All those allergens that gave Samuel rashes and bloody stools, innocent foods like tomatoes, chocolate, peppers, and soy beans that she hasn’t eaten for two years, she has been eating for days with gleeful abandon. We’ve had chocolate cupcakes, salads with hothouse tomatoes and yellow peppers. We’ve had pizza three times – not that she ever really gave up pizza entirely, but it tastes much better now without the guilt. We planned a culinary adventure for her birthday. A little gardening in the morning, a babysitter in the afternoon so we could have lunch at Kismet, friends over for dinner, and a lemon layer cake from Cook’s Illustrated.
Cook’s Illustrated is not your typical “ladies journals.” It has no advertising, no flashy color photographs, no inserts or prizes or games, nothing but recipes, cooking tips, and Consumer-Reports-style articles on kitchen aids and appliances. All the illustrations and photographs are in tasteful sepia black and white. The magazine is a work of art, as one might expect from a New England based publisher.
It is also a work of science. Each recipe is its own detailed laboratory experiment. I have yet to see a recipe that fit in less than two 8.5×11 pages, three columned, 8-pt font. They aren’t so much “recipes” as “procedures”. When they say you need eggs at room temperature, don’t think you’ll get away with taking them out of the fridge at the last minute. When they say beat on medium high speed for 30 seconds, you had better stay awake with your stop watch. Otherwise there will be consequences. Cakes will fall, icing will go runny, pies will melt into puddles. The few times I have followed their recipes, dotting every I and crossing every T, I have created nothing less than Perfect Food that I would be proud to photograph. But if I strayed so much as one jot or tittle, I was left with an unsightly mess.
I was instructed by the birthday girl to make it with pectin instead of gelatin, because we are, after all, vegetarian – no horse hooves for us, thank you. So the pressure was on. I was deliberately straying from the beaten, if narrow, path. Saturday night after the children were in bed, I cleaned the kitchen and got going. It took me eight hours to make this cake.
First there’s lemon curd filling – a dozen fresh squeezed lemons, separated eggs whites and yolks, calcium solution which will activate the pectin, which is added later with the sugar, assuming the recipe is robust enough to survive our tinkering, don’t forget the frozen butter, all cooked in a double boiler stirring constantly with prayers to St Julia Child, until the instant read thermometer reads 160 degrees and the potion congeals. Refrigerate overnight.
Second was the cake layers themselves which were really pretty straightforward except that I couldn’t start them until after the lemon curd was done, and then I had to stay up until they cooled. By the time I got to bed, it was Sunday.
The next morning, I had to “construct” the cake by splitting the layers and stacking them with a cup of lemon curd in between each pair of layers. A cup of lemon curd makes a quarter to half inch layer resembling, forgive me, lubricated jelly, so that the entire stack leaned like the tower of Piza.
Time to make the frosting, another stove-top potion with lots of egg whites, sugar, wing of bat, more fresh squeezed lemon juice, eye of newt, and corn syrup. Heat to 148.76 degrees and then beat in the blender until it has confessed or ten minutes has passed. Whichever happens first. Frost the cake and then distress the surface with the back (convex) side of a large spoon. “Distress” is what furniture makers do to otherwise functional and pristine chairs and tables to make them look antiquey. The effect on the cake is similar.
It would not fit in the refrigerator, so it sat on the counter with a glass bell cover to keep away the children.
We had friends over for dinner to celebrate, a lovely couple who just had their first child two months ago. With an infant, a two year old, and a five year old in the house all clammering for attention, we planned ahead and ordered take out Thai food. Our house was too small and too noisy for the infant to sleep. He fussed, nursed, spit up, fussed some more as Mom and Dad passed him back and forth, took turns rocking him, patting him, dandling him. Aside from being a pediatric physical therapist, Dawn just plain loves babies and watched wistfully while the hormonal imbalance of having weaned Samuel wreaked it magic havoc. For my part, I breathed a sigh of relief that I had finally healed from my operation and would not be reliving this scene anytime before grandparenthood.
After dinner we sang Happy Birthday. The adults lauded the cake, and the children lauded the ice cream. Baby boy finally calmed down enough to give Mom and Dad some smiles and to babble happily at them. I brought out my digital camera and took some photos and a short video. Dawn showed us a little baby party trick. She told me to play back the video for the baby, and when I did, he started babbling along with himself. Babies will watch other babies, but they will only coo at Mom and Dad or the sound of their own voice. Our friends were delighted, and Dawn got all weepy, not because she missed having a baby, but rather she missed having her baby clients. Plus the hormone thing.
Skip to tomorrow – Monday morning. I wake up with Samuel asleep in the bed and Dawn already out for her morning walk. Well, not strictly true. Samuel woke up first, but I was a close second.
“Where’s Mama? Where’s Mama? Want Mama!”
Thank God he is still young enough to distract. We got out of bed and Rose was already sitting in the living room reading. The two of them chased each other up and down the hall while I got breakfast on the table. As I cleaned up afterwards, I saw Dawn walking up the driveway, her hand clutched to her belly, but not in pain. No, she was carrying something very small. I met her in the mudroom.
“What did you bring home?”
She opened her hand and there was a small ball of gray fluff curled up in her hand, about the size of a half dollar, not counting the tail.
“A wee little mouse babe.”
Clearly her hormones were still swinging violently, but at least she didn’t bring home a kitten or puppy. We whispered in the mudroom, trying to avoid the inevitable crush of curious children until we could feel each other out about this new addition.
“He was in the middle of the intersection, lost, cold, miserable. I couldn’t figure out where he’d come from or where to put him, so I brought him home. Do we still have any of that Cream of Wheat you made yesterday?”
“Uh, in the fridge.”
“He’ll need some water too.”
“Dawn, I need to be at my desk in a half hour. You need help getting the children ready for swim lessons, we haven’t showered, you haven’t eaten.”
“OK, I’ll have to find a box and put him on your desk.”
“Why my desk?”
I hoped my question came out as mild curiosity. Inside it was much more whiny. Why? Why me? Why MY desk? Why does every bit of paper, every broken toy, every random bit of junk and recycling end up on my desk? I already have a mouse on my desk, sleek, gray, and cute in its own plastic way. A mouse that didn’t pee or poop on my papers.
“Because he needs to be near someone, and out of reach of the children.”
Said children figured out how to open the baby gate and joined us in the mudroom to coo over “Desperaux,” as Dawn named him, after a brave little mouse in a childrens book with the same name.
I wasn’t going to fuss. It was Dawn’s birthday, her real birthday. We had celebrated on Sunday for convenience, but today was the real day. If she wanted a mouse for a pet, well, at least it was small and no one should be allergic to it. And I wouldn’t have to worry about taking care of it for years after the children left home, or putting it to sleep when it caught some horrible rodent cancer. My father still remembers having to put that “damn dog” to sleep, the one who my oldest brother never house trained as he was supposed to, and whose urine haunted the basement carpet for thirty years. At least I wouldn’t have to deal with all that.
But I was still having a hard time adjusting to change, of any sort. I expected to be at work at 9:00 AM, having fulfilled all my parental and spousal obligations. I expected to walk to my telecommuting desk at 9:00 AM, proud of having done my share and fulfilled my sterling self-image as a modern provider and a twenty-first century father. I had been thinking this way for about an hour. Now suddenly my game plan had been changed for me. More was expected of me. I was to rise to the occasion. My psyche was catching up very slowly and reluctantly.
And then I had one of those moments of awakening. I was being exactly the kind of grown up that, as a child, I hoped I would never grow up into. You know, the kind more concerned about getting to work on time than watching the rainbow colors the motor oil left in the puddles on the street. Dude, chill out.
(Side note – later that night, at the dinner table, out of the blue, my five-year-old daughter said to us, “Mama. Papa. I’m really going to miss my childhood.” Holy cow. Where’d that come from?)
I found Dawn a shoebox that she prepared with an old receiving blanket, a piece of cardboard tube, some water and food, and a cut up net bag clipped on as a ceiling. As I brushed Rose teeth, she told me she wanted to call him “Cinnamon,” but I told her to get her own mouse. No, not really. That would have been extraordinarily stupid of me. I said, “Mama found him and is taking care of him. She gets to name him.” Rose was OK with that.
I got out the electric heating pad and we placed it on the bed with the shoebox on top. Little Desperaux had already nibbled some pear and was sleeping the unconscious sleep of a rescued nocturnal mammal. At least, I hoped so. I hoped he hadn’t died on us already. No, he was still breathing.
“Are you OK with this?” Dawn asked.
“Yes, I’m OK with this.”
She relaxed. “Can you smell him?”
“No, my nose is stuffed up. I don’t smell anything.”
“It’s strong. Phew!” She smiled and walked into Samuel’s room next door. I quickly searched for “wild mouse pet” on the internet. Good pets. Lots of personality. Live for 2 to 4 years. Need things to climb on and exercise. Need something to gnaw on to wear away their rodent teeth.
“It’s not the mouse that smells. You put a wet diaper in the wipes warmer!”
I walked next door and saw that indeed, Samuel’s very soggy, extra absorbent, cloth, nighttime diaper was stuffed into the box of the electric wipes warmer.
“I did not do that.”
We both turned to the door and yelled, “Samuel!”