Our friends C and J come over for dinner every week, usually on Thursday, when our shared box of CSA vegetables arrives. They are terrific people. Cooking and eating and sitting around the table with them is a deep and reliable source of pleasure. And there's something else, too.
One Thursday in May, C came over early to bake a birthday cake (their oven was broken). Ingrid had refused, in a dramatic and whiny way, to nap, and, in the middle of a long afternoon with an overtired girl, I was relieved to have another grownup in the house. Iris was napping, and Ingrid stood on the stool next to C as he mixed eggs and flour and sugar, coconut and pecans. I kept ducking into the living room to breathe air uninhabited by children, the way some punk would lean out the window to sneak a smoke.
But the few minutes of rest weren't the best part. The best part was what C said later, J nodding along, after both girls were in bed and all four of us were warm with wine and arugula and cake: If I lived with Ingrid, I’d do a lot more baking.
More baking? I didn't get it until he went on, She loves batter. It’s so much fun.
Oh my God, I thought. Fun. I’d forgotten.
Ingrid does love batter. She loves watching us mix things, loves getting her fingers in there, getting covered with it: cheeks, wrists, elbows, neck. She says, I love it! She mutters, sticky-tongued, smacking batter off of her fingers: Mmm. Tastes like whoop cream. Tastes like whoop cream.
And if you’ve had a good night’s sleep—and if you’re wearing a clean shirt, and if you’ve spent at least a few hours recently without anyone climbing up your torso or shrilly demanding your undivided attention—then apparently it’s easy to see what that girl on the stool with her arm in the bowl really is: a joy. A pure example of total sugar-coated delight. And funny, too.
Everyone talks about it taking a village, and about how we need the arms of friends to share the work of cooking and caring and carrying. These friends have definitely got arms. The four of us take turns chopping and grilling and stir frying, soothing and (this falls mostly to J on our dinner nights) imagining and playing—changing one pretend poopy diaper after another, inventing elaborate dances for each of Ingrid's unique and beloved stuffed animals.
As I think about that cake baking day, though, I realize that, often, even more than their arms, I need their eyes. Eyes that are fresh to all of this.
And being a mother—being embroiled, so often, in discipline or struggle or shoulder-to-the-wheel loneliness or just plain exhaustion—I can tell you how very, very rarely I have it in me to offer that to another mom. There is freshness in loving children but being childless. There is something we parents keep using up that these friends—without, I think, thinking about it very much—replenish.
I am sure there are times C and J would rather be visiting friends with less chaotic pre-dinner hours, cleaner place mats, more reliable short-term memories. Their lives, just like ours, are work. But the kind of energy they have left at the end of each day is often different from what we've got. It's the kind of energy that can stand to change a couple of pretend poopy diapers. The kind that can look at a sticky three-year-old and see fun.
We tell them we're glad they're around, and I think they believe us. But I'm afraid my absurd, sloppy gratitude can't ever quite make sense to them. Without experiencing it for myself, I don't know if I'd have ever believed that all a person needs to do to make my day or, hell, my whole week, is come over and bake a cake with my kid at three in the afternoon and then say they liked it. But it's true: that's all it takes. And these two lovely people do it over and over, and I'm so grateful.