ISSUE 63 APRIL 2004 BACK

a story

Making dinner: One meal out of the box

It wasn–t, initially, a call for help. Just a despairing cry on a shoulder. Eunice phoned. She was the head of a medium-sized group home. It was Friday, late afternoon, end of a school term, and most of the children were going home for family visits over the holidays. Over-excitement was the order of the day. It had been raining so that the boisterous behaviour was bouncing off the walls. Staff members were preoccupied by last-minute telephone calls and transport arrangements for the holiday plans, so normal afternoon activities had been put on hold.

Several of the child and youth care workers were nearing their "red zones" “and then Kenneth, sixteen, had started to perform. He wasn’t going anywhere for the holiday, and his hurt and disappointment at this precluded any talk about alternative ideas. He was in a destructive and willful mood, and scratchy as hell with his houseparents, Theo and Susan Bell. Things had spiralled, insults traded, and tears of rage shed.

"Susan and Theo want to leave!", wailed Eunice. "In fact the whole place is like tinder right now. Kenneth stormed out, but it was still raining so he came back inside in an even worse mood ... He has upset some of the other staff and now I can hear someone else crying down the passage near his room. If you hear sirens down our part of town, you–ll know exactly what’s happening!"

"Look," I said, groping for something more meaningful than words of comfort. "Let me come and pick Kenneth up. He can eat here and stay over, and you guys may get through the night “and get to keep your houseparents."

The spur-of-the-moment survival plan was accepted. "You work out the details with Kenneth, and I–ll be there in half-an-hour."

Surprisingly, Kenneth was waiting in the porch, huddling from the rain. Even though we didn’t know each other (I knew him vaguely by sight) he seemed to have bought the idea, and when I stopped my car he threw in an overnight bag and jumped in after it. "Hi," he grunted, and lit a cigarette.
I decided to play an altogether naive role. After introducing myself I told him that I lived over the mountains and we would get there in about thirty minutes. His reply was to clamp a pair of headphones on his head and play some music “so loud that I could hear every note above the noise of the car and the rain pelting down on the roof. So we travelled home in silence ... well I mean unspeaking, for there was plenty of sound.

Arrived back at my home I showed Kenneth to the spare bedroom and a bathroom he could use. He reclamped his headphones and instinctively paced around the house, checking out the lie of the land. Then, without a word, sat in the living room, his head throbbing to the beat of his music.
I felt oddly superfluous to the whole exercise, but remembered that the folks back at his group home were the ones deriving the benefit. I decided two things: first, to go on with what I would normally be doing at this time of the day, so I sat down in my study to read through some student papers (it was the end of term, remember) and to sort out some of my photographs; and second, not to play the anxious host but rather to let Kenneth’s own clock decide what he wanted to do.

It was an hour and a quarter later. Dark outside, now, with the rain settled in for the night. The boy appeared in the door of the study and asked: "When do we eat?"

"That’s an idea," I replied. "Well we have two possibilities: I have some sausages we can fry, or I have what we would need for a spaghetti bolognaise."

He seemed crestfallen that dinner was not already prepared, ready to eat.

"A what?" he asked.

"Spaghetti bolognaise. It’s not really as complicated as it sounds “really just some mince, prepared in an interesting way, with spaghetti."

A pause. Based on our experience so far on this visit, I thought he was about to say "Call me when it’s ready." And maybe he did expect me to plunge enthusiastically into the kitchen and start playing the pots and pans. But I waited, and continued with what I was doing. Thus probably for only a minute or two, but it felt like a tense stand-off. A pregnant silence, I think the novelists would have called it.

Eventually: "Maybe the spaghetti stuff? What do you mean “prepared in an interesting way–"

"Well, let’s go and do it," I suggested, and we moved to the kitchen.

The next 90 minutes were as different as they could possibly be from the 90 minutes just ended. The period started with my asking him to chop two onions ("What are they for?" and an explanation about browning meat and that everything needs onions!) and two tomatoes ("What are they for?" and an explanation about bolognaise sauce ...) and from there we went on to learn about cooking spaghetti, using herbs and spices, etc.

The whole production moved into the dining room where, with bread rolls and parmesan cheese ("What’s that?"), we fulfilled the promise of an hour’s cooking over unanticipated conversation about food, likes and dislikes, etc. At the end of the meal the boy surprised me by reflecting: "It’s very satisfying to do all that cooking and preparation and then to enjoy the results of all the work. Well, I guess we’d better wash the dishes."

The Jekyll and Hyde morph remains to this day a matter for conjecture for me. Maybe, like many kids in many programs, Kenneth had worked his way into an angry little whirlpool, out of the mainstream, and rejected efforts to dislodge him. Maybe he had lost his sense of direction, in the program and in his life as a whole, and things were looking rather pointless. Maybe he and his care workers had got into a repetitive emotional tennis match where each just returned the other’s strokes, and lived off their small winning shots. I might have been tempted, right in that first minute, to ask him not to smoke, and so might have entered the tit-for-tat warfare he seemed to be engaged in. Maybe Kenneth simply needed some real distance, just for an hour or so, to experience some new options.

Whatever, it was nice to be able to take him back to the group home next day with some positive reports. Scratch a little deeper, there are some nice things under the surface. Talk about something different. Turn him loose in the kitchen. Mention chicken “la king. Make dinner.


BG

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