the joy that awaits her

No parenting book tells you that your 4-year-old will crawl into your bed at 5 am, snuggle between the two of you to warm up her feet, and start singing louder than the birds. They don’t warn you that she won’t go back to sleep because her head is too filled with stories and songs to possibly sleep. Parenting books don’t say that you and your wonderful husband will have to take turns being exhausted every morning until you sit on the couch with a stack of books and a kiddo so grateful for your presence in the world that she cuddles in for an hour. No one told me I could possibly be this tired for almost 5 years. And no one told me I could be this happy and this tired at the same time.

Lu was up until 12:45 Tuesday night. The night before, she was up between 1 and 4 am, happy as a lark and putting on plays. There was the plot of Mary Poppins to recount, songs about Charlotte’s Web to make up, and long velvet gloves to put on in the darkness. How could she possibly sleep? And it’s not as if, during these weeks where she simply forgets the need to sleep, she compensates by sleeping in later. She almost always wakes up between 6 and 6:22 a.m. Every morning. Except for the mornings when it’s 5.

Normally, we read stacks of books to her in bed and she’s asleep by 7 p.m.. By the time she wakes up at 6:18, she has slept for 11 hours and she pops up, awake, ready to share stories immediately. But sometimes, it seems, she simply doesn’t need sleep.

She does this every few months — a week without sleeping means some new developmental leap soon. The week she started walking, she was up all night, toddling back and forth from one end of the crib to the other. The week she started talking at 7 months, she yelled out for me in the night until I turned on the light so she could shout, “Gai gai!” (That’s what she called light for awhile.) This happened many times in the night. I have a feeling it’s reading this time. She’s shouting out words she recognizes and traces every letter on a page. Today, we had to wait to get into our car until she could run her finger along every letter of the front license plate of our car. She has every beloved book memorized and she often picks one up and “reads” me every word.

A few nights ago, I went into her room to check on her, and she was lying on her bed, feet up on the wall, a book held over her head. I laughed so hard when I left. That was me as a kid too.

So I can’t really blame her for not sleeping. I can barely sleep sometimes, thinking about the joy that awaits her when she starts to read her books by herself.

Except — and here’s a funny thing — she doesn’t want us to know how much she can read. She’ll read us four or five words in a sentence, then stop. Sometimes she’ll jump off my lap, abruptly, and run to the dining room to start arranging magnetic words on her white board into patterns instead. Later, she’ll tell me about a book. “You know, Mama, I was sort of, kind of reading all the words in that book by myself.”

I said to her the other day, “You know, it’s okay if you know how to read. It’s good!” She looked askance. And then I asked her, “Lucy, are you afraid that when you can read books by yourself that you can no longer sit on my lap and have me read you stacks of books?” She turned her head into my chest and started crying. Immediately, I told her, “Sweetie, you can sit on my lap as long as you want. Someday you’re going to be taller than I am, but I will still sit here with your legs draped over mine, reading you stories we love.” She seemed to brighten at that.

I told her what joy awaits her. How she will be able to pick up a book and walk into an entirely different world. She’ll walk through the 100-acre wood with Pooh and Piglet, crouch on the leeward side of the rock with Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and sit in the Secret Garden someday. When I think of her lying on her bed, feet up on the wall, years from now, reading Harriet the Spy or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for the first time? All I can say is there are tears running down my cheeks right now.

“And it never stops,” I told her. “You’ll never stop exploring new worlds, walking into people’s lives.” Some writers are so generous that you cannot believe they allow you to know so much about them. You feel as though you are sitting across a kitchen island with them, cooking and talking, hearing more vulnerable stories as the evening wears on. There are red-wine-braised lamb shanks on a bed of Parmgiano-infused polenta between you and this writer, and you eat, then stop, then pick at the lamb again. And you listen as she keeps telling stories.

I read a lot of good books that move me or teach me something new about the world. But the older I grow, the harder it is for me to find those books I fall into, the ones that make me want to stop everything else and just curl up in bed and read.

Elissa Altman’s Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking stopped the world for me for awhile. It’s gorgeous, gorgeous, heartbreaking, and generous. You must buy it. You must.

When I say something like that, some people always say, “What is it about?” Oh god, I hate that question. As though plot and the arc of a story is the heart of a book. This is a book about opening up to love. It’s a book about handling difficult family members with grace and aplomb, or at least a lot of wine. It’s about food and falling in love with it and eating clandestine dinners with your father in the middle of Manhattan and learning, after decades, that great food doesn’t have to be mile high to be satisfying. It’s about a whip-smart, incredibly strong, vulnerable, and damned funny woman deciding to unravel her life stories for us, more vulnerable and clear with every chapter.

Oh, just buy it.

Also — and maybe Lucy will be a writer one day, so she’ll know what I mean — I kind of hated Elissa when I read this book. She’s such a fricking good writer that I grit my teeth as I read through sentences like these:

“As a child, the closest I’d ever come to cooking for my family was during the 1973 Christmas eve ice storm, for my father’s fiftieth birthday surprise party. With the roads iced over, the caterer couldn’t make it down the street. I decided that our guests — mostly his office mates from the Manhattan advertising agency where he’d been creative director for over twenty years — had to do more than just drink the bucket loads of Johnny Walker they were drowing while listening to Yma Sumac’s bird calls on my father’s teak Garrard high-fi. So I fished out every package of Italian and kosher salami that I could find buried in the recesses of my mother’s harvest gold refrigerator, asked her for the biggest platter she had, and proceeded to make what amounted to a three-foot-wide, interfaith meat mandala in the middle of which sat a small, yellow melamine bowl of deli mustard. This was my first unofficial catering gig, and it ended like so many of them did years later — with one of the drunken guests wearing a fez and playing the bongo drums.”

Damn, that woman can write.

Now, I’ve adored Elissa’s writing for years, from reading her blog, also called Poor Man’s Feast. But it was only after reading her book that I felt as though I knew her. I don’t really know her. We write back and forth on Facebook and email. We had lunch together in an Indian restaurant off 5th Avenue in New York last fall, with Danny and Susan and Lucy. We’re blog friends.

But after she pulled back the curtains of her life and allowed me to step in by putting words on the page, I feel as though I know her. In a way, I do.

If you’re not a writer, you have no idea how terrifying it is at times to write down the details of your life and hope that someone cares about the gift you have given them.

I’ll make sure that Lucy knows that about the writers who have created the books she so loves. I have a feeling, however, that she already does.

ONION PANADE, adapted from Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking

This is comfort in a bowl. As Elissa wrote, it’s “…the soup-soaked bread, and bubbly, crunchy cheese that cascades over the sides of the bowl” of French onion soup, but without all the soup. Believe me, if you’ve endured yet another sleepless week with a bright child determined to start the day at 5:30 in the morning, this is the most restful dish in the world.

3 cups beef stock
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large yellow onions, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
salt and pepper
6 slices thick gluten-free bread (we used slices from something like this boule)
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Preparing to bake. Heat the oven to 450°. Set a small saucepan over high heat. Pour in the stock and bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer to keep the stock warm on the back of the stove.

Cooking the onions. Set a Dutch oven over medium heat. Pour in the olive oil and add the onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are entirely soft and dark brown, about 20 to 30 minutes. Add the garlic and rosemary and cook until they are fragrant, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Turn off the heat.

Making the panade. Line the bottom of a greased 9-inch deep-dish pie pan with the bread. (Break the bread into pieces to make them fit, if need be.) Add the caramelized onions. Pour in the hot stock, slowly. When you have poured in enough stock to cover the bread fully, stop pouring. Cover the top with the Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Baking the panade. Bake the panade until the top is golden brown and bubbly, about 25 minutes. Let it cool enough so you don’t burn your mouth. Dig in.

Feeds 6.

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