One day Molly emerges from school into the bright sunlight with an unusually grim expression. She heaves her backpack into the back of the car, and shakes her head slowly.
”It’s final,” she informs me. “We dissected a chicken wing in science today.”
“Neat,” I say, “I bet there were a lot of sinews and–”
“I’m becoming a vegetarian.”
There is a pause as we look at each other, the young face serious, the other betraying rather too much you’ll-grow-out-of-this adult skepticism. “Nonsense, darling,” the elder party says fondly, turning away to strap in the little girls, ruffle the boy’s hair, and slam various doors.
“Well, I am,” a voice insists quietly from the back seat a few minutes later.
“I’m sure it was disgusting,” I say as we drive away, “but lots of things are if you look at them too closely. Okra, for example, is a vegetable, and it’s disgusting. And in Japan there’s a gooey fermented tofu dish that people eat for breakfast–”
“Why do you look so nice?” Paris interrupts loudly from the way-way back, where children can’t hear whether anyone else is talking.
“It’s just the kind of mother I am,” I call back with a gratified, musical laugh. It just so happens that I do look nice, having managed to get in not only a shower but also a session with my taxidermy kit before arriving at school.
“Man,” he complains. “Why do you have to be all fancy and dressed up? Why can’t you be more scruffy?” More to himself than me, he continues, “I like to be scruffy.”
At this point, Violet asks what’s for dinner, and when told it will be tacos, breathes a huge sigh of relief. “As long as it’s not Chinese-Japanese-Indian-Chief food!” By this she means anything faintly ethnic–curries, sushi, stir-frys — of the sort we’ve lately been eating on the weekends.
“I’m not having the meat part.” There goes the quiet voice again.
“It is organic, you know.”
“I’m still not eating it.”
When we get home, there is a moment of total mortification as we’re unloading everyone’s things from the car. As a beautiful young Asian woman passes our house, Phoebe sings out joyfully, “Hello, Japanese-Indian-Chief Girl!” The woman pauses, with a confused smile. Phoebe beams and waves.
“I am so sorry,” I breathe at her, aghast, but mercifully it appears that she didn’t really catch what Phoebe had said, for she shyly returns the wave and keeps walking.
“Argh, Phoebes, just say ‘hello’ to people,” I tell her desperately, bending down. “You don’t need to make personal remarks about them.”
“Okay.” says the ever-reasonable tyrant, and pops her fingers into her mouth.
“Fingers out,” I say for the thousandth time, but I don’t really expect compliance, and a moment later that she has snuck them back in again. By this time, I am up in the kitchen and have come upon Molly standing at the stove looking dourly into the pot of spicy beef simmering for the children’s dinner.
“All right,” I say, exasperated, “It so happens that we have some left-over chickpeas. You can have them in your tacos.”
“Thank you,” she says, and I am struck by a strange reversal in our roles. She is exuding a kind of mature serenity, whereas I find myself the petulant reactionary. In fact, her tranquility is so provoking that I cannot help myself.
“Are you seriously saying you are never eating meat again?” I begin. “No bacon, which you love, with your pancakes? You’re going to England in a few weeks, but no fish and chips?” I feel faintly ridiculous, firing these rhetorical missiles at such a placid target, but I can’t seem to stop myself. “You’re going to eat beans and rice in Maine while everyone else is enjoying the barbeque?”
“Gosh, why is this such a big deal?”
“Because–because it’s so tiresomely prefabricated. You think it’s you who wants to become a vegetarian, but it’s the culture,” I explain. “It’s a fashion, a phase children seem obliged to go through these days. If this were the 1920s,” I conclude a little confusingly, “you wouldn’t want to be a vegetarian, you’d want to bob your hair.”
Her jaw sets but her tone is pleasant. “Mummy, why can’t you just say, “Ok,” instead of giving me a lecture?”
“You know perfectly well why,” I reply, calmer and more cheerful now that I have unburdened myself. “Giving lectures is one of the chief pleasures available to mothers. You can have the chickpeas, darling. Now go do your homework.”
Molly goes into the dining room with her books. I wait a few minutes, check that she’s absorbed in her work, and then duck on to the back deck with the phone to call in air support.
The phone is answered, and I explain my predicament: the Declaration of Vegetarianism, my intemperate reaction, Molly’s set jaw, and the competing saucepans of beef and beans.
“We just went through this last week,” laughs my Sage Friend. “Again.” Her eldest daughter is a few years older than mine, and she has a wealth of wisdom to share on how not to handle these situations.
“I don’t think I’m handling it well.”
“I didn’t either, the first time. But here’s what you do–”
My friend’s sagacity is boundless. Five minutes later, here’s what I do: “Molly,” I say kindly, “I’ve given it some more thought and I’m sorry if I was annoyed about you wanting to be a vegetarian. Of course I respect your decision.”
A look of relief crosses her face. She visibly relaxes, and I am struck again by the realization that children dislike challenging their parents as much as we dislike being challenged, but that in, say, a vego-skirmish such as this one, both sides can learn skills of peaceful negotiation that may help avert open warfare later on, in adolescence. Maybe.
“However,” I go on, more firmly, “you will need to be responsible for organizing your diet so that you get adequate protein.” She nods. I can do that, she is thinking. “And of course,” I continue, “you will need to get yourself vitamins so that you get a supply of vitamin B12, which comes from meat. Because as you know,”–here I point to my canines–”our bodies are designed to eat meat.”
Molly is now looking unsure and I realize that I have touched her most vulnerable point.
“How much do vitamins cost?”
I give it just a little pause, then say beneficently: “We can go halvsies on the expense.”
“I can get protein from omelets, right?”
“Sure. Also fish. Will you be eating fish? Some vegetarians do, you know.”
Molly glances dubiously at the chickpeas. “Do you think,’ she asks, “those will taste okay, cooked like that?”
“Definitely. They’re in the same sauce as the meat.”
She bites her lip and looks at the beef. We grin at each other.
“You could always…”
“Start being a vegetarian tomorrow?”
“Or maybe just–
“–be a vegetarian when we’re not having tacos–”
“Or maybe just take up the idea later.”
“Or just not eat meat as much.”
I pick up the pot of beans, hold it over the pot of beef, and look inquiringly at her. She nods, and I tip the one into the other and give it a stir. Molly’s relief is vast. So is mine: The priceless lesson here being that an ounce of unruffled maternal tolerance is worth a pound of belligerent obstructionism. We are talking omelets and chickpeas, here, after all, not Hitler and the Rhineland. This is terrain I can afford to surrender–and it turns out she doesn’t want it, anyway.
“I guess I won’t be a vegetarian just yet.”
“Of course,” I say, kissing her, “I respect your decision.”