(by Marilyn Joshua Williams)
When I was growing up in Los Angeles, the kitchen table at dinnertime was where my family discussed how the school day had been. It was the one place I was always able to talk about the classes where I excelled or my struggle with algebra, my aspirations to run for student council or the dress I wanted for prom. The kitchen was where I was supported, valued, and influenced by my parents and siblings. Real stories about our family and ancestors were shared around the table, while the smells and tastes of the food helped to weave the fabric of our family and memories together.
As a young mother myself, I continued to use the kitchen table as a gathering place where my daughter Lauren would do her homework while I cooked our dinner. I am far from a gourmet cook, but I tried to prepare nutritious meals that she enjoyed. I consider shepherd’s pie a survival meal, and we often talked over a comforting bowl of chicken and rice soup.
Most would agree that cooking involves math. I took that concept literally and tried to make homework time fun. We would take out forks or spoons and practice counting as we laid them on the table: 1, 2, 3…. To mix things up a bit, we might use Cheerios or cookies to practice addition or subtraction problems. As an education professor, I knew that children were often stumped by the concept of “borrowing/regrouping.” (How is it that “ten” is really ten individual items?) Food objects are great to visualize the idea. Our practice sessions culminated with the reward of a healthy snack, helping to avoid the fussing and pouting that sometimes accompany homework.
The kitchen table continues to be an important place where Lauren now influences her two young sons. She has created a unique intersection between food preparation and literacy in her family’s kitchen by encouraging her boys to make up stories about the food they eat. She also shapes healthy fruits and vegetables into creative characters, urging the boys to become imaginative storytellers. Leo, who is two, can identify the foods; Max, at age five, can name the characters and help shape the narrative. In one recent story, Bell (the bell pepper) was the main character with his friend Banana Man.
During much of the time my daughter was growing up, it was just the two of us. I tried not to put extra responsibilities on her, but she did realize that we were not a two- parent home. When there was a father-daughter dance at school, my nephew was her escort. Her friends knew he was not her father, but he was a great dancer, and she came home talking about how they were admired on the dance floor. She learned to “turn lemons into lemonade,” even posting that saying on her bedroom mirror.
Really, every stage of seeing my daughter grow up was a joy, even managing to skirt some of the complexities of the teenage years, like curfews. I explained that when parents are concerned about the safety of their children, they pull them more closely, which means less freedom. But if she communicated with me and let me know if she was going to be late, I wouldn’t worry, and ultimately she would have more freedom. That worked.
Lauren did not encourage me to date—like most children, she thought that was disgusting, and I was single until she went off to college. But she has encouraged me to live life to the fullest in so many ways. When I decided to re-write classic fairy tales featuring African-American children, she was my inspiration, and when we went to malls to sell the books, she was right by my side. When I retired from education and decided to resume my career in acting (wondering if I was too old), she encouraged me to go for it. We are alike in many ways, but she is more adventurous than I. She went away to Columbia University in New York, and I never went further away than two hours from my parents’ home.
I believe the strong bond that my daughter and I have was fortified during homework time and mealtime. What else accounts for Lauren thinking I was a great cook?
Dr. Marilyn Joshua Williams is happily married and resuming her passion for acting after retiring from the California State University as Professor Emerita in Education. Her books re-telling classic stories featuring African-American children are available by sending an email at www.DrMarilynWilliams.com. She lives in Los Angeles, California.
Fruit and Vegetable Characters
Edible story ingredients:
1 orange bell pepper
2 golden berries
3 – 4 Persian cucumbers
Non-edible story ingredients:
A simple way to structure a literacy event: After the vegetable characters are created, explain that every story needs a title, a main character (with a name), a setting (where the story takes place), and a problem that the main character must overcome. Parents can use a traditional story starter like, “Once upon a time, Bell and his/her friends went to the park to play. When it was time to go home, Bell and his friends were surprised to find....” Allow children to be creative. The story doesn’t need to be perfect. What is most important is to involve children in the choices so they feel that they are helping to create the characters and author the story. For older children, parents can write the story as children dictate. If time permits, transcribe the story and read it together.