My niece Lydia is possibly the most wonderful thing to ever happen to me.
I didn’t have much to do with her coming into my life. Her parents did all the work on that end of things, and they continue to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to taking care of her. My job, as I see it, is to have as much fun with her as possible. It seems a little unfair that I do no work and I am rewarded with big smiles, laughter, and endearing requests from Lydia to hold her, play with her, help her. I never say no to those requests.
Since I am her aunt, I suppose I am doing my job when I spend time with her. We make up games, play catch together, and tag-team it on the swings: I push, she swings. (Her parents watch us nervously.) Being with Lydia is magical; she casts her little toddler charm on me and I’m a goner. I feel so very blessed by her presence in my life. We get along so well, like we were meant to be together. Ever since Lydia joined our family almost three years ago, I have felt that she was always meant to be with us, like she’s always been with us, but we just didn’t know it until she was born.
Her mom, Amanda, likes to say that Lydia showed signs of being her dad’s daughter early in life. She’s always been opinionated, strong-willed, and independent. You just can’t force her to do something she doesn’t want to do. But I think it’s clear she’s also her mom’s daughter: Lydia is a kind, happy, generous person. Her smile feels like sunshine, and her voice sparkles like Lake Michigan in the morning. I am totally and completely smitten with this child. I couldn’t anticipate feeling this way about her before she was born. I knew I would love her, but my love for her humbles me. I feel small compared to this love.
Last weekend Lydia and her parents made the drive out to Chicago to visit me. It was Lydia’s first visit, although Amanda tells me that Lydia swears she remembers the last visit, the one where she was a bun in the oven. On Friday night, my door buzzer hollered, and I let my guests into the building. Then I bounced down the stairs to meet them. Lydia was ascending the stairs, slowly, one two-footed stair at a time: up left, up right, stop. Up left, up right, stop. She walked ahead of Amanda and Charlie, holding the banister, looking steady, and smiling a toothy grin at me as I came into view. My first thought was the same first thought I have every time I see her: She looks so grown-up! Followed by She’s so beautiful! This niece of mine is quite possibly the most gorgeous little creature I’ve ever seen, with her blonde (“lellow,” she says) curls, round cheeks, and blue eyes framed by long, dark lashes. But what got me was her smile, because it mirrored exactly the way I felt upon seeing her again. So much joy and excitement tucked into that little face! My heart was literally buoyed up by the sight of her, so happy to finally be here, ready for a weekend of trains and big city fun.
Truth be told, we didn’t do much in the way of planning for this trip. My family is not big on elaborate plans, and Lydia’s parents are especially fond of spontaneous plans. When all your plans involve a two-year-old, it’s best to stay flexible and keep things simple. So that’s what we did. On Friday night, after unwinding a bit at my place while Lydia ran across my living room ten thousand times, we went to Dixie Kitchen, one of my favorite Evanston restaurants, for a Cajun dinner. Food is a little tricky with Lydia and Amanda; between the two of them they are gluten-, corn-, and dairy-free. Charlie and I have iron stomachs—we can eat anything. Cajun food provided simple meat-and-vegetable options for our free-eaters and delicious meals for everyone. Before dinner, Lydia received a picture, crayons, and a toy crocodile. She proceeded to feed the crayons to her “dinosaur” and asked us to take down the tricycle which was suspended from the ceiling (campy restaurant décor at its finest). Although there was no tricycle-riding (alas), a fine night was had by all.
The next day, after a morning of shopping at the farmers’ market and Whole Foods, Daphna and Ian met us at my place for a simple lunch of stew and salad. I really wanted to have at least one home-cooked meal with my family while they were here, but coming up with a decent meal to feed us is nothing to sneeze at. I settled on a chickpea and rice stew seasoned with cumin and smoked paprika. This stew is a very nice riff on beans-n-greens. It’s the kind of recipe that belongs in every repertoire. I was inspired by a bag of fresh spinach, thriftiness, and these three fine recipes. The spices and chickpeas give it a faintly exotic edge, but it’s wonderfully homey and comforting at the same time. It’s also one of the first recipes to raise its hand when I ask for a main dish free of gluten, corn, and dairy, but at the same time, it will happily accept additions, such as cheese. I imagine sausage would be delicious here too—the spicy flavors would take kindly to a rich, meaty texture. Make no mistake though: this stew is very good without any extras.
The salad was a fruit salad. Its assembly reminded me of stone soup, where ingredients come from all over the place. At the farmers’ market, we found fresh blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries. Amanda had brought grapes, so we threw some of those in as well, along with a diced mango from my kitchen table. Lydia, my little mango monkey, kept asking for more mango from the fruit salad, so Amanda poked around with the serving spoon, retrieving one piece of mango at a time. Mango is just one of many things Lydia feels strongly about!
On Sunday morning, we met in the kitchen, this time for a homestyle breakfast prepared by Amanda. While she made French toast* and bacon, Lydia discovered my high heels and realized what great fun it would be to wear them. The problem, though, is that if you’ve recently learned how to walk, putting on a pair of heels is verrrrry tricky. Sometimes she sat down, put them on, and let me stand her up. Other times she’d sort of bend over so that she could brace herself with her hands, put the shoes on, and then push herself up to standing. Either way, she would end up on her feet and announce, “I’m wearing high heels!” Indeed! Then she would clomp around my apartment, as pleased as can be, making all sorts of racket. I only hope my downstairs neighbor will forgive me—I forgot to warn him there’d be a toddler in my apartment on Sunday morning! In between high heel sessions, there was plenty of time for tickling, Slinky, and pulling every item off the front of my refrigerator. I miss Lydia terribly now.
Sometimes I think about Lydia as a teenager, and it freaks me out. I’m not ready for her to be that grown-up. I think about her facing all sorts of scary things, like mean kids, peer pressure, sex, and drugs, and I wish I could just snuggle her against my hip and keep her there forever, safe and protected. It’s a great relief to me that even after not seeing her for six months, she is almost the same child I kissed good-bye in December. Now she’s shed her bulky diaper (hurray for potty-training!) and her gait has lost the slight waddle that newly bipedal toddlers show. She’s got a mouthful of teeth and a bigger vocabulary, including her favorite question, why? She understands so much now! But when I see her in a cluster of other kids, like when she was playing in the water-splurting thing at the Lincoln Park Zoo, I realize how very tiny she is and how we have so much more time to enjoy together before she’ll want to pretend she’s not related to us old fogies. Seeing her in my high heels, her baby feet dwarfed by those giant grown-up shoes, made me laugh again and again. Is there anything more symbolic of childhood than playing dress-up in your mom’s (or aunt’s) shoes? Is there anything more adorable than my Lydia wearing heels? I doubt it.
In her two-year-old way, Lydia reminds me once again that ours is a special bond. From her I discover what it means to be learning everything for the first time. From me she discovers what it means to be a woman with no kids and no husband, someone who can focus all of her attention on Lydia when they are together. I’m a sort of alternate reality to the family life that Lydia experiences every day: I’m family, but I’m not a mama. I own all sorts of cool grown-up toys, like high heels and swizzle sticks, but I’d rather play with Lydia when she’s around. I don’t wear a wedding ring, but I have a “boyfriend,” whatever THAT means. The whole thing is just very confusing when you’re tiny. I have a lot to teach my Lydia, but for now I think we’ll just take our time.
* For those of you who are curious, yes, Amanda did make dairy- and gluten-free French toast, which was pretty amazing. She found a gluten-free bread in the freezer section at Whole Foods. For the custard, she used eggs and Odwalla’s Mango Tango, a fruit smoothie thickened with banana pureé. I think the Mango Tango worked quite well in place of milk, and it’s awfully tasty on its own. I may have to replace the jug they left behind…
Lydia’s Stew (or Chickpea and Rice Stew)
Serves 4-6, depending on what else is on the menu
Lydia loves to slurp soup broth, so I thought a nice brothy stew would be perfect for lunch. She liked this broth, but she absolutely LOVED the basmati rice that Daphna cooked for us to eat with the stew. At the end of the meal, there may have been more rice on her shirt than in her belly, but no matter: lunch was a success!
A word about the greens: I like spinach best here, with the leaves thinly sliced and the stems finely chopped. But my brother found a handsome bunch of kale at the farmers’ market, so that’s what we used last weekend. He prepped the kale by removing the stems and tearing the leaves into bite-sized pieces. Really, I think most hearty greens will work here—just choose one you like and go with that.
Several cups of basmati rice
4 cups vegetable stock
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
2 tsp. smoked paprika
2 tsp. cumin seeds
A shake or two of red chile pepper flakes (I left these out for Lydia’s sake, but I’d definitely keep them in when cooking for adult palates)
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
4 cups or more of chopped or bite-sized greens (see headnote)
2 15-oz. cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
Salt and pepper to taste
Cheese, such as feta, for serving
Hot sauce, for serving (this one’s for Charlie)
1) Get the rice going: prepare it according to the package’s instructions.
2) While the rice cooks, prepare the stew. Heat the stock over low heat. Pour the olive oil into a separate soup pot and heat over medium-low heat. Add the onions and sauté for several minutes until softened. Add the paprika, cumin, red chile pepper flakes, and garlic, and cook for another minute.
3) Add the greens to the onion sauté and let them cook for 30-60 seconds, stirring frequently, to wilt them into the pot. Pour the warm stock over the greens and bring everything to a boil. Turn down the heat and let the stew simmer, covered, for about 10 minutes.
4) Add the chickpeas, bring the stew to a bubble, cover, and simmer for another 10 minutes. The goal here is to make the chickpeas nice and tender, so taste one and if it isn’t soft and silky, simmer for a few more minutes. Repeat until the chickpeas are perfect. Taste the stew and adjust the seasonings with salt and/or pepper.
5) Scoop the rice into bowls and top with the stew. Serve alongside any additions, such as cheese or hot sauce.