Often our kitchen can feel as though it's a gas station that has a comfortable table and chairs, nice counters, and a full refrigerator. It is where my three children – each in his or her own way – roll down the window and say, "Fill 'er up, please."
It started with tiny amounts of rice cereal, a dollop delicately balanced on a small spoon. From there it went to chasing peas on the tray of the high chair and on to chicken nuggets and then those favorites of adolescents, pepperoni hot pockets.
But that is only the simple refueling. My offspring form a triangle with my 21-year-old son at one point, my 17-year-old son at another, and the third point is my 12-year-old daughter. Their kitchen check-ins bring the complications and mystery of parenting. Years of conversations and family crisis have polished our table – deep emotion fills the grain of the wood.
When my older son was 16, he sat down with tears in his large brown eyes. "Mom, there is something I've never told you guys," he blurted out.
I stopped twisting the top on the orange juice carton. "Really?" I answered, waiting for a blast of cold air on a winter morning.
"It's pretty bad," he added.
Now I was sliding on the icy front step. We went back and forth like this for a while, uttering short phrases with no meaning: "How bad?" "Like what?" "When did it happen?"
And then the gale blew through the kitchen. "I smoke cigarettes. And I have for three years."
My husband walked in from work as my son described his first Lucky Strike at his middle school athletic field.
It became a long night as we decided that no one was going to leave the table until we figured out how he was going to quit. He hasn't smoked since.
We've answered the kitchen phone more than once to hear the deep voice of a police officer politely introducing himself. The most recent conversation focused on my 17-year-old who had dived from a cliff into a reservoir and then given a false name when approached by a green-clad forest ranger.
Once again the kitchen table became a pit stop we all would have preferred to drive by. It was a chase for honesty instead of peas on a tray.
There are softer needs in our kitchen – but no less important to those involved – as when my daughter arrived home, asked for eyeliner, a new school binder, and permission for seven friends to sleep over immediately.
The lists of needs and wants in our service station are many and varied, making us wish we had a third parent "attendant," so we would have support and guidance when the emotional mechanics become complicated.
We debate: How old does one have to be to get hair highlights? When is it safe to let your son drive to a ski resort? How long does a parent wait to check in again with a college-age son, after one phone call where he tearfully shares the fact that his course load is killing him? How involved do you get when your daughter mentions the girl in her math class who has cuts all over her arm?
Then there are times when business is slow. The quiet leaves my husband and me alone to attend to ourselves – to fill up on connections lost.
Someday, just as at service stations in the real world, our children will have to fill up on their own. There will be no attendant at the window. But I hope they know that our kitchen will never shut down. The fuel of love never runs out.