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—Illustration by Yelena Bryksenkova

Setting the Table

5280’s food editor turns to her own childhood as she looks for ways to connect with her nearly tweenage daughter.

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Even with the wind blowing and rain threatening, the night air is sweet with wood smoke. I’m in my pajamas, a rain jacket pulled over top. I hold my hair against the powerful gusts with one fist; the other is tucked inside my dad’s warm, calloused hand. Just minutes ago I was sleeping soundly, a painting of Little Boy Blue keeping vigil from across the room.

My dad loves storms—and here, at the family ranch in rural Missouri, the bursts of lightning and swirling winds are especially fierce. These howling crescendos seem only to come at night, shaking the house with claps of thunder. My father, instead of watching the darkened fury from behind a windowpane, steps out into the tumult.

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This time, many times, I’m with him. We sit on one of the swings that anchor the corners of the stone wraparound porch. A deep overhang mostly protects us from the driving rain; the wind wails and sets our swing in motion. My dad leans over, practically yelling into my ear, “Isn’t this great?!” I nod despite being more frightened than thrilled. He knows this and squeezes his rough hand around mine to assure me I’m safe—we’re safe.

It’s been decades since my dad and I watched a storm together. Maybe that’s because the ranch in Missouri was sold long ago. More likely it’s because I’m an adult now with my own family and harried schedule. But I still hold on to those precious, unscripted moments on the porch and the long-lasting connection that was forged as the bluster curled around us.

As my children—especially my nine-year-old, Ella—march into this world, I often think about fostering that safe haven. Ella is still a child, but the eye rolls, clamor for independence, and sometimes-biting tone of her voice indicate the tweenage years are looming. The need to carve out time that is ours, insulated from the howl of daily existence, feels more pressing than ever. There’s no ranch anymore, no porch swing, so I’m nurturing a different kind of sanctuary in my own comfort zone: the landscape of Denver’s restaurants. I take Ella, and just Ella, out to dinner.

When we go, she changes out of her school clothes and trades Vans for flats. She always brings her overstuffed purse. She chatters away in the back seat of my car, and when we sit down at the table, against the din of diner chatter and clanking plates, I learn about the intricacies of school, hear about her latest crush, and have time to recognize and revel in her terrific sense of humor. And that’s also when Ella learns about the me that exists beyond the realm of Mom: Sometimes I tell her about the stories I’m working on and the people behind them, or about how her experiences remind me of my childhood. This same degree of connection is rare at home, where the digital world lurks and to-do lists and schedules hound us. But at a restaurant churning with people and background noise, it’s easy to push those burdens aside.

I know it’s naive to think the simple act of sharing a meal and conversation will stave off the stormy days of adolescence. Instead, my hope is that these opportunities for regular, meaningful time together will serve as a conduit when those wild winds blow. In the meantime, I cherish the moments when, after finishing dinner, I take her hand in mine and together we walk out into the darkness.

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