The Makings of Soup

Start with an empty kettle, preferably on a cold, rainy day, next to a garden in a prison. Surround yourself with a number of young inmates, serving long sentences, isolated, estranged from their families. Make sure they are close to you, hungry for lunch and hungry for the simple joy of simply being together and wanting to accomplish something important today.

Add an aching heart or more, maybe a dozen, mixed with feelings of loneliness and disconnection, even a little abandonment. Throw in a handful of indifference, and a pound of neglect.

Take a gallon of tomatoes, grown by these men in this garden. Grown from seeds, where their sprouting was a miracle of life witnessed by those who had never been placed in fertile soil, watered, and kissed by sunlight and love. Tomatoes potted up in rich soil, then transplanted out in the spring sunshine, to grow, and bloom, producing wonderful red, ripening tomatoes, and harvested by young, eager hands. Don’t forget to stir in the pride that comes with using OUR tomatoes.

Simmer the tomatoes, adding heat from the stove, and the heat of a young man’s heart, eager to learn and show that he can do this.

Slice some onions, preferably sliced by a young man who had never held an onion, never knew how to peel and slice it. Add the spirit of his curiosity and excitement, of being a cook, making something to eat, with his own hands. Take all that and simmer it in your heart, and feel the warmth of that nurture your own soul.

Find a frying pan, and heat it on the stove. Add olive oil, making sure your assistant chef gets a drop or two of the oil on his finger, so he can taste the sweet richness of olives ripening in Californian or Italian sun, asking him to describe a taste he has never had before on his tongue. Add the warmth of his smile to the soup, and stir gently.

Teach your young friend to peel a few cloves of garlic, by smashing them with the flat of a knife, watching him lean down to smell the pungent garlic, freshly peeled and minced. See him smile, when he realizes he has learned something new.

Find some peppers nearby, the ones the young men grew in the greenhouse this summer, the ones that are now just ripening. Ask him to select the peppers himself, asking him to trust his own judgment as to whether they are ripe. Gently stir in the newly discovered sense of trust and respect into your soup.

Put a wooden spoon in your young friend’s hand, letting him stir the onions, garlic and peppers together, as they begin to sizzle in the heat of the olive oil. Put some salt and black pepper, and a little brown sugar in his hand, letting him judge how much to add, when to stir, deciding when the mixture is cooked just right. Fold in the sense of accomplishment and the pride of making his own soup into the mixture, and remark about how wonderful it all smells.

Let him discover what happens when you mix the wonderful medley of onions, peppers, garlic, salt, pepper, sugar, and olive oil, and his accomplishments and emotions, into the warmth of the tomatoes, the transformation into soup.

Stir gently, letting the flavors blend, letting him slip into the ownership of his creation. Hand him a small spoon, urging him to taste, and evaluate, to enjoy his work, his creativity. Watch his face, overcome with pleasure and art, as he seriously evaluates and decides what to add.

Stand back, and let him take control, adding basil and a little more salt. See the glimmer in his eye, as he finds a secret ingredient to add. Enjoy his boldness, as he adds a pinch of his secret ingredient, and add that sense of power and confidence to the soup.

Gently whisper that it is time to add the milk, that the soup should be ready soon, for all the other men to enjoy. Ask him to taste it again, and sense all of its wonderfulness. With tenderness, tell him that this is an amazing soup, that everyone will love it, that it will be the best thing to experience on this cold, rainy day in the garden.

Watch him hold himself up strong, shoulders back, as he ladles out the soup, handing a bowl to all of the other men, his friends, his compatriots.

“I made this,” he says, to each of the men. Each one of them takes their bowl from him, with a slight motion of deference, respect, and thanksgiving.

“Thank you. Thank you,” they tell him.

And, a few moments later, see him smile as the room fills with the chatter of hungry men filling their bellies with warm soup on a cold rainy day.

“This is delicious. This is the best soup I’ve ever had. Amazing. Fabulous. Ah, so wonderful.”

See him nod, understanding what this is all about, what we have accomplished today, the making of the soup, the growing of the man.

–Neal Lemery 11/16/15

Kana Hanai

In the Hawaiian language, kana hanai is loosely translated as “my adopted child or children, my foster child”. In Hawaiian culture, the word “hanai” (Hah NIE) has a deeper, more complex meaning.

It is the taking in of a youth, who needs some parenting, some nurturance and love that is different than the love and nurturance of biological parents. The hanai child becomes part of the family, not only physically, but emotionally. That child is treated as one of the family’s children, loved and nurtured, and cared for as one of their own. You become an “extra” parent, the additional aunt or uncle. There’s a lot of aloha, of unconditional, unlimited love and concern.

When I was growing up, hanai children could be found occasionally at our dinner table, or spending a month in the summer. My mother spoke lovingly of her aunt, and her ninth year of life, living with her aunt, and seeing the world in a different way, soaking up her aunt and uncle’s love and concern. That year got my mom through some tough times, and gave her new strength, and a new lease on childhood.

In our house, there was always an extra chair, and room at the table for another face, and, if we had dessert, we all shared. None of us kids dared to complain. Having another kid at the table was nothing new, and mom would always be a little happier than usual as she was cooking dinner. Conversation around the table was always lively, and included them, making them feel welcome, a part of family.

My wife and I carried on that tradition after we got married, and took it farther. We lived in town and my stepson’s friends were usually in the yard, or playing music in the house. When it was dinner time, we set the table with another plate or two, and shared our food, and conversation. There was always laughter, and some good stories.

And, sometimes, when we would plan a family outing, a picnic or a hike, that other kid who seemed to be in the house a lot usually came along.

A few years after my stepson went off to college, my wife came home from school one day with a sad story, telling me about one of her students who needed a place to live.

Another son, she said, a hanai child, needing to be coming home.

The spare bedroom became his room, and I found an old dresser for $10, and sanded it down, and put on a couple of coats of paint. Our dinner table was now set for three, and we had teenage music and laughter and mood swings in our house again. We had a front row seat in watching this newest man child grow up and find his passions.

And, soon, his friends would come by, and manage to stay for dinner, and breakfast in the morning. When they were busy having fun downstairs, and watching a movie or playing games, or listening to music, I’d knock on the door with a plate of cookies fresh out of the oven, and a jug of milk.

There were looks of amazement, and big grins as the plate of cookies and the milk quickly disappeared.

We’d take some of those kids to the beach, along with our dog, and pack extra food in the picnic basket.

One summer, one of the boys had pretty much moved in, and I was wondering if I needed to remodel the storage room into a place for him to sleep. One afternoon, his mother called. The guy had been sleeping on our couch, and the end of the kitchen table was his regular place at dinner.

“Is Joe there?” she asked.

Indeed, he is. And it took you over a week to realize you hadn’t heard from him?

Oh, mom, you’ve missed a week of his laughter, of his giggling when he plays fetch with the dog down on the beach, a week of his jokes at the dinner table.

No wonder he’s about moved in here. We’ve been keeping track of him, making sure he has a few meals every day, and a place to sleep. His laundry gets washed and he’s taken on a chore or two to do around here. It’s all part of being in the spirit of hanai.

One time, we took one of the boys to the big city with us, on our annual August back to school shopping trip. I’d had to make a quick trip down the road about forty miles one night, to help him get his back to school money from his dad, before his dad headed off to the tavern with that cash in his wallet.

There was real fear in the eyes of this hanai child, fear that the money would be drunk up before we got there that night. On the way back home, he fell asleep in the back seat of the car, worn out from a day of worrying.

When we hit the big stores in the city, my newest hanai child grinned as he was buying his school supplies, and cried a bit, when I had him pick out a new school back pack, and put it in my cart.

“For you,” I said. “You need a new one for school, you know.”

He looked away, leaning on the shoulder of our foster son, tears welling up in his eyes.

Kids grow up and they move away. And, I never feel really bad when I wave at them as they head off. It is time for them to go, their wings are strong and they are ready to fly. We’ve done a good job, being good parents to each one of the kana hanai who have come into our lives.

We still have our kana hanai. Most of the newer guys live not too far away, living behind prison bars. They stumbled and fell when they were kids, and are working on reinventing themselves, learning to become adults. There are a lot of reasons for that, but they’re still just kids, young men wanting to test their wings, wanting to be part of normal. We go see them often, and celebrate their birthdays, and listen to their stories, and ask how they are doing in school, how they are making their way through their lives.

We pay attention to them, we care about them, and we listen to them. We show up, and we come to visit when we say we are coming. And, a lot of that is foreign to them, and they don’t know quite what to make of it. Just like a lot of the other hanai kids I’ve had in my life, kids just wanting to be normal.

When they get out of prison, they come to our house and eat dinner with us, and play games and go to the beach. Just like all the other hanai children in our lives, we put their pictures on the fireplace mantel, and talk about them with our friends.

We go visit them and spoil them a bit, as they share their challenges and their successes with us.

A few years ago, we spent some time in Hawaii, talking with families and some parents of kana hanai. We shared our stories, and our love for our adopted ones, lost kids we opened the door to, and invited in for some family time, providing a refuge from the world, and a place to laugh and be themselves.

In Hawaii, those who have hanai children have a special place in the community. They have a special place in the village, a place of honor and respect. They are seen as the special glue that keeps their culture healthy and their children strong. Kana hanai families are a big part of the fabric of the community, and a savior of youth who could become lost, and even thrown away.

My village isn’t in Hawaii, but we have a lot of kana hanai, and a lot of parents of their beloved hanai. And, together, we are raising a stronger village, rich in kids, and rich in the spirit of aloha and kana hanai.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.