They don’t want to clean your toilets. They don’t want to watch your kids. They don’t want to do your laundry. And they certainly don’t want to give you a sponge bath.
After major medical events such as childbirth or surgery, most neighbors want to help out in one way – by cooking food.
They cook banana bread and baked ziti. They cook chili and chicken casserole. They cook potatoes au gratin and pork chops. They cook and they cook and they cook.
The idea is simple — the neighbors take on the responsibility for feeding the family so the mother can recuperate – but hidden below such seemingly uncomplicated philanthropic events are surprisingly complex group dynamics.
As soon as my neighbors found out about my recent surgery, they quickly mobilized. Like Ralph in Lord of the Flies, one energetic neighbor assumed the roll of leader, and blew her proverbial conch. By the time I emerged from the hospital and my Percocet-induced haze, there were people assigned to bring us ten days of meals. Thanks to the unbridled generosity of my neighbors, I’ve been lazing around like a slug for days, just like the doctor ordered.
This is not the first time neighbors have cooked for us after a hospitalization. After the birth of my second child, the wives of my husband’s command insisted on providing two full weeks of dinners. I tried to tell them it was completely unnecessary because my mother had flown in and my husband had taken two weeks of leave, but I was told by these military wives, “This is what we do. You have no choice in the matter.”
So they cooked, and they cooked and they cooked, and we got used to it real quick.
There were chicken enchiladas with all the fixins. There were baked potatoes with chili, cheese, and corn bread. There was beef bourguignon with cream puffs and chocolate sauce for dessert.
As the days passed, we started growing accustomed to having home cooked meals delivered to our door. We started checking our watches and saying things like, “Where the heck are they? I’m getting hungry.” We started scrutinizing and comparing each meal. By the middle of the second week, we were secretly ranking the meals with an intricate rating system based on quantity, taste and creativity.
It may have been thirteen years ago, but I will never forget the meal that received our worst rating. It came in three 8 x 8 foil pans, which we knew right away could not hold enough food for our gluttonous appetites.
Upon peeling back the foil from the first pan, we noticed that it contained a meager casserole consisting of an unseasoned layer of white rice, topped sparingly with crumbled ground beef and green pepper strips, adhered together with what appeared to be cream of mushroom soup. From its weight, we thought the next pan was empty but found that it held a salad of sorts made of the thick colorless center leaves of iceberg lettuce, some carrot disks, and more of those sad green pepper strips.
But the worst was yet to come. The last foil pan contained “dessert.” While it is true that a great dessert can compensate for a bad meal, this poor excuse for a dessert was merely the nail in the coffin. Inside the pan were a dozen pre-fab shortening-laden canned cinnamon rolls. How that qualifies for dessert, I’ll never know, but to make matters considerably worse, they were burnt on the bottom
Without so much as a nibble, we threw the whole meal out onto our compost heap and dug happily into the remaining chicken enchiladas.
Thankfully, our newfound smugness dissipated as quickly as the leftovers, and we realized how fortunate we were to have been treated so indulgently by our fellow military families.
About a year later, another military wife had a baby, and I offered to cook. Apparently, this particular wife was quite popular, and had been inundated with calls. I was referred to her “meal coordinator,” who told me that the schedule was full. I did not make the cut. “Are you kidding me?” I thought, “I can’t even cook a flipping pan of brownies?” I felt lost and rejected, and secretly dropped off a bundt cake, just to ease my own suffering.
These experiences taught me that there is a basic human need to cook for women who have been in the hospital. The cooking is both healing for the recipient of the meals, and cathartic to the concerned cookers.
So if you have been in the hospital and your neighbors offer to cook, accept their generosity and be grateful. The gravy train doesn’t come around often, so sit back and enjoy the ride.