Category: Uncategorized


CAKEWALK CONTEST!!

May 29th, 2010 — 4:11pm

In honor of the Homeless Guy who returned my lost phone after finding it in the middle of Haight Street yesterday, and to celebrate my brownie recipe’s brush with greatness in the New York Times, the first Cakewalk Contest: guess how many pounds of chocolate I have in my pantry right now — extra credit for what kind of chocolate — and you could win an autographed copy of Cakewalk, A Memoir delivered to your door.

Deadline to enter: Midnight on Sunday, May 26, 2010. Enter here, or at my Facebook Page (Kate Moses).

Here’s a hint: it’s less than 100, and more than the weight of the average baby…

2 comments » | Uncategorized

Songs in the key of life

May 4th, 2010 — 8:51am

Some chapters in life seem to come equipped with theme music. I can’t think of my first year of college without the thumping percussive downbeat of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” thrashing from the boys’ rooms in my coed freshman dormitory. Incongruous it may be, but the slideshow of memories I have from my maiden voyage to Europe at twenty-five comes with Bruce Hornsby as the soundtrack: my traveling companion brought along her boom box and just one cassette tape, so that’s what we listened to, over and over, as we tramped through Italy and France for a summer. I see us at our impromptu dance party in Florence, convened in the piazza between the Duomo – the cathedral’s Gothic façade like a candy box in its stripings of pink, green and white marble – and the octagonal Baptistry, one of city’s oldest buildings, a jewel of a place I hadn’t wanted to leave when I stepped inside and saw its glittering Byzantine mosaics. That night, with the building where Dante was baptized on one side of us and the architectural feat that launched the Renaissance on the other, we were dancing to “Every Little Kiss” with a pack of bemused Italian boys trying to cajole us onto their Vespas. It was sort of ridiculous, but it was sort of great, too.

After my first marriage broke up, a redemptive love affair played out against the melancholy flamenco ballads of the Gypsy Kings.  And for the four years I spent feverishly listening for the voice of Sylvia Plath, I could listen to nothing else but Pablo Casals’ recordings of Bach’s haunting suites for cello.

When I think of Cakewalk, I hear only one melody: “Love You” by the Free Design, a song I first heard when I was a small child. The Free Design was a sixties-era singing group, a family with voices as harmonious and pure as seraphim. Their song (my song, I believed it to be) was so infused with the unhindered joyous innocence of childhood – something I yearned for though I knew my family was unhappy, my childhood anything but secure and innocent — that I could never forget it.

I didn’t hear “Love You” again for what must have been almost forty years. By then I was the mother of a son on his way to college, a daughter going into middle school. I was living the life I’d hoped for: I was content, the family I’d made was thriving, I spent my days writing with cats in my lap and a dog snoring at my feet. The last thing I expected was to be revisited by my own confusing, bittersweet childhood, but there it was: “Love You” was the song playing during the cakewalk game during the spring picnic at Celeste’s new school. I’d never been in a cakewalk, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity even though I was the oldest contestant by at least three decades.

To win a cake on your first try at the game is one thing. To win the cake as the theme song of your childhood plays accompaniment seems verging on the numinous.  I didn’t know then, three years ago, that I was going to write a book about my childhood, about the sweetness I could still find amidst the bitter, but as I stood in the new green grass of a San Francisco park with a besprinkled, three-layer chocolate cake in my hands, still hearing the words of the song replaying in my head, trees swaying their crowns in the breeze, the day glorious, children squealing and chasing each other with cans of whipped cream all around me, in the way of all writers I thought to myself, maybe I can use this someday.

Knowing where to end a story is almost always hard, and especially so when it’s the story of your life. Somewhere along the timeline of writing Cakewalk, though, I remembered…the cakewalk. And the song.  If I could have included a recording of “Love You” to play along with the reading of every copy of Cakewalk, I would have. Since that proved impractical, you can find the story of the cakewalk and the lyrics to the song in the book, for which I offer grateful thanks to The Free Design and the Dedrick and Zynczak families. And here you can learn more about The Free Design, and listen to (and better yet, buy!) “Love You.”

Cakewalk, A Memoir, will hit the bookstores next week after a lifetime in the making, and just yesterday I revisited the scene of its initial inspiration: Celeste’s school’s spring picnic, held every May for the last ninety years. This time, there was one event during the afternoon that was even sweeter than the cakewalk: every year, after all the younger classes sing songs and recite poetry for their families and teachers sprawled out on the grass, the school’s eighth graders weave ribbons around a maypole as a final ritual together before they scatter to different high schools. My little girl was one of those eighth graders this year.

Celeste

Maybe such a ritual seems old-fashioned in 2010, when eighth graders have iphones and blue hair and Facebook pages. Some of the kids seemed a little embarrassed by their crowns of wildflowers – or, more accurately, like they thought they ought to be embarrassed. But when the music started, they all joined the dance.

Give a little time for the child within you
Don’t be afraid to be young and free.
Undo the locks and throw away the keys
and take off your shoes and socks, and run, you.

Run through the meadow and scare up the milking cows
Run down the beach kicking clouds of sand.
Walk a windy weather day, feel your face blow away
Stop and listen, love you.

Be like a circus clown, put away your circus frown;
Ride on a roller coaster upside down
Waltzing Mathilda, Carrie loves a kinkajoo,
Joey catch a kangaroo, hug you.

Dandelion, milkweed, silky on a sunny sky,
Reach out and hitch a ride and float on by;
Balloons down below blooming colors of the rainbow,
Red, blue and yellow-green I love you.

Bicycles, tricycles, ice cream, candy
Lolly pops, popsicles, licorice sticks.
Solomon Grundy, Raggedy Andy
Tweedledum and Tweedledee, home free.

Cowboys and Indians, puppy dogs and sand pails,
Beach balls and baseballs and basketballs, too.
I love forget-me-nots, fluffernutter sugar pops
I’ll hug you and kiss you and love you.

–THE FREE DESIGN, 1969

Many thanks to Dorte Lindhardt for the photographs!

6 comments » | Books, CAKEWALK, Family, Motherhood, Uncategorized, Writing

One City, Many Books

April 19th, 2010 — 8:10am

This weekend I was one of thirty Bay Area authors feted and feasted as “Library Laureates” at the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library’s 14th annual gala dinner.  Why was I so surprised by the enthusiastic, celebratory crowd of hundreds that had gathered downtown at the Main Library? Maybe it was a holdover from my childhood suspicion that the library — a place where they’d let you borrow their books for nothing, trusting that you’d bring them back —  was a big secret, something you didn’t talk about lest it be discovered you were pulling a fast one and the whole thing was taken away.

The opposite, of course, is true: talking about and supporting our public library system is vital to keeping them open and their resources available – not just books but music and film and news and internet access, career counseling, art exhibits, readings and lectures, computer classes, and of course story time for kids. Maybe these figures about the 16,000-plus public libraries in the U.S. will surprise and impress you as much as they did me:

*Every year, Americans visit their library more than they go to the movies. Every day they borrow 2.1 million DVDs (for free, remember!), in contrast to the 2.2 million rented from Netflix.

*Every day 300,000 Americans get job-search help at their public library. There are 13,000 U.S. libraries offering career assistance (from career counseling to help writing resumes and filling in applications), compared to the 3000 U.S. Department of Labor One-Stop career centers.

*Nearly 12,000 U.S. libraries offer free wi-fi – that’s more than all the Starbucks put together.

*There are more public libraries offering free computer training classes than there are computer training businesses in the U.S.

In San Francisco this weekend, there was even more reason to celebrate: thanks to the passage of a massive city bond measure, the Branch Library Improvement Program created a plan to renovate or rebuild 24 branch libraries across the city. Fourteen of those branches have been completed and reopened, and another eight are now in construction, including my beloved neighborhood library, Golden Gate Valley, about which I feel rather pathologically proprietary, driving by slowly a couple of times a week and surveying the contractors’ modular trailers with a gimlet eye, part rubber-necking voyeur, part self-appointed inspector (Who’s the guy handing out Krispy Kremes? And hey, buddy – you better not chip any plaster off that della Robbia door frame!)

But we weren’t just celebrating our libraries. The Friends of the Library organization hosts this dinner every year to celebrate writers, feeding us filet mignon and toasting us with good wine and urging us to take home the rapturously beautiful table centerpieces at the evening’s conclusion.

It was humbling to say the least to know that you were surrounded by these incredibly generous, visionary folks who not only recognize how vital public libraries are, but back up their convictions with their time and their money. Their mission statement is worth quoting as a standard for community involvement:

“Friends of the San Francisco Public Library is dedicated to creating, stewarding and supporting a superior free public library system in San Francisco. We are committed to raising the standard of excellence of our libraries by funding programs and services beyond what’s allocated in the City’s budget. We believe in free and equal access to information for all.”

Raising the standard of excellence. Above and beyond. Needless to say I wasn’t the only writer who felt genuinely moved and honored to be included at this event. City Librarian Luis Herrera, one of my tablemates, suggested that when all the branches are reopened, we should have a city-wide celebration, and all the Library Laureates of past years would be invited to take part. He won’t have to twist our arms. One by one we each talked about how much libraries have supported us as places of inspiration, as practical resources, as mobile offices: Kathryn Ma talked about being a library “nomad,” visiting one branch or another depending on her mood. Joshua Braff, Allison Hoover Bartlett, Ethan Watters and Katie Williams all revealed that their books were written in libraries – in Ethan’s case, in the very room where we were enjoying our tangerine upside-down cake with blood orange syrup. Victoria Zackheim read from an essay by Malachy McCourt, who remembered “the miracle” of a Carnegie library opening in his boyhood town of Limerick. Here’s what I had to say:

“Libraries and books and the pleasure of reading have always been mixed up in my mind with sugar, with sweetness. That association started with my grandmother, a San Francisco schoolteacher who rewarded me with miniature candy bars when I was learning to read and write. We lived in Sonoma when I was small, when the town, too, was small, and the library was a stately red-brick building set in the middle of the Plaza, right across from my father’s law office and an Italian bakery that sold cinnamon pull-apart cakes. The library, it seemed to me then, was the biggest and most important building in the town, the Rome to which all roads led. They let you take all the books you wanted, bringing them back when you were done, and I was not quite sure I believed it at first.

We didn’t have many books at home. Books, I learned early, were precious things.  My father had taken a job writing and editing encyclopedia entries while he was in law school, and that set of encyclopedias, devoid of any acknowledgment of his contributions, was housed with his law books behind glass in a barrister’s case. There was a set of Time-Life cookbooks nobody looked at but me, and I mostly looked at the pictures. I remember a hardcover copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, and my mother’s copy of Anna Karenina from before she was married, and a paperback biography of Jennie Churchill, the mother of Winston; I knew he was famous but I didn’t realize he wasn’t the same person as Alfred Hitchcock until a military history class in high school. My father’s oversized dictionary had its own its stand, and it was always left open, waiting to be consulted, like a magician’s book of spells, or the story of the world. That dictionary was my origination, my Genesis.

In Sonoma I rode my bike to the library every week to check out a stack of books, holding my breath at the circulation desk in case I was told I was too greedy; but the librarians always slid the entire pile back over the counter to me, and I sat cross-legged on the floor of the children’s section, reading on one of the rag rugs, light shafting through the arcing Palladian windows. I could pick anything, unrushed, unquestioned, any day, and as I sat with my books scattered around me, turning the pages of one after the other, the incense of hot cinnamon and caramelized sugar wafted over me through the open windows. How could anything ever be more delicious?

Much of my childhood was more bitter than sweet, but those afternoons at the library are some of my most tangible memories, that and crossing the street to walk home with my shy, lonely father at the end of his work day, my latest stack of library books piled into the basket of my banana-seat bicycle, my father stopping at the bakery on the way home, tucking his folded newspaper under his arm so he could carry his briefcase and the pink bakery box, its strings taut under his fingers.

Libraries and books and the words they protect are still precious to me, still imbued with sweetness, sometimes with the bittersweet, and always with the weight of importance. Even now when I think of how I feel while reading a truly extraordinary book, it’s the same feeling I get from eating the world’s best dessert: the rapture of words filling my mouth, the yearning for it to last.  And I still feel that sense of wondrous awe, of being luckier than could possibly be believed, of getting away with something really great whenever I am in a library.

These days my library is the Golden Gate Valley Branch at Green and Octavia. A Carnegie project built around the same time my grandmother started teaching San Francisco first graders to read in the 1920s, the Golden Gate Valley Branch was designed to resemble a Roman basilica, a long narrow rectangle with a curved apse. Outside, the stone façade drips Beaux Arts, Italian Renaissance details – carved garlands, moldings, fluted pilasters. On the inside it’s full of light from the tall windows with their curved, arching glass – Palladian windows like those at the library in Sonoma – and the original corniced shelving is still intact on the walls all around. I love the dignity and solidity of it, and how the building was sited close to the street, with no imposing landscaping to render it less inviting: a treasure box found on the sidewalk, waiting to reveal all it holds to you.

I love this library so much that it has found its way into my second novel, just as Sonoma’s library has shown up in my memoir, Cakewalk. I’ll close with the thoughts of the fictional librarian who works at the Golden Gate Valley branch, whose feelings about what that library means to her are not so different from my own:

Her library. Her sanctuary, her temple. It even resembled a church. She said it sometimes deflectively, jokingly, but the truth was she meant it: that library was her religion, the books it housed and the words within them her one redeeming faith. She carried in her head scenes and sentences and images, the astonishment of recognizing herself in the worlds and words of others. The lines and metaphors accreted in her memory, coming back to her in unexpected moments with the same startling intimacy, like snatches of remembered conversations, or a taste indelibly recalled, a sweetness at the back of her throat, as when she’d first read them. To be there, to hold the books in her hands, was a kind of atonement, a word she used privately in its original sense, at one: a harmony, an accord, a reconciliation. A word she’d learned when she was small, standing before her father’s dictionary.”

When the Golden Gate Valley branch reopens next year, I’ll be there: that too will be an atonement. And I’ll bring the cake.

1 comment » | Books, CAKEWALK, Uncategorized, Writing

Fruition

April 15th, 2010 — 6:40pm

Here’s what it looks like, at least in my life, to be a writer: there are tumbleweeds of dog hair blowing down the staircase. The sink is piled with dishes. I missed the UPS man’s arrival because I had to take Celeste to the dentist this morning and then to meet her 8th grade class at a field trip: thirteen-year-olds slouched and vogue-ing for an invisible audience in front of the Exploratorium. But when I got home, the first copies of Cakewalk had just arrived from my publisher, the package ripped open on the butcher block counter that still has crumbs on it from last night’s dinner.

It’s a strange, dislocating sensation, the physical evidence of the work of your imagination; in the case of a memoir like Cakewalk, the work of my memory and my heart. Forgive the obvious metaphor, but it really is a lot like motherhood. It’s as strange as seeing your child cross the street by himself for the first time, or, years later, listening to the grown man’s voice on the phone as your son tells you his plans for staging a production of a Sam Shepard play this spring at Oxford.  You can’t quite believe this came from you.

This time, though, I got help in believing in what’s come from me because of something else that arrived in the mail at the same time as my new book: a birthday card from Zachary. This is what he wrote:

“…I went to a fabric store in Oxford today to buy fabric for one of the plays I’m working on and it reminded me of how you made all my Halloween costumes by hand and how cool it was to have completely original, hand-made costumes, which were extra-good because they were made with mom-love, and I want you to know that every day I have moments like that.

Not a day goes by when I don’t think of how lucky I am to have the best mom in the world, who has given me so much and taught me so much. Every time I cook for my friends, which I do as often as I can, it makes me feel proud to pass on to my friends the recipes and the love of food and cooking that you gave to me, and it makes me feel closer to home. I taught Calder how to make a roast chicken last winter like you taught me, and he has been teaching all his friends, and now they’re all using your roast chicken recipe.

When I read To the Lighthouse, I imagine you reading those same words and reveling in Woolf’s language and wit. I have inherited so many of my pleasures and passions from you, as well as much of what I seek to bring out in my own character. Most of all you have taught me by example to be generous and to take joy in giving pleasure to others. I am so lucky that you’re my mom. In the card you sent me on my birthday, you wrote about all the cakes you’d ever made for me. I can’t do it this year, but someday I’d like to make you a birthday cake! Love, Zachary.”

Consider it already made, my sweetie.

Comments Off | CAKEWALK, Family, holidays, Motherhood, Uncategorized, Writing

“…so tiny under the wheeling and frozen stars…”

April 14th, 2010 — 8:12pm

Sometimes you just have to cheer because somebody got it right: That’s how I felt on Monday when I heard that Paul Harding’s brilliant, gorgeous first novel, Tinkers, had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

It is always exciting when a genuinely outstanding book — a real work of art — is recognized for its author’s achievement, but it’s even more gratifying when that book is an underdog: published by a small press (the first small independent press to publish a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in almost thirty years) and overlooked by many, including the New York Times, which acknowledged its oversight in a somewhat embarrassed-sounding column in The Paper Cuts blog after the Pulitzer announcement. Especially now, when the publishing industry has been so hard hit by the economic crisis, independent bookstores falling like flies and newspaper book reviews as rare as common courtesy, it’s so heartening to everyone invested in the future of books that a novel like Tinkers would get the attention it deserves.

Why is Tinkers so extraordinary and what’s it about? I think the clarity and seemingly effortless lyricism of Harding’s prose is the best answer to that question. An old New Englander who collected and repaired clocks in his retirement – a tinker, like his father — is dying:

“George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. To look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying, always in recognizable swaths of colors, familiar elements, molecular units, intimate currents, but also independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.”

As George Crosby’s mind wanders in his dying body he imagines not just his own past and present – in a tour de force opening scene he hallucinates that his house and then the entire universe, windowpane by coat closet by cloud by star, collapses in on him as he lies helpless on the hospital bed set up in his living room — but also that of his father, an epileptic who drove a wagon and sold sundries and fixed pots and pans for a living, whose inner life had been unassailable to the young son he left behind when he abandoned the family without a word.  From its description of a father watching his son conduct a private Viking funeral for a mouse to its sensory observations of weather and the changing of seasons, to its acute record of the minutia of family life or detailed instructions on how to build a bird’s nest, every page of Tinkers is dense with scenes and paragraphs and lines so freshly perceived and economically crafted and breathtakingly true – as art, as reflections of humanity — that you want to grab someone and read whole passages aloud.

Here is Paul Harding on what an oncoming epileptic seizure feels like: “The aura, the sparkle and tingle of an oncoming fit, was not the lightning – it was the cooked air that the lightning pushed in front of itself. The actual seizure was when the bolt touched flesh, and in an instant so atomic, so nearly immaterial, nearly incorporeal, that there was almost no before and after, no cause A that led to effect B, but instead simply A, simply B, with no then in between, and Howard became pure, unconscious energy. It was like the opposite of death, or a bit of the same thing death was, but from a different direction: Instead of being emptied or extinquished to the point of unselfness, Howard was overfilled, overwhelmed to the same state. If death was to fall below some human boundary, so his seizures were to be rocketed beyond it.”

Or pulling the tooth of a crusty old hermit: “Howard could not imagine that this old husk of a man, this recluse who seemed not much more than a sour hank of hair and rags, had a tooth left in his head to ache. . . . squinting to get a good look, [he] saw in that dank, ruined purple cavern, stuck way in the back of an otherwise-empty levy of gums, a single black tooth planted in a swollen and bright red throne of flesh. A breeze caught the hermit’s breath and Howard gasped and saw visions of slaughterhouses and dead pets under porches.”

Or a patient dog lurking near the table during a Christmas dinner: “Buddy the dog sat at attention, as if recommending himself to the ham over the children by his proper manners.”

I particularly love this next scene, in which George Crosby’s father imagines what he might say to one of his hardscrabble customers, the frugal country wives who gazed at his display case of cheap jewelry year after year but never bought anything unnecessary, their lives as meager as their yearnings are unanswered:

“He thought, Buy the pendant, sneak it into your hand from the folds of your dress and let the low light of the fire lap at it late at night as you wait for the roof to give our or your will to snap and the ice to be too thick to chop through with the ax as you stand in your husband’s boots on the frozen lake at midnight, the dry hack of the blade on ice so tiny under the wheeling and frozen stars, the soundproof lid of heaven, that your husband would never stir from his sleep in the cabin across the ice, would never hear and come running, half-frozen, in only his union suit, to save you from chopping a hole in the ice and sliding into it as if it were a blue vein, sliding down into the black, silty bottom of the lake, where you would see nothing, would perhaps only feel the stir of some somnolent fish in the murk as the plunge of you in your wool dress and the big boots disturbed it from its sluggish winter dreams of ancient seas. Maybe you would not even feel that, as you struggled in clothes that felt like cooling tar, and as you slowed, calmed, even, and opened your eyes and looked for a pulse of silver, an imbrication of scales, and as you closed your eyes again and felt their lids turn to slippery, ichthyic skin, the blood behind them suddenly cold, and as you found yourself not caring, wanting, finally, to rest, finally wanting nothing more than the sudden, new, simple hum threading between your eyes. The ice is far too thick to chop through. You will never do it. You could never do it. So buy the gold, warm it with your skin, slip it onto your lap when you are sitting by the fire and all you will otherwise have to look at is your splintery husband gumming chew or the craquelure of your own chapped hands.”

Paul Hardy’s Tinkers is an elegy to the passage of time, the randomness of memory and mortality, the startling grip of what lasts for each of us: a moving and life-affirming lament for  “the loss of this world of light and hope.” Don’t take my word or the Pulitzer committee’s word on it. Go to your neighborhood bookstore and buy a copy and read it for yourself!

1 comment » | Books, Uncategorized

Cakewalk, The Director’s Cut #1

March 31st, 2010 — 3:07am

Why, you may wonder, would I so debase my MacBook with Easter candy that only the experts at Apple’s Genius Bar will be able to return it to its pristine, pre-decorated, unsticky state? It’s because this is the first installment of my Cakewalk outtakes, the stories and recipes that didn’t make it into the book because my life seems to exert an excessive, even gravitational pull on sugar in every form. Some people remember what they wore or what the weather was like during the important episodes of their lives; I remember what I had for dessert.

So here, just in time for Easter, is the story of how a passion for Peeps — those squat chorus lines of yellow marshmallow chicks — ended my age of innocence…

Peep Show!

In part because of its close proximity to my April birthday, Easter was my favorite holiday. In my child’s megalomania, the glories of Easter were an extension of my birthday’s centrality. I also loved the new itchy dresses and lace-cuffed socks and slick pairs of white Mary Janes and the big fat basket overflowing with bad candy. I fervently believed in the Easter Bunny as well as every other assorted magical agent of childhood bounty. Thanks to the zealous example set by my Irish Roman Catholic relatives, I’d turned into an extremely pious little girl who took First Communion early because our parish priest in Sonoma had singled me out to the nuns and the rest of the catechism class as a true student of God. Nevertheless, in a bizarre theological misapprehension, I had decided that the Easter Bunny was some sort of understudy for the Lamb of God, who I assumed was too frail and bandy-legged to make the Easter egg rounds.

I felt the great, self-aggrandizing weight of my holiness when I became a communicant, and I remember lying in my bunk bed on Saturday nights, the sparkles in the cottage cheese of the asbestos-sprayed ceiling winking an arm span from my face as I concocted bogus confessions designed to make me look noble in the eyes of the Lord: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I planned to save my artichoke heart for my little brother, but I was so weary from helping my mother change the cat litter that I forgot and ate it myself. What should my penance be?” This was the kind of spiritual subterfuge I used to mask the overarching corruption that I feared was really inside me.

Our priest had admonished me one day as we watched my uncle arrive on his new motorcycle for dinner at our house. “Oh man!” I’d chortled as Uncle Bill rolled into our cul-de-sac on a shiny chrome Harley Davidson, twisting his wrists to make the engine roar for the benefit of all the kids squealing on the sidewalk. “Don’t say ‘man,’” our priest corrected me, his voice stern and disapproving. My face flamed. “You’ve just taken the Lord’s name in vain,” he continued. “Say ‘gee’ or ‘gosh’ instead. I think you’d better perform the Act of Contrition.”

A few months before, near Christmas, I’d been daily inspecting the pile of presents growing under the tree, and one day noticed a paper shopping bag had been left sitting out on the sofa, probably unintentionally. I knew my mother had taken my four-year-old brother shopping; I couldn’t resist peeking inside the bag, hoping I’d find something for myself. I did: a set of inexpensive metal bird pins on a sheet of flimsy cardboard, the kind of thing they carried at the Sprouse Reitz five-and-dime a couple of blocks from our house. My first reaction was an internal this chintzy thing?, swiftly followed by my mortified conscience’s chastisement – my brother John-John was little and he had no money and his two front teeth were black from falling on his face at the last Fourth of July picnic, but still he’d thought to get me a present. I slipped the sheet of pins back into the bag and told no one, but on Christmas morning I fought back hot guilty tears as I exclaimed over John-John’s gift.

For months after my First Communion I practically hummed with anticipation on Sunday mornings, because I loved the taste and texture of the Host, and I prayed, literally, that the hippies wouldn’t ruin church again. A couple of times the dawning of the age of Aquarius had too much infected our liberal winemaking parish community, in my estimation: somebody had gotten the idea to pass around real bread and real wine during communion instead of the flat pressed wafers I jonesed for all through the week. I didn’t mind the guitar strumming to “Kumbaya” and “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” but handing me a cube of sourdough instead of a cookie was just not okay.

One weekend when my grandmother was visiting, communion had been normal, thank God, and I was swinging my legs in the church pew, watching as everyone else made the circuit up to the altar and back to their places, heads bowed in transcendent gratitude. For my part I was grateful that children had been invited up to the altar first. As my parents and grandmother shuffled through the line I was thoroughly and privately appreciating my Host, which was stuck to the roof of my mouth, spongy and thin like a Swedish wafer or the last bite of a waffle cone. I knew it was a sin to chew the Host. I didn’t want to – I wanted it to last as long as possible, like a Tootsie Roll Pop. But instead of finding a chocolatey surprise at the center of the sucker, I was going to heaven. All of a sudden my arm nearly jerked out of its socket, and my scandalized grandmother snapped at me, “That’s the body of Christ. You’re not supposed to enjoy it.” The ensuing taste of shame was all but confirmation that deep down, I really was probably bad. What could I do but pray I wasn’t?

We spent every Easter at the sprawling, relaxed home of my mother’s Aunt Helen, who lived at the top of a hill in a sun belt across the bay from San Francisco. This was my “other” Aunt Helen, one of two, but the good one: related by desire rather than by blood. She was married to my grandfather’s best friend from college, and she’d come to California from Georgia as a war bride. Aunt Helen earned her title as my mother’s favorite relative by painting my three-year-old mom’s fingernails with bright red polish the day she arrived. A couple of times a year I was invited to Aunt Helen’s for a sleepover by myself, and she and my teenage cousin Peggy would paint my nails and take me out for a ladies’ lunch of Waldorf salad, followed by a trip to the local toy store. While I played with my new Little Kiddles dolls, Peggy played with my hair and Aunt Helen made my favorite dinner, buttery lima beans with bacon and even more buttery pecan pie, its thick caramelized filling heady with bourbon, Aunt Helen pouring herself “a finger or two” of the Four Roses she used in the pie.

On Easter there was a massive hillside egg hunt for the kids before the whole family and lots of friends and neighbors gorged on a buffet of ham and scalloped potatoes and more pecan pie and what Aunt Helen called “your mother’s heavenly ambrosia,” purring the word ambrosia in her susurrous Georgian drawl, even though it went by the more prosaic title Five Cup Salad on the recipe printed on the label of the requisite canned pineapple chunks my mom used. Later in the afternoon, everyone stripped off their holiday finery and lounged around the pool, the adults holding their sweat-beaded cocktail glasses out of beach ball range and surreptitiously lifting malted robin’s eggs and jelly beans from nearby baskets, the kids wrapped in sopping towels reading Archie comics on the scorching pool pavement or playing loud, splashy games of Marco Polo.

Easter at Aunt Helen’s was, to my mind, genuinely miraculous: when I was four, my older brother Billy found a trembling black-and-white bunny in his basket – the memory of its impossibly soft fur and pale, twitching nose was far more indelible than its almost immediate expiration. Another year, Peggy got a long-legged baby goat wearing a wide satin ribbon and chewing through the rope that tied it to the pool house door. Another time my big cousin Mark took us one by one into his bedroom, where a Great Dane puppy was sleeping in a wicker dog bed, safe from the hubbub of the egg hunt outside, its tawny ribcage peacefully rising and falling.

The year I turned seven I was sure it was my big Easter year. I’d had my First Communion triumph and something profound was sure to happen to me. At the very least it was my turn to get a real live animal. Whether my family needed an addition to its ever-increasing menagerie was irrelevant – I was the next oldest kid in the clan, and as far as I was concerned I was entitled. My grandmother had driven me up to Aunt Helen’s on Good Friday, and until my mother arrived on Saturday I’d been too fawned over to indulge in potentially disquieting contemplation of the holy trinity of my flawed character – greed, lack of impulse control, and illicit curiosity – let alone to snoop around for muffled bleats and chirps from behind closed doors, or to look for any other telltale clues that I was indeed the most virtuous, deserving and rewardable child in the family.

Somehow I found myself unchaperoned late on the afternoon of Holy Saturday. My mother had arrived and she and my grandmother and Aunt Helen had huddled off together somewhere within the spreading, tiled expanse of the Mediterranean-style house. Who knows where my uncle was, I don’t recall even wondering; I was still at the age when grown men were mere passing satellites to the more attractive orbit of females. My cousin Peggy had gamely painted my fingernails and then wandered away to “check on” something mumbled vaguely about as she escaped me. And this is where memory becomes distinct: the late sunlight banding through the glass slats of the bathroom window next to Peggy’s bedroom. The cool shaded green of her floral wallpaper. The frilly blue tuxedo shirt and lumpy neck acne of her junior prom date in the photograph on her vanity dresser. The collapsing stack of Teen Beat magazines on the floor of her dark closet, and behind them, me poking around until I found a grocery bag of plastic eggs and, on top, the cardboard carton of marshmallow Peeps, which I was holding when I heard footsteps approach and grow decidedly louder and suddenly I was trapped unseen in Peggy’s bedroom with my mother and my grandmother, and my mother’s voice was moving into the accusatory register of a conspiracy gone sour.

“But Mother,” my own mother whinged, “how could you lose forty Easter baskets?”

The family apocrypha regarding my grandmother’s absent-mindedness reads like this: her children once watched her measure out and dump an entire cup of whole black peppercorns into a pot of stew as she was quizzing them on their homework. More than once she unpinned her hat and put it carefully away in the icebox. When the family moved from San Francisco to Pennsylvania, my grandmother boarded a cross-country train alone with her two small children and didn’t notice until she was in the dining car that she was wearing a slip but had left her skirt behind. She once made the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle for driving her car with calm but unfathomable concentration straight through the plate-glass window of a Venetian blind store. In the newspaper photograph, she is holding her face in her hands, her hat daintily askew, her mouth open in an astonished, perfect O, like a doddering old-lady version of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” This is how I picture her looking as my mother interrogated her about the missing forty Easter baskets, which had somehow dematerialized from the trunk of my grandparents’ car.

Finding the Peeps in the closet had already muddied the filtered waters of my innocence. Snooping had netted me a bagful of Easter candy I hadn’t really wanted to find. I tried to convince myself that the Peeps I’d seen were just, well, maybe Peggy’s surplus candy from last year . . . but the conversation I was overhearing was really testing my faith.

My mother and my grandmother left the room, my mother sputtering that the stores were already closed and she didn’t know how they would replace forty baskets let alone all that candy, and I started praying. Dear God, Saint Jude and Baby Jesus, I prayed, please let that whole scene be a bad dream and I promise to stop being such a vain, terrible child. I know it’s all my fault. You can forget the pony – just let there really be an Easter Bunny and I’ll be good forever. Or something to that effect.

Needless to say that a dark sleepless night in Peggy’s trundle bed finally faded into a rudely bright and suspense-plagued Easter morning, and when all of us kids were assembled that afternoon for the annual egg hunt, fresh from church in our stiff dresses and cinched-up seersucker pants, we found – under the bushes, down the crumbling chimney of the brick barbecue, tucked onto windowsills and hanging from the rafters of the covered patio – Easter baskets, but not the wide-rimmed, beribboned wicker extravaganzas we usually got. That year’s baskets were improvisations cobbled together by the clever but desperate: grass-filled colanders and green plastic strawberry containers, scuffed sand pails and crêpe-paper covered shoeboxes fitted with twine handles. There were plenty of colored hard-boiled eggs in the flowerbeds, and here and there a lonely marshmallow Peep or a plastic egg rattling with two or three pitiful jelly beans inside. I lugged my sagging grocery-bag-cum-Easter basket up and down the hillside, grief stricken, while Peggy’s goat gnawed its way out of its pen and slipped into the house unobserved, where it ate an entire toilet seat.

They’d asked me to accept that a sticky wafer sprinkled with wine was the body and blood of Jesus Christ, who died for the sins of the world, including my own. Yeah, right, said my sinful, disappointed seven-year-old self. But somehow, nearly four decades later, I can take one bite of sugar-sprinkled marshmallow and remember what it tasted like to believe.

. . .

…Sorry. I just can’t give you a recipe involving Peeps. As an adult, they make the enamel on my teeth curl back like wood shavings, though one of my cats likes them.

My feline secretaries cleaning up after the photo shoot.

Minerva, head of the secretarial pool, adjusts Peeps placement for regifting.

"Hmm, this one seems a little dirty. I'll clean it up..."

Stick your Peeps on cupcakes if you really have to. But if nostalgia is your favorite flavor for Easter, here’s the recipe for my mom’s Five Cup Salad, aka Ambrosia circa 1969.

3 comments » | CAKEWALK, candy, Family, holidays, Uncategorized

Back to top