The Easter cake ritual

When my children were young, I created new traditions because our
WASP-y family was very much cut off from any ethnic roots that provided ready-made rituals. I felt it was important to give the kids a sense of the deep places in the soul that these traditions touched.

And thus, I began the tradition of the Easter cake. It was made several days before Easter Sunday. The cake was baked and assembled, then set in a cool dark place to “ripen.” On Easter, the mellowed rich concoction was brought out into the light and placed on the table. As we baked, the kids learned the story of Jesus, how he was laid in the cold tomb, and after a few days of patient waiting, the stone was rolled away and Jesus emerged, transformed and new.

My kids loved the cake, and at least listened to the story, and eagerly helped with the mixing and the baking. Every year it has been the main focus of our Easter morning. Yesterday in our new house, with new baking pans, I again enacted the ritual. And here’s the thing – I could easily dwell on the past and the memories of previous Easters when the seeds of hopes and dreams were planted. Those hopes have now bloomed into a very different reality. When we gather on Sunday, my oldest daughter will not be there. She spends holidays with the people she now considers to be her family.

Yet, I still make the Easter cake. I cream the butter and sugar.
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Then I mix in the flour and beat until the batter is thick and sticky. I separate the eggs. Add the egg yolks and the zest of one lemon.
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I beat the egg whites and fold in the grated almond paste and more sugar. Spread the batter into the pans and bake.
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Finally, I whip the cream. Assemble the layers of cake and cream.
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And I place the cake on a shelf in the cool basement.

By Sunday the cake will be transformed. The cream will curdle into a pale yellow ooze. The layers will settle, rich and delicious.

Transformed.

We have all transformed. We are new each Easter. But the past tugs hard. It is a precious, beautiful dream filled with children, puppies, games and laughter. Bright as a bubble. Now gone, gone, gone. Oh dear, I am looking into the past right now and the tears start to flow. This is why I must give the past no more than a quick glance over my shoulder.

I want to focus on today and tomorrow, which are lit with subdued hues not the joyous brilliance of yesterdays. Today is the stage on which all the yesterdays come together. An arrangement of humans, old dogs, prickly relationships, and complicated love. But today IS new. Transformed. Tomorrow and every day that follows will be new and good. And nowadays I don’t dream and hope as I once did. I try to let the days unfold as they come.

But on Sunday, I will pull the Easter cake from the cool basement and I will sprinkle it with sugar.

Make a manifesto

Do you have a personal manifesto? “A declaration of intentions, opinions, objectives or motives.” It can be a statement written out in the passion of heartfelt desire and clear vision expressing who you want to be and how you want to spend your days.

Because day in and day out, plans and intentions get confused, deflated, washed away. One forgets.

Lately, I’ve been stuck in a murky fog, not able to see clearly to next week much less next year. It’s a very uncomfortable place to be. Nothing to write about. Life feels stale and airless. It’s a ridiculous, self-indulgent state of affairs – but so be it. I’m being honest. Sometimes I lose my way.

Obviously, life is too short for this. So I reread the manifesto that launched this blog and captured how I want to spend my days. “To set out at late mid-life on a journey to create projects and challenges, so that today and tomorrow and the day after offer something new. A journey that carries me to new places physically, but also unexplored regions in my soul. To start afresh, right from the beginning, a boat sailing by night into the dark, unknown and uncharted – into the future.”

Pretty grandiose, eh? I could be a bit embarrassed by such elevated desires. But since my college days as an English major, I’ve always liked this quote by Robert Browning: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for?”

Exactly.

Remembering my manifesto refocused my scrambled emotions in two ways. It reminded me of how life can be a carnival of delight and that I can fully indulge, cotton candy in one hand and an ice cream cone in the other. Yet at other times, and probably most often, I’m alone in the dark. But this darkness should not be my enemy. It’s the darkness of the unknown, of mystery. It’s the dark of closed-eyed meditation, of stillness. I feel fear and a sense of groping in a void. But I must believe in my grandiose manifesto. I am not foundering in the doldrums. A gentle wind is pressing me forward on this uncharted course.

My father was not a pirate

My father was 43 years old when I was born and, because he was an older parent I suppose, he was especially cautious and protective of his two daughters. He’d lived through the Depression and served in the South Pacific during WWII. He’d seen some hardship and calamity before marrying for the first time at 42, so he was in a more cautious phase of life than he might have been at a younger age.

I have photos of my sister and me on July 4th when we are about 6 and 7 years old, wearing work gloves and sunglasses as we hold sparklers. No chance of burned fingers or sparks in the eyes for us. In other photos, we ride in fishing boats or swim in lakes, always strapped into orange life jackets. In the winter photos, we wear red rubber boots, snow pants, and thick coats with hoods tightly tied under our chins. We took afternoon naps when all of the other neighbor kids were outside laughing and shouting. We were not allowed to race out for ice cream on summer evenings when we heard the ding, ding, ding of the ice cream truck because years before in some part of the city a child was run over by an ice cream truck driver. (Although as a side note, this was an era before child car seats or bicycle helmets. I’m a little surprised my dad didn’t invent those devises.)

I don’t remember being teased by our neighborhood friends for being so restricted. They seemed to accept our adherence to this special treatment as a natural consequence of having an “elderly” father, so unlike their own dads still in their late 20s or early 30s.

I grew up very cocooned. My world was directed by this sedate, honorable man. He would never have pretended to be perfect, but he was trying hard to be a responsible, mature adult. When taking rides in the car through the city, I would spot ramshackle houses and imagine with delight living in such a place, where I could be like Pippi Longstocking, making up my own rules, with an absent father who was a pirate. or maybe a gambler or a crook. How much more interesting life would be!

Would I have been different if my dad had been younger and still finding his own way in the world, testing his strengths, making mistakes, and occasionally neglecting his children and letting them run wild? Would I have been more of a risk-taker? More confident in my own abilities? Bolder, braver, stronger?

One summer vacation we drove to California by way of the Grand Canyon. We spent a night in the nearby cabins and hiked around the rim. Naturally, rules were immediately established: Stay on the official paths at the top. Keep close to Mom and Dad. Do not approach the edge. Do not venture down any trails into the canyon.

I was a tomboy, loving to climb rocks and trees in the parks back home when not under the watchful eye of my father. So I was much drawn to the idea of skittering down the rocky slopes to the trails just below. It looked pretty easy. The trail was only about five feet away. If I sat down, I could ease myself down the slope and land on the trail.

I decided on a plan. Afternoon rain showers often kicked up suddenly in the summer, so I carried a rain jacket that could be stuffed inside its own pocket to form a little pillow. I’d toss that little packet to the trail just below and would thus have to go down there and retrieve it. The rules would have to be set aside for this rescue mission.

I tossed the rain jacket pouch to the trail below and watched as it bounced on the narrow trail (it had not seemed particularly narrow before) and hurtled into the abyss, falling, falling until finally disappearing from sight. Mom, Dad, sister, and I all stood there silently watching its descent.

Turning to me with an expression of utter incomprehension, my father asked “Why did you do that?”

It was a reckless, uninformed maneuver. Of course it made no sense to him. I did not admit what my plan had been. But I was rattled. I had intended to slide down to that trail, which upon closer examination was really not a trail at all but a very slim outcropping. Without my father’s strict rules, I would not have thrown my rain jacket first, but would have scooted down there myself. Wouldn’t I have met the same fate as my rain jacket? I felt dizzy and a little sick at my stomach.

Rules suddenly took on a new significance. So did fathers who made up these rules.

My dad died eighteen years ago. He looms in my memory as a protective force. I close my eyes and see him standing on a southern California beach, the one he’d selected for our family vacation because it was the safest in the state. He’s 54 years old and handsome, looking a bit like John Wayne. He’s bare-chested in madras swim trunks, zinc oxide on his nose, squinting into the sun as he waves his arms, motioning my sister and me to take a break from riding the waves and drag our inflatable mats back up the shore. We have been carried by the waves too far down the beach — not into harms way but too distant from where he was sitting with my mother. She lies on a beach towel, relaxing and reading a book. But not my father. He is on duty, ever alert, watching over us.

Swimming with the fishes

When our daughters were little, we bought a cabin on a small fishing lake in the Kansas Flint Hills, a two-hour’s drive from Kansas City. We wanted an affordable weekend country home where our children could run free, and the lake community offered a toehold in a beautiful prairie landscape as well as a caretaker to keep an eye on the place.

All the years we owned it, I longed for the humble cabins along the lake to exhibit a more Martha Stewart vibe, with pretty Adirondack chairs perched on sloping grassy lawns, rustic-chic front porches, and gardens of sunflowers, asters, and zinnias. Instead, the area exuded a workaday rural lake aesthetic where our neighbors parked pick-up trucks in their yards and adorned their porches with a higgledy-piggledy arrays of chairs and picnic tables. For my snooty city-girl tastes, the ambiance was lacking but the country quiet, green hills and prairie flowers sufficed. Our daughters loved it.

On one muggy July afternoon when my younger daughter, Eliza, was 5, I paddled us in a two-seat kayak across the lake and into Kahola Creek, one of the spring-fed creeks that flow into the 400-acre lake. The creek was home to a blue heron, muskrats, frogs, birds and fish, but whenever I pulled the kayak onto the shore of one of the tiny rocky islands my first thought was: snakes.

Copperheads and rattlesnakes lived in the prairie pastures and along the rocky road. In the creeks: water moccasins. Like sharks in the ocean, these spoiled my complete enjoyment of swimming in the deep pools and wading through the shallows. Because I wanted my girls to feel empowered and adventurous out in the countryside, I tried not to pass on undue anxiety, so I would be privately watchful and paranoid, leaving my kids free to ramble. I did teach them not to turn over rocks, to make some noise while walking trails and splash a little when wading in creeks to warn critters we were approaching and give them a chance to slither away. But I didn’t delve into the details of snakebite and poison.

This day we pulled the kayak onto a rocky island formed by shards of flint and scrubby trees. Wind fluttered the leaves of the cottonwoods and walnut trees lining the shore. On the far bank, a stone shelf rose above a deep pool. I eyed the shadowed crevasse below the jutting ledge, thinking it would make a good home for water moccasins. Oh, but that deep, clear pool was a perfect place for a swim.

In our bathing suits, we slipped into the cold spring water, refreshing on a humid July day. Suddenly, dozens of small bluegill fish surrounded us, flitting and dipping, swimming close to nibble our skin.

“They are kissing me!” Eliza squealed with delight.

The water was as clear as air, and the saucer-shaped bluegill looked like Disney characters, their splashes of orange, blue, jade, and yellow sparkling in the sunlight. We floated into the middle of the pool and the cartoon fish dove and drifted, magical as fairies. I watch for snakes and let Eliza lose herself in the moment, giggling, as she swam with the fishes.

In my memory, that day seems caught in a snow globe, preserved in a glass bubble. Shake it and instead of fluffy snowflakes falling on a winter scene, this memory sends diamonds of sunlight shimmering on the water, and a mother and daughter floating in a clear spring, colorful fishes dancing in the water.

Mothering days pile up into a varied heap of happy, stressful, boring, successful, and challenging events.

I like to shake that memory globe and relive the time I led my youngest on an enchanted adventure up a common Kansas creek. I did well that day.

Jimmy’s Socks

Keepsakes. Possessions. Family heirlooms. How much is too much?

My husband’s aunt went to garage sales and more garage sales until she’d accumulated so many purchases that to walk from room to room she had to follow narrow paths amongst the clutter. I have a friend with closets stuffed full of clothes, shoes, and purses that will never be used. But she finds it hard to part with any of it. Other friends have neat-as-a-pin downstairs rooms, but upstairs there’s at least one bedroom filled with storage boxes of books, old toys, school projects, and family memorabilia. Others have orderly, large houses where the basements and attics are crammed with stored furniture, boxes, grandma’s china, and old baby beds.

When I was growing up, my mom’s room was a disaster: her extra bed, desk, and dresser-top were piled high with clipped articles, books, letters and photos. She was a packrat, saving everything. I was an untidy child, but I swore I would never live like that.

I used to keep piles. Stacks formed on my desk awaiting decisions or lingering “just in case.” But during the move from our big house to a rental, and recently from that rental into a much smaller house, I have become more ruthless. To the shock of many friends, I’ve thrown away photographs, old letters, kids’ artwork, my childhood drawings, and many writing notebooks. I want empty space and uncluttered closets. I do not want things. Many of my possessions have become an uncomfortably heavy weight of responsibility and memory. Perhaps they represent the burden and realization of how the years have piled up, how long I’ve lived—that I am growing old. As I began to box up my belongings for the move–so many things–I felt a tightness as if I were an old snake that for years had been unable to shed skin and was now bound too tightly, suffocating. Getting rid of the excess felt like moving forward, being set free.

Nevertheless, from time to time I worry that this urge to unload my possessions is just a phase. Will I regret throwing out so much? My 88-year-old mother recently told me that she’d spent a wonderful evening re-reading old letters from college boyfriends. (As I mentioned earlier, she’s a packrat!) Do all these boxes of letters and photos make for a happier life in one’s twilight years?

I know: scan my old letters and photos into the computer and save on discs or in the cloud. I’ve done some of that. And before tossing out kids’ artwork and school projects, I’ve photographed and scanned the best ones. But this still is a burden of online clutter to keep track of and preserve.

And then there are the items from long ago. My home has been the receptacle of many family keepsakes: my grandmother’s consume bowls, another grandmother’s Willow Ware dishes, my grandfather’s baby crib, a great-grandmother’s wedding dress, ledgers full of my grandfather’s poetry. The list goes on and on. In addition, my mother’s apartment storage bin is crammed full of boxes and crates of family “treasures” that will one day be mine to sort through.

We are ephemeral creatures – but my god, how our stuff outlives us. Bodies decompose or are burned to ash, but the army uniform, the packet of letters, the wind-up toy all remain, if aged and yellowed. Kings and pharos were often buried with their life’s possessions, to be taken with them to the afterlife I suppose. Maybe we should do that. We would unburden our future generations of the photo albums, collections, DVDs, clothing, letters, books, furniture, china, and jewelry that fill attics and basements and flea markets.

Yet, I think of my mother treasuring those letters from old boyfriends, now mostly dead.

The other day I opened yet another box of stored items and read a letter written by a great aunt I never knew. The faded handwriting was very hard to read and the news rather ordinary: “I have had the flu but am well now.”

I folded that letter, stuck it back in the envelope, and picked up another. My heart tightened in my chest. Written in black cursive on the envelope were these words: Jimmy’s Socks.

Inside were tiny baby’s socks—probably a first pair. I had a great-great uncle named James Harvey. His mother, Clara, must have labeled the envelope. In an instant, she came to life for me, all because of her gentle gesture of saving her baby’s socks. And Uncle Jim? Before this moment he was merely one of the two men in the blurry photos of “the Kansas Folks” that my mom showed me, reminiscing about her childhood visits to these elderly relatives. Now in a flash, those tiny socks created a continuum: he was born, he kicked his fat baby legs, he grew to manhood, he had lived and breathed.

I had never before thought about my great-great uncle Jim, much less cared about him, until I held his tiny cream and blue socks. Now he holds a small place in my heart and I will never forget him.

So, what do I save and what do I throw away? How much do I cram into the basement and closets? What will my great-great niece pull from a box that will make her catch her breath, suddenly aware that her aunt Martha once walked the earth?

Have I already thrown out too much?

For certain, I’m afraid, my daughters’ baby socks are long gone.

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NYC and me

Barely back from France, I spent a quick weekend in New York City to see friends. I’m not a great fan of The City. I wish I were. People looooove NYC, but I’m “eh” about it.
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Maybe I hold a grudge. When I was in my 20s and living near New York, visiting on the weekends, it was kind of scuzzy and dangerous. A friend of mine was mugged standing in line for movie tickets on a Saturday afternoon on the Upper East Side. People around her were kind afterwards, but no one was going to step in when that guy brandished a gun. Hipster haven Brooklyn? A few parts were being gentrified, but much of it was still scary. A friend living there had her cat killed by a pack of wild dogs, and a few weeks later a guy high on crack busted down her door with a sledge hammer. New York was, of course and as always, a multi-cultural and creative place. But it was far from the playground of hip restaurants and trendy shops that it is today.

Every time I’ve visited in recent years, the city seems crowded, dirty, loud, and not very pretty, even though it is slicked up and safe. Give me a European city any day. Nevertheless, three days of wandering the city with friends was a blast. And maybe I succumbed to its charms just a bit.
I liked the neighborhood vibe and low-scale of Notlita.
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A stroll through Chinatown markets was a visual adventure.
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The Ginger Mojitos and the views of a fast-moving thunderstorm from the lobby lounge of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel were a great way to spend a late Sunday afternoon.
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Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, I felt like I was on stage, or in a movie — that I was supposed to be belting out a song about the Bronx and the Battery, or concrete jungle and the Empire State. Now you’re in New York!
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My friend visiting from Vienna insisted that we take a helicopter ride over Manhattan. A helicopter ride? Really? Who does that? Well, for one, the doorman at our building said he’d been twice. And from the long line of European tourists at the heliport, I concluded it must be a bucket-list item for many. The twenty minute ride around the harbor and up and down the Hudson River — magical.
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The ghost of Hemingway in Paris and Cuba

I am home again, back in the Midwest. Greeting me this morning is an article in the New York Times that sparks thoughts and memories. The journalist writes of visiting places where Hemingway has lived.

I have also walked in Hemingway’s footsteps this past year, not intentionally – but now I ask myself was it really so unplanned? Hasn’t there been a thread of Hemingway-ness weaving itself through my life ever since I was a teenager?

Around the time of my first visit to France at the age of 17, I read a lot of the classics, including most of Hemingway’s work. It was A Moveable Feast that appealed to my romantic vision of Paris. I also had a coffee-table type book called Hemingway’s Paris with photos of iconic Left Bank streets and cafes. I don’t remember the text at all, just those pictures that I looked at again and again.

This Hemingway-ness, of course, is complicated: the machismo, alcoholism, suicide – he was a messy, complex, difficult, talented guy, and not particularly my cup of tea anymore. Yet, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still hold power. His spirit reigns wherever he lived. I’ve never been to Key West or Idaho (read the aforementioned NYTimes article for references to those places). However, I’ve been wandering his old stomping grounds all summer in Paris. And this time last year I was in Cuba. One stop on our People-to-People tour was Hemingway’s house, Finca Vigia, outside the fishing village of Cojimar, near Havana. Walking the grounds and peering into his house, I experience a familiar sensation. Just as Paris does, Cuba has a soul and something that the word “beauty” is too impotent to describe. Here you feel the intoxicating cocktail of aliveness in your heart, brain, gut and all of your five senses. Hemingway spent his life in these places, created his art, and wrestled his demons.

Hemingway’s ghost is here. I’m glad. Because it was his words that first articulated an idea that continues to inspire me: that life can be glorious, at least for a brief time. And that moment is always worth chasing.

“We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.” A Moveable Feast

Hemingway's house outside of Havana

Hemingway’s house outside of Havana


His desk

His desk


Drinks

Drinks


The village of Cojimar

The village of Cojimar

Imagination running wild outside Paris

Everyone loves Paris, right? So we are seldom alone while enjoying the beautiful sights of this city. We drown in other tourists as we swarm to the Louvre, Notre Dame, and Versailles — especially in the summertime and early autumn. That is why my weekday trip to Vaux-le-Vicomte was the happiest of surprises. I took the train from the Gare de Lyon to the town of Melun, about 50 km southeast of Paris, then a taxi to the château. (Either arrange for a return pickup with your driver or later ask someone in the museum shop to call one.) Upon arrival, I stepped out into the mid-17th century and, without being jostled by a herd of tourists, my imagination was free to ramble.

Nicolas Fouquet, superintendent of finances for Louis XIV, called upon the skills of architect Louis Le Vau, landscape gardener André Le Nôtre, and painter Charles Le Brun to collaborate on this magnificent structure. The story is told that when Fouquet held a party for the king, the opulence of the château outshone the king’s own magnificence, and moved Louis to arrest Fouquet and confiscate his riches. Scholars say, however, that Fouque had already fallen into disfavor, the king’s attitude egged on by the up-and-coming Jean-Baptiste Colbert who had accused Fouquet of embezzling money from the crown. The king seized almost all of the château’s treasures and sent the trio of Le Vau, Le Nôtre, and Le Brun to oversee the expansion of the gardens and palace of Versailles.

Over the many years, the château changed hands several times, before becoming abandoned for 30 years, falling into disrepair. In 1874, Alfred Sommier bought the estate at public auction and began a labor of love to restore the gardens and buildings — a work carried on by his children.

The original furnishings and tapestries are mostly gone. But what is left is the marvelous architecture and decorative painting, an expansive space without the lines and crowds, I feel as if I’m discovering each corridor and room for myself. The adventure is intimate and personal, as I wander lost in thought.

See for yourself. (And look for Fouquet’s family emblem, the squirrel. Their motto: Quo non ascendet…”What heights will he not sale?”)

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Nicolas Fouquet

Nicolas Fouquet


the kitchen

the kitchen


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