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.

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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Abundance of art in Paris

From markets to museums, Paris overflows with abundance. In the markets, myriad vegetables, fruits, fishes, cheeses, meats, and spices inspire creativity in the kitchen and on the plate.

Marché couvert Batignolles, 17th arr.

Marché couvert Batignolles, 17th arr.


Shops brim with fashion to spark even a slob’s sense of style. Museums present a banquet of history, science, culture, and art to gorge upon.

And so, while exploring la Nouvelle Athènes neighborhood in the 9th arr., I come upon the Musée National Gustave Moreau, the painter’s former house and studio that he left to the state along with some 1,200 paintings and 10,00 drawings, many of which are on display. Truly an abundance. But M. Moreau? I’m not very familiar with his art, though I recall he is not widely and wildly favored by modern critics. Do I have that right? It begins to rain. Suddenly this quiet museum seems the perfect refuge, and I step inside.

The lesson learned from this impromptu visit? Abundance creates interest and respect. The full record of an artist’s life, sincere vision, and works is an inspiration. Exploring the shear volume generates awe. During his lifetime, 1826-1898, Moreau had times of fame and acceptance as well as periods of harsh criticism, termed an eccentric by some and falling out of regard in the first half of the 20th century. Retrospectives in the ’60s brought renewed interest. According to Laura Morowitz writing in The Art Bulletin in 1999: “Exactly where Moreau fits in, and his real place in art history, is as difficult to determine in 1999 as it was in 1899. Perhaps our only safe judgment is to agree with the critic Theophile Gautier, writing a century and a half ago, that ‘…his work stands in singular isolation, and whether it pleases or not, one has to reckon with it.”

So, reckon I did, circulating through his house and studio, examining the paintings and poring through the hundreds of drawings on display. In the days since, I’ve read up on Moreau and his influences (Renaissance art, Persian, Indian, and Japanese prints, mythology and mysticism), his friends (Edgar Degas and Eugene Delacroix among others), and his students (including Georges Rouault and Henri Matisse at the Academie des Beaux-Art).

In the museums of Paris, abundance breeds interest and opens new doors.

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Hesiod and the Muses, 1860

Hesiod and the Muses, 1860


The Unicorns, 1885

The Unicorns, 1885

The Daughters of Thespius, 1853

The Daughters of Thespius, 1853


The Return of the Argonauts, 1890-97

The Return of the Argonauts, 1890-97


The Unicorn, 1885

The Unicorn, 1885


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Hamburgers in Paris

My hometown is in beef country USA. So I know a good burger when I taste one! The best burger I have ever eaten in my life? Recently at Cosy Corner, 94 Rue des Dames in the 17th arr. (A wonderful street lined with casual restaurants, by the way.) Their hamburger was perfectly cooked with a delicious bun and served already garnished with a to-die-for sauce.

Another favorite burger in Paris? From Le Camion qui fume food truck, which parks in various locations around the city. The day I indulged, the truck was parked in the place de la Madeleine–which offers a perfect picnic spot, especially on a rainy day. Run by a Californian named Kristin Frederick, Le Camion qui fume does it right with superb burgers and hand-cut fries. A long line forms and when they run out of meat, they close up and roll away.

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Hungry yet?

Not thinking about money in Paris

I came to Paris to experience the sublime. Too bad I can’t pay the bills with it. But I’m trying not to think about money! In a cafe in Le Marais, I watch buskers counting out the coins they’ve collected. If you look closely, you’ll see there aren’t many euros in the pile, mostly 5-, 10- and 20-centime coins. I’d say that when they’re playing their music out on the street, their thoughts are more on the sublime than on the money.

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Why women love Paris

I was on my cell phone, talking to a young man at AT&T to sign up for an international data plan. When I told him that I would be traveling to Paris he said “Oh, that’s every girl’s dream!”

Yes, I admit it. I am a cliche. Women — middle-aged women in particular — love to escape to Paris. Remember Carmella from the Sopranos? Here’s her reaction to Paris.

Of course, it’s not just women who love Paris. Case in point: Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. But for many of American women, Paris and France hold a special allure.

I think one reason is that Paris is a 24/7 experience of sensual pleasure. American women have spent a lifetime being judged for our attractiveness. We dress, diet, exercise, groom with an eye on the mirror and a self-conscious sense of how others perceive us. But how often do we allow ourselves to turn our sights away from the impact we make on the outside world and let the outside world afford us delight?

For years middle-aged women have focused on the needs of others. We are pragmatic and disciplined. And then we arrive in Paris. Everywhere it is a feast of sights, smells, tastes, and sounds. The city surrounds us with beauty, harmony, history, artistry, and elegance. The food, the wines, the museums, the bridges, the river, the light, the street fashion, the architecture, the fragrances, the style, and the heightened aesthetic of living.

Paris delights us. It offers us beauty and asks nothing from us in return. The people might judge us, but Paris does not. It asks us to be free, to take delight in all its pleasures — directly, individually, and solely for ourselves.

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Life in small spaces

Until a year ago, I owned a large house with seven bedrooms, a living room, two family rooms, a breakfast room, kitchen, four full bathrooms, two half bathrooms, a two-car garage, and an attached shed. Older, rambling houses such as this are common here in the Midwest, dating from the 1910s and 1920s when people had big families and often live-in maids and cooks. When my husband and I bought this old house, in need of repair and TLC, our two children were young — and we were young — and it felt like a fine adventure to lead our lives in this large space. And it was. We had room to spare for treasure hunts, visits from friends and relatives, sleep-overs, birthday parties. We had one family room devoted to messy art projects and rambunctious playtime.

But here’s the thing: I never felt as if I truly owned the place. I felt like a visitor. A piece of dandelion fluff floating from room to room. Only since we sold the big house and moved to a small rental (with three small bedrooms, a living room/dining room, and a kitchen) do I realize that I was born to inhabit small spaces. I don’t know how else to explain it, but that large house was just too much space for me to possess.

The funny thing is that my dachshund felt the same way. At our old house, he was never happy hanging out in the large backyard. But he will stay for hours outside in the tiny yard of our new house. I think he feels that he can “own” this space — patrol it and control it.

Now in my small studio rental apartment in Villefranche with a bed nook, sofa, small dining table and tiny kitchen, I am once again realizing the joys of small spaces.
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Giving up the big house that I loved but never truly possessed has given me the money to travel to this new small space where I study, write, drink wine, entertain a few friends, and eat goodies from the market and boulangerie.

My apartment is small. But my world is growing ever larger.
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