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.

Next stop: Paris

I reluctantly leave beautiful Villefranche-sur-mer…but it’s time to try out my fledgling French language skills in the big city. My apartment in Paris is on the Right Bank, a few blocks from the Gare Saint-Lazare train station. During past trips to Paris, I have stayed on the Left Bank, so this is new territory to explore.

My apartment windows look out on a courtyard. I hear French voices and smell fish cooking.
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The decor includes pillows with a welcome reminder of my dachshunds back home. What a funny coincidence.
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Two kinds of people

Perhaps it means I’m cautious, or contemplative, or earth-bound. You see, I prefer the beach to the boat and the valley to the mountain top. I like to walk the shoreline, watch the light change the colors of the sea and feel the force of the waves battering the rocks, much more than I enjoy sailing on a boat looking back at the land. Exploring the craggy coastline below or relaxing in the cafe at sunset suits me.

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I also much prefer standing knee-deep in wildflowers in a mountain meadow, gazing up at the clouds drifting across the mountain peaks, rather than perching atop the mountain high above, scanning the patchwork of land and the ant-like cattle grazing. Top of the Eiffel Tower or down below peering up through the iron latticework? You guessed it: below looking up. Beach or boat? What kind of person are you?
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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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Roses on the Cote d’Azur and a little prince


“If someone loves a flower, of which just one single blossom grows in all the millions and millions of stars, it is enough to make him happy just to look at the stars. He can say to himself, ‘Somewhere, my flower is there…’ But if the sheep eats the flower, in one moment all his stars will be darkened…And you think that is not important!”
From The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

If you haven’t read this little book, do.
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It’s particularly beautiful, of course, in French.

“–Si quelqu’un aime une fleur qui n’existe qu’à un exemplaire dans les millions et les millions d’étoiles, ça suffit pour qu’il soit heureux quand il les regarde. Il se dit: ‘Ma fleur est là quelque part…’ Mais si le mouton mange la fleur, c’est pour lui comme si, brusquement, toutes les étoiles s’éteignaient! Et ce n’est pas important ça!”

The night sky in a French fishing village

I’ve had this same thought back home, lying outside at night in the hammock, wind in the trees, the leaves a dark blur while above me the countless stars flicker. How different must life be for city-dwellers who are never outside in the true dark of night, alone with the vast dome of sky. After all, for centuries human experience was fashioned beneath this same sky, its constant presence evoking awe, fear, and thoughts of the eternal. Isn’t it important to be regularly stunned by the wonderment of the universe beyond?

At night in this seaside fishing village, the sky is like a second ocean, wide and mysterious. The moon watches us as we walk home after dinner and waits for us to look up and say “Oh!”
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A puzzle of words

This language study is a puzzle of words and structures, strung together like beads on a string. Beautiful, foreign beads. We students sit in silly desks, the same sort I sat in during high school. We grown-ups from all over the world try to please our teachers. Follow the rules. Line up for lunch.

Now back in my studio apartment, it is evening. Just me and my thoughts, gentle and vague: the shape of my wine glass, the color of the wine, the smell from the restaurants just outside, the evening sun on the pale orange walls and green shutters. The warm, dark night is approaching. And soon I will have a new morning with new words.
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