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.
butter for cake

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.

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.

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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“The Game of Thrones” game in Paris

I had never been to Le Musée de l’Armée at Les Invalides because I’m not particularly interested in military history. However, I’ve now read all of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire cycle and am half-way through Maurice Druon’s The Accursed Kings series, of which Mr. Martin says “This is the original Game of Thrones.” Rather than dry history-book recitations, these books flesh out the warfare and conflict with true-to-life characters and page-turning drama. I have really tried to like the Game of Thrones HBO series, but after the wildly intricate details and plot lines in the novels, the TV depiction is far too abbreviated for me. The casting is fine, and Michele Clapton’s costumes are gorgeous, but I prefer the world of Winterfell, King’s Landing, and the Wall that Martin’s words conjured in my own imagination.

Steeped as I am in medieval warfare and intrigue, fantasy and historical, I am now primed for a visit to the halls of armor and weaponry. Le Musée de l’Armée is a good archive to enhance the already vivid scenes of my imagining. As with any artifacts, the “realness” gets under my skin. Someone wore this suit of armor. This very one! Fought and killed in it. Felt the weight of helm and cuirass, the viselike pinch of metal joints gouging the skin, and heard the crash of war hammer slammed against metal and the screams of battle. The men themselves were weapons, suited for death.

I would guess that a few fashion designers as well as history buffs were intrigued by the outfit in the final picture below. Coco Chanel, perhaps?
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Shoes in the Paris metro

In the Paris metro, I don’t read or listen to music because I want to observe and listen to the people around me. But during morning rush hour, standing so close to others, I cannot surreptitiously watch faces. So I look downward and observe feet. Always entertaining. The French wear beautiful shoes, men and women alike. One day my eye was drawn to a woman’s feet in a crowded metro car. She wore beautiful, pale silver-matte sandals with a one-inch-wide strap across the base of the toes and a loop of strap at the heel. She had the perfect shade of nail polish, though an unexpected choice: a rosy peachy sort of shimmery color. Gorgeous. As the crowd began to thin out, I glanced upward to see what outfit this lovely young creature would be wearing. A lovely tailored, but loose, gray dress. And she was at least 60 years old. Just a hint of makeup. Wrinkled but beautiful clear skin. Whitish gray hair. How fun it is to be an older woman in Paris. You get to have such flair and style.

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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Epiphany redux

Just as a place will always be home, no matter how ordinary, even drab, certain places on this earth will be magical. These places, usually from one’s youth, exist in a town or city or country setting that we visited and it was as if the sun cut through on a cloudy day and the world is illuminated in all its splendor. We suddenly know: “So this is beauty! This is why I am alive! It is for this.”

Have you experienced such a time and place? A first glimpse of the seashore? A first stroll down Fifth Avenue? A first visit to the symphony?

My mother-in-law spent her childhood on a small, hard-scrabble farm in the middle of Kansas during the Depression. Winters were cold and the summers, for her, worse: scorching hot and humid. The kind of weather we know so well in the Midwest, a steam bath of heat not relieved by sundown and, of course, back then unmitigated by air-conditioning. The summer she turned 16, she was invited to work on a relatives berry farm near Greeley, Colorado.

Bam.

Warm, dry mountain air and cool nights that required a blanket. The grass stayed green all summer, not scorched brown and desolate. I’m quite sure that the blood of her Swiss immigrant grandparents awakened — these places of epiphany may very well be our DNA stirring to life. Colorado, just a state away, was now her magical place. One-week summer vacations and, finally, the place she retired.

Epiphany can be a sudden, intuitive insight into the reality of life–that it is glorious.

Two places on this earth will always be magical to me: coastal California and France. As a child in the first and a young woman in the second, I intensely experienced the sublime. In California I rode salty waves on a boogie board, ate soft-serve ice cream on the warm sand, and was happier than I had ever been. Ever. In France, well, I’m hardly the first: the food, the architecture, the art, the people. I’ve been to many stunning places since, but those were the first two times that I fell madly in love with life.

You don’t forget. If you are lucky you return again and again.

When I was 44 and took a summer off to write, I went to Central California.

And now I go to France. I will study the language and write.