I wore the same fairy costume for four years running.
My getup consisted of someone’s worn and baggy blue dress, a cardboard tiara, and a star covered with Reynolds’ Wrap and taped to a piece of dowel.
Back then, the time change came earlier in the Fall, so it was nice and dark early on the big night. Unfortunately, it was also ridiculously cold, and because my parents loved me, I had to wear a coat covering my costume. They probably did not recognize this as the great disappointment it was, especially since everyone had seen my costume numerous times already.
I’m pretty certain my sister was asked to look after me, but what junior high student wants a baby sister tagging along with her posse after dark? Consequently, I had free reign of the neighborhood from a staggeringly early age, and my candy was only stolen once. No other tragedy befell me.
I would wander, giddy and anxious, mesmerized both by the boisterous clumps of people I wasn’t sure I knew, and by my paper bag, swelling with forbidden sweets. I would take them home and count them, chart them, graph them. I would eat two or three pieces, then squirrel the rest away, doling it out so it would last until Easter–the next time we got a statistically significant dose of sugar.
Once I got a bit older, I branched out and tried new costumes, always outdone by the girl who lived catty-corner from us. How did she predict my costume three years in a row? My mummy costume was made out of an old sheet torn into strips, and held together by an array of safety pins. It drooped and exposed my sweat pants in embarrassing patches. Julie’s father was a doctor, however, so hers was made out of surgical wrapping that clung magically to her gloating face.
Multiply that stinging feeling by all three years. I suppose I would have developed lingering unpleasant feelings about the holiday were it not for the Halloween party we had in our basement the year I turned eleven.
In my opinion, all basements are inherently cold and creepy, and ours was no exception. Scariest of all was the storage room, with concrete walls and floors, and rickety metal shelving loaded with spider webs and long-forgotten boxes. We shoved a few things out of the way so we could guide blindfolded kids one at a time into its clutches.
Perched here and there on the shelves were a variety of bowls into which we plunged their unseeing hands. One held eyeballs, or peeled grapes, and another brains, which was clammy cooked spaghetti.
Things got weirder.
Once a year, my parents purchased a side of beef, which was cut and meticulously wrapped and nestled in the extra fridge in the basement–the one without a handle, that we wrenched open with a dish towel and a finely choreographed hip maneuver. We had no shortage of strange cow parts in the basement freezer, so we thawed a variety of organs to fill the other bowls.
Given the location and ingredients, I suspect that our haunted house would have been just as creepy without the blindfold. And though this may reflect poorly on me, I reveled in the yelps and screams of our guests, and later, their wide-eyed wonder when we revealed the bowls’ actual contents. I think most of them had hoped that what we passed off as a heart might not really be a heart.
The piece de résistance of the evening was the Ghost Cake with Flaming Eyes, however. I remember so clearly that feeling of triumph when we turned out the lights again and lit the eyes.
Ever since that night, Halloween has been my favorite holiday.
I wrote a whole post about my Ghost Cake on LobeStir. Here’s the link–you could make one, too!
One summer day in my early teens, my parents and I went on a long drive from our woodsy cabin to Lands’ End.
Though we had hoped for a sunny day on the coast, the fog was so thick we could barely see the sea from the shore. We meandered along the water’s edge in our own little pocket of cloud, quite separate from the world beyond. I thought I would say something nice for a change–perhaps even express some filial gratitude–when I noticed an odd look on my mother’s face.
She raised her arms, laughed out loud, and launched her sprawled limbs into a cartwheel in the sand. It was so astonishing, so completely unexpected, that I suddenly realized how little I knew about her beyond the character she played at home. Now I might consider her as more than my mother, someone whose inner life might be rich and complicated, someone who had lived a lifetime before she made me.
Not that she ever turned another cartwheel, but still. I continued to wonder about her, too Scandinavian to pry.
The only clue I had to her younger days was a doll she called Judy, which she had lovingly arranged in a child-sized rocker facing my bed. She was eerily beautiful, despite a crack across her cheek, a worn petticoat, and misshapen, yellowed socks. Judy had stared at me tight-lipped for years, never spilling the secrets of my mother’s childhood or beyond.
I imagined my mother quarantined on her parents’ plastic-covered couch, hands folded primly, dreaming of play; dreaming of siblings.
Did her parents have the same ancient hard candies back then–the ones at which I stared during my visits to Grandma’s– arranged in the same fancy china dish?
As an adult I get little glimpses of her as a non-mom. Like the night my spouse got her a little tipsy, and she dropped the f-bomb telling a joke. How lucky for me, that there are still opportunities to hear my mother’s stories. Now, to find the time and the courage to ask.
I look at my kids and wonder: when will I suddenly appear to them as more than a purveyor of fine snacks, a laundress, a driver, a shoulder to cry upon? What will I do or say that will alert them that there is an actual person in my shoes? Chances are, they’re already clued in. I haven’t played the role quite so gracefully as my mother.
I try to be a nice person. I certainly want to be one. Unfortunately, I’m starting to believe I might not be genetically wired for punctuality and thoughtfulness. If I have missed your birthday, it’s not because I don’t care about you; I just plain forgot. Like my brothers, whose birthdays are lost somewhere in the sad, endy bits of summer, the problem is that your birthday doesn’t automatically appear on my calendar. Apologies to all of you.
Fortunately, my father’s birthday falls during the Thanksgiving season, and my sister’s is on or around the first day of spring, so even if I don’t write them down, there is always something on the calendar to magically remind me.
Easiest of all to remember is my mother’s.
My mother turned ten the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
That must have been a memorable birthday, with everyone huddled around the radio, speechless and shaken. Probably not the best one, mind you, but remarkable, nonetheless.
Over the years, my mother has championed everyone else’s special days, but on hers she lays low, no doubt hoping someone might step up and do a little something for her for a change. We have tried.
We learned early on that Dad was good for a Hallmark card and a nice little gifty item, but he was not to be entrusted with the cake. In his defense, he did attempt to make one from a box once, but was so flummoxed by the words “ten-inch tube pan,” that he gave up and drove to Piggly Wiggly.
It’s worth mentioning that in our house, store-bought baked goods were a sign of approaching moral turpitude.
After that mini debacle, we siblings started juggling responsibility for the cake amongst ourselves, usually ironing out the details the morning of December 7.
One year, though, my medium brother decided to make an Angel Food Cake. He even started the project the DAY BEFORE. Impressive. We were all reasonably decent cooks, but we had some respect for his ambition. If you’ve made an angel food cake, you know what I mean.
Out came the ancient Betty Crocker cookbook, heavily thumbed and coated with a light dusting of flour from decades of use.
My brother looked so serious, meticulously pouring over Betty’s good book. We thought everything was under control, and gave him a little space to work his magic.
It’s uncertain exactly what went wrong. The reigning theory is that he must have combined elements from a couple of different tricky recipes arranged on the same page.
All I know is that it looked beautiful when he pulled it out of the oven. Betty said to cool the cake by flipping the whole pan upside down and sliding it onto the neck of a wine bottle. That way, the cake would cool but still stay light and airy. Trust me, if you’ve whipped 12 room temperature egg whites into a heavenly cloud, if you’ve sifted the cake flour four or five times, and spun the superfine sugar, you want that cake to be FLUFFY.
Medium brother flipped the pan, only to have a half-baked cake carcass collapse onto the counter.
After a minute or two of reverential silence, he scooped the remains right back into the pan and tossed it into the oven for another thirty minutes or so.
Then, the cake and my brother mysteriously disappeared for several hours.
Nothing more was said about the cake that day. We like to sweep things like this under the rug. I figured he had made the shameful Piggly Wiggly run, and was off somewhere, nursing his culinary wounds.
The next day was a Sunday. Everything proceeded normally: fried eggs for breakfast, followed by church, then dinner in the dining room. Sunday was the one day a week that the mail was cleared off the table. My father presented the card, the gift. It was time to sing.
Medium brother thumped down to the basement and emerged with the most astonishing sweet mess I’ve ever seen.
The cake mass had been roughly sculpted into some sort of landform and half-sunk battle ship. These were situated on a homemade wooden platform, which was covered with Reynold’s wrap and an ungodly amount of blue icing. There were American flags, tiny plastic boats and planes, and little soldiers everywhere.
It was, hands-down, the most impressive birthday cake I’ve ever seen, and to top it off, surprisingly tasty. Not like an angel food cake, perhaps–more like an epic Pearl Harbor Day cake reenactment would taste. But not too shabby.
My family’s summer home burned to the ground in front of our eyes. We stood across the road in our pajamas, in what should have been the dark.
It had been an airy old farmhouse, with a screened-in porch and a breezeway connecting it to the barn. Dubbed “Viking Villa,” our friends had painted a Nordic vessel on the front of it, complete with red and white striped sail. A long gravel drive curved up and away from the house, making a gentle u through the surrounding meadow. I can still see it so clearly, though only from one side, one vantage point, and in one sort of weather, because the memories I have are not my own. They are borrowed from my parents, my older siblings, and from the single surviving photograph.
I was only six months old when it burned.
The cabin of my childhood still stands strong, tucked into the woods about a mile away. Shortly after the fire, my folks scraped together $400 to buy that little hunters’ cottage, in which they have slowly replaced each board and nail, leaving only a few great beams and the original fieldstone fireplace. It was here that we gathered, summer after summer, to hike, and work, and canoe; it was here that we reminisced about Viking Villa.
We would all troop down to “the old cellar hole,” picking the wildflowers that grew in the ruins, and looking for smoky bits of melted glass. Sometimes we would return at night, too, and lie on our camping tarp in the middle of the meadow there, watching for shooting stars.
My oldest brother would spend hours reconstructing the house and the surrounding tree forts with graph paper and a neatly sharpened pencil. Everyone would pore over his drawings, offering suggestions and admiring his impeccable memory–so precise despite the years that yawned between now and then.
And in August, as the evenings grew cool, and we huddled around the stone fireplace to warm and to read, someone would inevitably launch into the story of the fire. We relived the event, detail by detail, lovingly recounted.
No one knows how or why my mother awakened that night, though credit has been wordlessly given to divine intervention. Despite the fury and speed of the approaching flames, she hustled everyone out safely, telling my sister, “Now is not the time for crying. We can cry later.”
As far as I know, nobody ever did.
A friend had gotten up to use the bathroom at that time, on that night, and happened to glance out the window in our particular direction. It was a series of coincidences for which the whole township was grateful. Seeing the flames and great plume of smoke miles away, he alerted the volunteer fire department, and though it was too late to save the house, they managed to salvage the chicken coop, the surrounding woods, and distant neighbors. Who knows how much of the landscape would have been devoured that night had he slept soundly.
No one mourns the clothing and possessions that went up in smoke, or the pile of cars that our friends had left in the barn for safekeeping. No one even says much about our cat, Smoky, who was never seen again. The only items that were ever mentioned were the hand-typed thesis my father went back to retrieve, and the stuffed dog of my sister’s that he did not.
But the house. How everyone longs for the house.
The clumps of melted glass sit on the windowsill of our porch, where one of us might finger them gingerly, like jewels.
The chicken coop was moved next door to our ‘new’ cabin. We had never had chickens–to my knowledge, we had never used the coop at all–but now it was lovingly cleaned and aired and repainted. A desk was made out of an old door and some table legs, put out there for my father and his friend to finish their doctoral theses. And when they did, the coop was renamed the Institute for Advanced Study.
Meanwhile, we painted and rebuilt and added on to the little hunting cabin, but it always paled in comparison. As if to compensate, we arranged the flowers from the old cellar hole in a bright yellow pitcher, and set it by the fireplace.
After twenty or twenty five years, the cabin finally earned its own name–“Oesterheim”–and a compliment or two about the way the sun threaded through the tall trees, landing in tiny warm pools on the wood floors. Around then, I heard my mother say for the very first time, “You know, I think I like this house.” I guess we were finally coming round.
Even so, we continued to relive the fire at Viking Villa, time and again. It gave me such an odd feeling, as if the house were a sibling I never knew. Sometimes I envied the rest of the family their experience, because it wasn’t my story to tell; my role was to listen quietly in the background.
One night, not too many years ago, we went to one of our annual summer get togethers. The evening was in full swing when, as usual, the conversation turned to the fire.
There was a comfortable familiarity with the discussion, and I found my mind drifting a little, sneaking peeks at the sunset over the lake.
Then, out of nowhere, one family member cleared their throat and spoke very, very quietly.
“I’m pretty sure I started the fire,” they said.
And that is the last time we reminisced about the house.
It was April 1st, many years ago. My mother had just left town without us, which never happened. I can’t recall where she was headed or why; I only remember going up to my room and noticing that something felt distinctly out of place.
Granted, my room was a perennial disaster, but my bed was a different story; I made that thing with the precision of a watchmaker. I pulled the sheets and blankets into crisp hospital corners, relentlessly smoothing each layer. I folded the top of the bedspread back and over a perfectly fluffed pillow, so not a single peek of the sheets was visible.
The bedspread itself was covered with the names of tourist destinations I had never visited, arranged in a step and repeat pattern, white on blue. Miami. Palm Beach. Orlando. San Antonio. Miami. Palm Beach. Orlando. You get the idea. For the final touch, I would place a little rectangular pillow at a 45-degree angle, with two opposing corners pointing at a couple of Miamis.
Perhaps this was a byproduct of all the years I had to sleep on the daybed. I’ve softened a little, over the years, but I still remake the bed when my husband is not looking.
On this particular day, however, one corner of the throw pillow did not point to Miami and, glancing at the calendar, I knew there was trouble. Sure enough, someone had short-sheeted my bed. Without a word, I quickly and quietly remade it, waiting eagerly for evening.
When my father tucked me in that night, I made a bit of a show crawling in and stretching my legs with a yawn. He eyed me suspiciously. “Anything wrong?” he asked. No, no. Just happy to be in bed. “Really? Everything is OK?” That’s when I learned that my mother had nearly missed her flight cooking up that little prank. Ah, sweet victory.
The most memorable April Fools’ Day from childhood, however, involved my brother and me tormenting our sister. Thanks to his music pedagogy class, the day started with a harrowing early-morning bassoon solo/wake-up call—is there any other kind?– followed by my offering her breakfast in bed, which I promptly tossed on top of her.
That got her up.
As she began her morning regimen, we headed down to the kitchen.
Lord knows how we came up with the idea, but we decided to make a concoction that resembled dog vomit. We filled the blender with peanut butter, yellow food coloring, raw oats, and a variety of other edible items. The result was surprisingly lifelike. Frankly, we were all unfortunate experts on the appropriate color and consistency, since our dog was prone to eat and upchuck just about anything from inside of a garbage can or under a rock. I have even seen her enthusiastically lap it up and repeat.
We put a generous helping of this lumpy, gooey treat on a small piece of saran wrap, and set it on the carpet in my sister’s room.
“Oh, man! That is disgusting! Look what the dog did on your rug!”
We played it up, of course, nice and loud so the entire household was privy to our conversation.
My sister, already more than a little annoyed from the previous incidents, poked her head out of the bathroom, took a good look, and sighed. “Do you think you guys could clean that up? Please?” She sounded a bit desperate, as I remember, and I wish I could say that I felt a twinge of guilt.
“Of course,” I said, ostensibly heading down for some cleaning supplies.
“Just a minute,” my brother said, suddenly serious. “I’ve heard that dog vomit is very nutritious, and surprisingly tasty as well.”
I feigned surprise. “Really? Is that true?”
“I know it sounds ridiculous,” he continued, “but I was just listening to NPR, and a nutritional scientist was on the program discussing potential benefits of eating the regurgitated meals of domesticated animals.”
We debated for a while, after which I acquiesced to try it, and the discussion evolved to determine the proper substrate. We continued to deliberate as we went back down the stairs, rooting through the bread drawer and the corner cupboard of snacks. Finally settling on a hearty slice of homemade whole wheat—not the pickle juice variety, thankfully, that’s a whole other family legend—we brought the bread upstairs with a napkin and a butter knife.
“Mom!” my sister screeched. “Do you KNOW what they are DOING?”
If I recall correctly, this was about the time that the Shaklee saleslady arrived.
You might think that common courtesy would dictate an end to our charade, but the possibility of a larger audience only egged us on.
“Wow. Dog barf is surprisingly delicious!” I fairly yelled. “But seriously, when we finish, which Shaklee product will best remove the stain and odor?”
My only regret is that I missed the expression on the faces in the living room, as Mrs. So and So pretended not to notice and continued to hawk her fine products. I believe my mother did buy a bit more than intended that day, perhaps in an unspoken agreement to keep this story out of our town’s gossip circles.
The sad thing is, I’ve spent so much time reminiscing, I haven’t cooked up a decent prank to play on my own kids this year. And they don’t even have sheets to short under their duvets.
This is the story of abandoning my family for two and a half weeks one summer to do something ridiculously selfish and wonderful. It is also about gelato, meltdowns, memory, and déjà vu. Have I mentioned that already?
Here’s how it started. A photography professor of mine leaned across the aisle during a lecture. She told me that she was taking a group of students to Italy during the summer. “You should come,” she said.
I laughed a little hysterically, to the point where the exchange became awkward, and we tuned back to the lecture.
Up until then, I’d only slept away from my four-year-old two nights of her entire little life, and those were spent on the floor of a friend’s house a couple blocks away–clutching my phone all night, just in case. And I’d never been away from my two-year-old. I had to lay down with her for an hour or two every night to get her to settle and go to sleep. Though I had weaned her at 18 months, she had taken to digging in my belly button as a replacement soothing mechanism. She picked at me with her tiny talons until I bled. Scar tissue, it turns out, is surprisingly sensitive, but I wasn’t sure how to wean a child from belly-digging.
There are probably a few people reading this that will roll their eyes and mutter in that superior way about sleep training. In my defense, I did try it with the first child. After several unsuccessful attempts on my own, after reading a pile of helpful books, I finally hired a sleep consultant, and tried again. My child cried and cried and cried and cried. She did not let up for naps; she did not let up for nights. She would doze off occasionally, only to wake up ten minutes later and start again. I let her cry and cry until there was a hole in my heart the size of Saskatchewan. So after THIRTY DAYS, I gave up. I didn’t even bother to try with kid #2. Now, how was I going to leave my spouse alone with such a mess?
With all of this in mind, I mentioned the Italy trip to my husband, so he could have a good laugh as well.
“Maybe you should go,” he said.
Best not to ask twice.
Strangely, despite the enormity of the impending separation, I didn’t freak out right away. I had childcare issues to resolve, packing crises, film and equipment to procure, and a research paper due upon departure. I worried about all of that instead.
Then I got on the plane…and cried for a couple of hours straight. Not demure little teardrops, either, but swollen, hiccoughing, snotty, sobbing. My apologies to the bewildered man seated beside me. Eventually regaining composure, I spent the rest of the flight listening to language lessons and, undoubtedly, murmuring along with the patient Italian lady in my headphones. Again, apologies.
The first couple of days on the ground were a blur of disoriented jet lag, a breathless march from church after church to museum after museum. Honestly, all I really remember about Florence is the gelato. Limone. Pesca. Caffè. Cioccolato. Shop after shop, fresh fruit piled high atop the frozen tubs, a little melty on the sides from the summer heat. In between scoops, I was having an out of body experience with some really fabulous twenty-year-olds. I was completely untethered.
On day four, we headed off to a monastery in Tuscany, where the landscape did something wholly unexpected: it became familiar.
I had already seen this place, on coffee tables, in ads, in my dreams. It looked exactly like it was supposed to look, and I was unable to see it as a foreign place. Even as I was wandering this countryside for the first time, it was already a memory, part of the landscape of my psyche.
For days, I couldn’t make a picture because all of the photographs had already been made; making another would be superfluous. I focused on the long, lazy dinners–completely unknown to the parents of small children–the carafes of house wine, the late night walks filled with fireflies, frogs, and stars. I focused on the warm camaraderie of young strangers, who asked questions such as, “What is childbirth like?” “What are your irrational fears?” “Who do you secretly, shamefully lust after?” Or, “If you had to eat someone here, who would it be?” Those questions don’t often come up at pre-school potlucks. It felt so good to contemplate anything besides bowel movements, discipline, and sleep deprivation.
Since I would never forgive myself if I went home empty camera’d, I figured it was time to shoot something. And because I couldn’t make a new picture of the landscape, I tried instead to make pictures that looked like what I could see in my head. I attempted to capture on film my memories that were not really memories, that were not really mine.
After I returned to the States, I stumbled upon a passage that put this sensation into words:
“The very colors of the place had seeped into my blood: just as Hampden, in subsequent years, would always present itself immediately to my imagination in a confused whirl of white and green and red, so the country house first appeared as a glorious blur of watercolors, of ivory and lapis blue, chestnut and burnt orange and gold, separating only gradually into the boundaries of remembered objects: the house, the sky, the maple trees. Even that day, there on the porch…it had the quality of a memory…” excerpted from The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
A very belated thank you to those of you who made that trip possible. I had a strange and wonderful time.