Cassandra’s Tears

Tears of joy, tears of pain, we are reflected in the salt-water pools we create. So let us build a fleet of paper boats and sail them on our ocean of indecision, laughing at the wind-whipped white-crested waves that would wash over us, drowning us in our own despair, yet somehow never vanquishing us in the end.

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Location: Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Siren Call

        With the passage of time, memory tends to lose depth and time flattens into a two-dimensional picture, the moment itself caught in a still photograph. A siren wails in the distance and I am immediately transported back to my childhood, before the sound calls up a different image, that of my own son, wanting so much to achieve independence, yet so easily discouraged when his attempts to fly ended in disappointment.

        When he was perhaps 10, he and his sister and I planned a bike trip into town to buy lunch at Subway, a treat he anticipated with relish. I had an ulterior motive, to get him to ride his bicycle, a vehicle that languished in the garage for the most part. We rode single file down the hill beside the cemetery, my son sandwiched between my daughter and me, she at the fore, I the watchful eye abaft, duly instructed to keep on or inside the white line that bordered the steep incline. There were places in the road where the pavement had buckled and cracked with winter freeze and spring thaw, and my son, so intent on following my directions and not experienced enough in the art of two wheels, did not swerve to avoid the uneven surfaces, but instead rode right over them, his front wheel suddenly twisting out of his control, and he was flung from his bike down the grassy verge into the graveyard. Instead of continuing on for the promised lunch, he walked his two-wheeler home, refusing even to ride it on the flatter return trip. It was years before he mounted a bicycle again.

        The memory invoked by the siren came from around the same time. There were no cookies in the house, not that that was anything unusual, but on this occasion my son wanted cookies and, furthermore, he was determined to make them himself. I went through cookbooks with him until we found a recipe that satisfied and for which all the ingredients were at hand. It meant grinding oatmeal in the blender to create oat flour, but that added to the fun. Then, remembering my own mother telling me of my older brother’s experiments in the kitchen, I left, made myself scarce, secure in the knowledge that my daughter could supervise her younger brother.

        When I returned, the aroma of fresh baking filled the house just as my son was taking the golden-brown biscuit laden sheet from the oven in order to transfer his creations onto wire racks. The first indication that things were not as they should be surfaced when the cookies did not remain whole, but disintegrated in yielding to the spatula, crumbling into smaller pieces. They had no integrity, and those crumbs tasted terrible. I knew immediately what had gone wrong, but needed my son’s confirmation.

        Opening the cookbook to the recipe in question, I queried him on every ingredient. He was adamant that he had made no errors. I got to the leavening agent, the recipe called for baking powder, and asked him, “What did you use?”

        “I used baking powder!” he cried.

        “No,” I insisted, “go to the pantry and show me what you used.”

        He reluctantly obliged, returning with the cardboard box of baking soda.

        “Aha!” I exclaimed. “This is not baking powder. It’s baking soda.”

        “What’s the difference?” my son wanted to know.

        “Baking soda is a base which needs to combine with an acid in order to raise or leaven baked goods. Baking powder has already both the acid and base combined in dry form and merely needs the addition of moisture to produce the desired chemical reaction. Here, I’ll show you.”

        I then put into two small bowls some water and a spoonful respectively of baking soda and baking powder. Into the former I added a splash of vinegar.

        “Watch,” I instructed. The chemical pyrotechnics did little to allay his disappointment, his sense of failure. I was reminded of another baking disaster, one that happened to me.

        When I wasn’t much older than he was, my mother had been sick in bed with the flu. It was her birthday and I was determined to do something to make her happy. Without telling her my plans, I decided to bake a cake from scratch. I really ought to have known better: so many of my attempts at domesticity had ended in disaster. Probably the most memorable was the time the automatic washing machine chose to give up the ghost the first time I ever did a load of laundry by myself.

        Growing up, I had very few responsibilities apart from doing well in school and keeping my room passably neat. My mother generally took care of everything else: the laundry, the cooking, the shopping. We had a cleaning lady for the housework, since my mother also worked all day, but we kids were not expected to contribute much. On this other occasion, though, my mother was also sick in bed with the flu and asked me to wash a load of laundry, giving me explicit instructions regarding the operation of the machine. I did everything exactly as I was told; but when I came downstairs during the spin cycle, in anticipation of putting the clean, damp clothes in the dryer, I was greeted with a flood. The basement floor was covered with water gushing out from the bottom of the machine, headed for the drain. I came upstairs and asked my mother, “Is the washing machine supposed to be spilling water out all over the floor?” The incident became known thereafter as “the time I broke the washing machine,” and precipitated the purchase of a new appliance, the old one pronounced irreparable.

        My mother also being bedridden on this other occasion actually aided my plan, so that I wouldn’t have the same problem that my cousin did when she attempted a similar surprise. She was from Ottawa but, for some reason that was never made clear to me, came to Toronto to complete her last year of high school and lived in our basement for the duration. She was older by several years, technically my second cousin (her mother and mine were first cousins), and I looked up to her a great deal. She wore makeup and sexy clothes, and everything she did was cool.

        Once more it was my mother’s birthday and, deciding to do something nice for her hostess, my cousin had baked a cake and decorated it imaginatively, adding the finishing touches just as I was getting home from school. It was to be a surprise, but my mother arrived from work earlier than expected and my cousin, anxious to hide her handiwork and mistaking the loud clumping of my shoes for my mother’s heavier footfall, headed in the wrong direction with the cake, only to practically collide with the birthday girl herself as she was hanging up her coat in the vestibule closet. To her credit, my mother played blind and dumb, pretending ignorance and acting suitably surprised when presented with the cake, aglow with candles, for dessert. She told me years later that she had not been fooled, but chose rather to save my cousin’s feelings which had been so well intentioned.

        I selected the recipe for my birthday offering with care, mixing my ingredients with love, to make a beautiful yellow cake. I made only one substitution, which proved to be my ultimate undoing. All her middle age my mother struggled with her weight. She first started gaining when she went back to work fulltime to a desk job when I was in grade one. Up till then, she ate immense quantities and remained thin. I still have a chain belt of hers which she gave me when the ends no longer met around her thickening waist. After she had her radical hysterectomy, the fat was attracted to her middle like iron filings to a magnet. She followed one diet after another, joined Weight Watchers and popped pills, with no lasting results.

        Obsessed with her appearance, she would constantly compare herself to strange women on the street, asking me, “Am I as fat as she is?” It wasn’t until she was in her late 70’s, early 80’s that the weight started melting off. The stress of caring for my father during his final years caused her own subsequent shrinkage. She is now shorter and lighter than I am, an abrupt turning of the tables.

        So, aware of my mother’s constant battle of the bulge and determined not to undermine it, I decided to use a product I found in the kitchen cupboard instead of the sugar called for in the recipe. It was called Sugar Twin and the directions on the box reassured me that it could be used safely for all my sweetening needs. Not realizing that I was tampering with the chemical makeup of the cake (I already knew about the difference between baking powder and baking soda), I switched one for the other, using a full cup of Sugar Twin in place of the higher calorie alternative.

        I was feeling pretty happy, anticipating my mother’s surprised face and eager consumption of the lo-cal treat. While the cake was baking, I washed my mixing bowls and utensils and got rid of the evidence of my arcane activity. As with my son’s disastrous experience, my moment of truth arrived as I removed the cake from the oven. A beautiful golden colour, there was still something terribly wrong. The top, instead of being convex, was sunken looking. When I flipped it out of the pan onto the wire rack to cool and peeled the wax paper off its bottom, it seemed to squish instead of land with the expected bounce. Tentatively I nibbled a few crumbs. They were terrible! I wanted to cry.

        Not knowing what else to do, I fled to my mother’s bedroom and confessed the whole story to her, how I’d wanted to make a cake for her birthday, how I’d wanted it to be a surprise, how I’d respected her diet and used a sugar substitute, how it hadn’t risen properly and tasted terrible, and how I’d just wasted flour and eggs and vanilla and baking powder, not to mention the cup of Sugar Twin. The tears flowed unchecked.

        My mother, to her credit, did not laugh at me, did not call me an idiot, nor did she immediately point out my error, that I should have substituted only part of the sugar with the synthetic Sugar Twin. Instead she comforted me, told me to put the disastrous birthday cake in the compost before my father found it, for he would surely salvage and eat it, and use instead one of the mixes she kept in the cupboard for emergencies.

        “But what about all those eggs,” I cried, “and the flour!”

        “Don’t worry about it,” she reassured me. “We can afford more eggs and flour.” And so I ended up baking a Duncan Hines cake for the birthday celebrations instead. But as I sat on her bed, being inconsolably sorry for myself and wallowing in my feelings of self pity, my mother sick with the flu and the cake that was meant to demonstrate my love for her collapsing on a wire rack in the kitchen, we heard an ambulance siren several streets over. After it passed out of hearing range, my mother turned to me and said, “No matter how bad you think you have it, someone else has worse trouble.”

        Thirty or so years later I sat at the kitchen table with my own son, heartbroken and despondent, discouraged over the waste of eggs, butter, oat flour so painstakingly ground in the blender, and at the ultimate lack of cookies in the house, and I remembered my own, similar experience. So I said to him, “I’m going to tell you a story about something that happened to me.”

        My son is a young man now. He’s gone on to bake many more batches of cookies successfully and never made the same mistake again. But now when I hear a siren in the distance, I recall two stories of overwhelming defeat, mine and his, and I still think to myself that no matter how huge and insurmountable my problems seem, there is always someone out there who is worse off.

2 Comments:

Anonymous harriet said...

A lovely story. Yes, I'm learning that it is one of the hardest things in the world for me to let my child make the same mistakes I made.

5/27/2007 12:25 PM  
Blogger DaVinci said...

Really good writing.

12/30/2007 11:31 PM  

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