The Wife's Life Sweet SundaysThomas Beller
My mom, who turns eighty-five years old in February, is a texter. Not what one usually associates with grandma. She is completely computer literate; her only helpdesk’ calls to her eldest grandson were during initial instillation. She Quickens, Excels and Skypes,scans, downloads, uploads and even google mapped our new house so she could see it before she comes to look in person. Part of her motivation, at least where I’m concerned, is two short fascists who won’t tolerate me conversing with anyone but them, no matter how many times I ask nicely, dole out consequences, plead with or bark at them. If, that
is, you can call seven rounds of “The Wheels on the Bus”, or parrying back and forth about why we can’t go to the Monkey Room, conversation The exception is when they sleep, at which point I am so relieved I turn off my ringer for fear of cutting the respite short.
Yet her technological zeal co-exists with another disposition that puts her in the middle of
what would now be understood as the Mad Men-ish Generation: Her emails mostly relay
information about the various shenanigans of the family (Jessica moved to Florida with
who??). She sends and asks for pictures. She streamlines her DAR charity projects.
But nothing places her so squarely as a 60’s mom more than her response to a question
I had the other day, when I wrote to ask if my vague memory of Werther’s caramels
around the house was correct or wishful fabrication.
“Yes, when you guys were little I kept them in constant supply, not necessarily for your
generation. You ate them too, though.”
This quote in itself is a huge reveal. “Not necessarily for your generation” is redolent of
the 60’s childrearing ideas, practically taboo today, of putting some of your own pleasure
before that of your children. The wonderful catch-22 to this philosophy is that I think
the kids had more fun too. I can still register our abject glee during my parent’s cocktail
parties, when we were banished unsupervised to the basement and ran amuck with the
water toys that had also been banished, flinging ourselves on furniture that was allowed
to be whalloped.
The caramels, mostly kept out of our reach, were also a treat worth waiting for. They
weren’t handed out in a constant system of reward every time we followed a direction,
made our bed or didn’t throw an iphone in the toilet (Yes, Evangeline, I’m talking
to you!). We saved them for a special day, and the anticipation made it all the more
sweet. These days were mostly Sundays, and part of the sweetness was the sensibility of
occasion; sometimes it was strawberry birthday cake with candles, sometimes a prettily
laid dish of luscious petit fours for a beloved guest, or butterscotch caramel cookies
presented as a triumph of school week well done. The feeling was we are celebrating,and to celebrate all must be well with the immediate world, safe, happy and secure enough to break from the daily regimen, even if far, far away, or maybe even not far at all given the turbulent times, things were dire.
We baked our treats on many of those days. I know plenty of women of my mother’s
generation relished making meals for their family, but the sheer joy that met the
introduction of appliances and products meant to shorten time over the stove spoke to
a large proportion of women who were tired of cooking. My mother was clearly in the
latter group. Meat was blistered in the oven until it was devoid of the slightest moisture.
Spice was eschewed. She boiled vegetables until they went limp with the same heart-
sinking woe we felt upon hearing the dreaded words, “dinnertime!”. I make her look like
But baking!! Baking was fun. There was sugar on every surface, flour on our face.
Whatever batter we made was as scrumptious as the final treat. And the mixer! We were
allowed to use the mixer, which we did like a jackhammer, flinging yet more batter
on surfaces which we could then lick up once we’d had our way with the beaters. The
mixer was my favorite part of baking, until I decided at age nine to get up very early on
my own to bake a surprise birthday cake for my mother. I was one minute into heated
jackhammering when the beaters caught the end of my Marcia Brady length hair and
traveled all the way up to my head, pulling out tufts of hair and nearly scalping me.
While I screamed my sister blithely walked in, unplugged the mixer and rolled her
eyes. It’s a testament to the love of making treats that I don’t have a batter aversion,
although I do use a whisk these days. Mom came downstairs upon hearing my screams.
After she unknotted the beaters from my hair, we started over, and my mom got her cake.
Sweets day for us then and now feels more and more like tracing a map, documenting
and witnessing lives. Memory is tied most strongly to the senses of smell and taste.
Effusing over his madeleines, Proust was spot on. “When from the distant past nothing
remains, after the beings have died, after the things are destroyed and scattered, still,
alone, more fragile, yet more vital, more insubstantial, more persistent, more faithful,
the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind
us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of everything else; and bear
unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the immense
architecture of memory.”
We branch out, my mother, sisters and I. Now I prepare for Halloween by mulling what
I might make with my children: Halloween caramel apples, Thanksgiving pumpkin pie,
German Chocolate birthday cakes, Christmas cookies, Easter coconut cakes. Each sweet
it’s own story.
My mother comes from a particular era, singular in its evocation of both revolution and
family focus. An era that resonates today. Baking, especially with strikingly familiar
aromas that hearken increasingly vague reminiscence, set the terrain of those maps
in stark relief. Hopefully for my children as well, while we carry on with our sweet