Family Shadows and Light

skirtSweet Recall

Essay by Wanda E. Fleming

SKIRT Magazine

Your house smells like cookies.”

That’s what the delivery guy says as he drags in my boxes.

For the past year, he has race-walked my pavement in his brown pants and shirt. Today, however, is his last day. He’s going back to school, but first he’s taking a week off to bake cakes.

“Cakes? Really?” I raise my brow.

“Yeah, my mom used to make pound cake and this big monster chocolate cake for our family reunion, but now she’s in a nursing home.”

His mother suffers from dementia, that cruel slight window between a bad memory and Alzheimer’s. Two years ago, she dumped a tablespoon rather than a teaspoon of salt into her prized pound cake. A year later, she misread three cups of milk for eight. Then she couldn’t find the recipes at all.

The delivery guy took over. He recounts digging through a kitchen of clutter, through dog-eared cookbooks missing their spines and magazine clips yellowed and stained. He rescued the recipes.

He admits it. Last year was touch and go. “People stared at me and my cakes. They were daring me to be as good as my mom.”

This year, however, he thinks they won’t have a choice. They’ll be bowled over. He’s been practicing, and his cakes are now near perfect. He knows this because he’s been sneaking samples to his mom.

That’s when she perks up and remembers him best, when they talk cake talk—the right way to sift flour, to whip butter, to spread frosting without pulling up the cake’s top layer like a misplaced carpet.

I’m also baking, which is why he smells cookies. Three hundred sixty four of them, to be exact. Enter the Lemon Bars.

Rife with creases, my own prized recipe has survived a dishwasher spin, censure of its best ingredients by health experts, and two decades of holidays. Other dishes have been abandoned or altered for so-called healthy living.

Meat has gone the way of the graveyard, including my mother’s fried chicken with its paprika-speckled crust. I no longer freeze my father’s yolk-rich ice cream. My chili now boasts a trio of beans: pinto, red and black.

This has been my draconian answer to a dying metabolism. It’s my effort to go down swinging without the curse of breathlessness and an oozing muffin gut. But once a year, like my delivery guy, a family tradition unfolds, and I stoke its every indulgence.

I purchase new cookie sheets with shiny unblemished surfaces. I buy parchment and wax papers like my South Carolina-born granddaddy, a chef on the railroads, once did. I scour the markets for butter, sugars and lemons. The frenetic baking begins.

Hundreds of cookies, molded and shaped, baked to golden-brown bottoms. The family collection of eight shifts slightly with two new rotated each year. Yet, change is often met with consternation.

“What? White chocolate peppermint patties? Pretty, but where are the macaroons?”

“Molasses crinkles with nutmeg? Nice—but they’re not replacing my peanut butter chews, I hope?!”

Tradition is a taskmaster. The lemon bars, their tart custard poured and baked on a crust, perennially head the leader board. The chocolate chip cookies with their trio of semisweet, milk and white chocolates fall one pace behind.

Oh sure, I hear it. The cacophony of food police. Their members tsk-tsk this cookie fête—its million grams of cholesterol, its hundred pounds of fat. The animal activists want my soul just for the eggs and butter. National Action Against Obesity thinks I should lavish such care on making certain I annually fit the dress I once wed in. And Dr. Atkins rebukes from his grave at my full-throttle submission to sugar.

And yet for 12 hours, this kitchen swells with conversation and hands. The children occasionally pass through and show off the lessons of earlier years, they roll the lemons and crack the nuts and measure the flour with precision. We whisk the yolks to pale yellow. I roll and press the buttery dough, leaving no rips or tears.

Past midnight with flour in my hair and my helpers long asleep, I fan the lemon bars on platters and begin to sprinkle powdered sugar. This I know I could forgo. I could leave them naked and cut the calories by at least 22.5, but I do not. I sift and layer, and layer again, the flyaway airy sugar. I dust until the tiniest hint of yellow peeks through.

Sometimes food is just remembrance.

Tomorrow the generations will descend on the cookies—the neighbors next door, the 81-year-old in-laws, the nieces, nephews and siblings. They’ll eye the bars and scoop up their favorites just as my delivery guy travels across town to pick up his mother. He’ll drive her along the parkway. The sun will shine through the woods, and they will talk cake talk.

~ SKIRT Magazine, November 2008


A Father and Daughter, Forging a Belated Bond

By Wanda E. Fleming
Special to The Washington Post, Style 

It’s 3 a.m. and it’s raining, the kind of rain that stabs the pavement with noisy diagonal needles. The telephone rings. This should be

Wanda E. Fleming and Dad, George Fleming

Daddy and Me at his 75th Birthday Gala

a horror movie but it’s not.

The voice on the line is my father’s, and my father does not use the phone. That is my mother’s province. He is shy, and throughout my childhood I rarely saw him call anyone. “It’s bad,” he says. “Mom had a heart attack.” It’s a month before my parents enter their 45th year of marriage; my mother is dead.

Though ultimately she was the tiniest person in our family of towering members, my mother was clearly the most formidable. Think of the dignified beauty of Clair Huxtable, the nerve of Donald Trump and Joan of Arc’s will, and you have the picture. My mother once confided she had wanted to fly fighter planes as a teenager. She held a college degree at a time when few women even attended. Her curtains were starched white, her lemonade made fresh from lemons we rolled across the wooden cutting board together. And late at night, curled up with her Shakespeare or a presidential biography, she smoked cigarettes, lots of them.

By the time we had cremated her, the cherry blossoms were whirling above the street. I had stopped crying into the night. I had started wondering what would happen to Dad.
The truth is I barely knew him. Was it the two jobs he had worked all those years I was growing up? Perhaps it was simply his personality. I saw him as achingly private, and by the time I was 39, I had but a tiny cache of memories of him. They blurred with his tentative smile and sparse, quiet words.

There were the Sundays at Mass. He would sit with his eyes closed, though I don’t believe he was ever asleep. Indeed, if any of the six of us children began to whisper, he would gently admonish with a “Shhhh,” then jiggle his hand.

There were the report-card conferences. One by one, each child would come sit next to him on the oak staircase, and he would comment on our progress.

There was the scorchingly hot day I, a petrified, profoundly unathletic child, learned to ride a two-wheeler. Dad ran me up the hill and back. Perspiration coursed down his burnished face, but he stayed until I turned into the alleyway. Even as I careened into the neighbor’s new station wagon, I shrieked and waved wildly.

But an encounter as an adult is what I now recall resoundingly. Dad was washing dishes as my mother polished the dining room table in the adjoining room. I had just graduated from college. I tortured myself about next steps. Should I pursue a paralegal position at a patent law firm or an editorial post in a juvenile justice agency, where I could research and write articles about troubled children?

Mom did not proffer advice, but it didn’t matter. She always telegraphed her ambitions for me. She wanted me to find a paralegal job, apply to law school and become a lawyer of some note and repute. She had cast her hopes for me, and they were wide and unwavering.

Dad washed the good china cups and handed them to me. I dried. His eyes focused on the dying suds. “Do what you really want,” he whispered. “Try to do it now while you can.”
The next day I took the job in juvenile justice. I never told my mother how I decided. I never repeated what Dad had said.

My mother’s strength cast an imposing, opaque shadow. She propped us up and prodded us all, my siblings, my father, her friends. Yet, her shadow also blocked the sun’s strongest rays, draining her spirit and keeping me from seeing my father.

In the seven years since my mother’s death, Dad and I have spoken on the phone hundreds of times.

He lives exuberantly. With the gifted precision of a scientist, he plans his annual garden. He forces his seeds and simmers his stews. He notices everything, what lipstick I’m wearing, the chair cushion I’ve sewn and stretched to perfection, how tall each of my children has grown. At Christmas, he painstakingly chooses and carries through the yard a seven-foot fir. He decorates it with the glossy apples and the papier-mache doves my mother loved most.

On days when he is morose and silent, I spy what made my mother feel lonely even when he was at home. When he is funny, however, it startles and sparks me in the way an unexpected gift might.

Today, Dad has brought me pink and white peonies from his garden. There are so many I comb my kitchen cabinets for vases. When he leaves and strolls to his car, I wave wildly. I wave the way I did when learning to ride my bike.
A blinding swath of orange sun threatens to separate us, but I cup my hand to my eyes. I see Dad now. I finally see him.

~ April 7, 2008



Full Exposure

by Wanda E. Fleming

Skirt Magazine

“Cover me please. Just cover me.”Full Exposure Essay by Wanda Fleming

No matter how much my mother yanks and finagles the tie, the hospital gown slips open revealing bare skin. The first time it happens, I lower my eyes. As we walk to the bathroom, she roots and bunches the threadbare fabric. The hem hikes up brushing a lattice of green and bruised red veins.

“We could use my robe belt,” she whispers.

I kneel and wrap it around her waist to keep the gown closed.

In the first years of married life, my mother changed more than 25,000 diapers: my siblings’, and mine. She viewed and lathered six sets of baby bottoms, patted and powdered six sets of inner thighs. Now role reversal had begun to seep in. Like imaging dye on an X-ray, it had entered and was coursing at will.

I playfully grab my mother’s hand and feel the jutting wrist bone. I kiss her face and sense a hollow slackness. Arms crossed, I lean into the hospital wall and interrogate her doctor.

Conducting his evening rounds, he smiles serenely, like a man for whom a wife and a warm meal wait. When he speaks, the gently parsed words slip from his mouth like Scrabble tiles sliding off their tray onto the corridor floor: weakened…vascular…system.

That’s what he says. This is what I hear, “Her heart is decimated, shot, kaput.”

From what he can tell, over the last two decades my mother has suffered several small heart attacks. Before I research the drug interactions of her newly prescribed pills, before our roles ever truly switch, my mother has another. She dies chasing her breath.

In spring, when daylight begins to lengthen again, my sisters and I go home. My father has summoned us. He has washed the dishes, wiped the bathroom sink, and folded the guest towels the way my mother used to do. But he cannot do this. As we sit in her room, among her possessions, he pokes his head in, but just his head. The rest hesitates in the hall.

“Your mother had lovely things,” he says. “Things she never wore. Please take them, just….”


Just open her private drawers and touch her private things? Just inhale the scent of her? Just discard one dress and withhold another?

Dad heads to the kitchen to make coffee whose aroma reaches the top stairs but which we never drink. We begin touching, but mostly as though we’re late-night stowaways in a museum. We skim books and lift silk scarves, peer at jewelry and music boxes until one of us punctuates the air.

“I can’t believe she saved this. Do you remember that? Do you remember how we pooled our allowance to buy this brooch?”

My mother’s life lies bare and open, but it appears to be mostly our lives she kept.

Glassine bags with locks of first haircuts, baptism scrolls, and report cards of each child. We peel back layers of school playbills and final exams.

I tie up her voluminous collection of magazines and catalogue maps of countries she marked but never traveled. My sisters fold blouses and camisoles to be worn by women in shelters my mother never knew. We read letters not addressed to us on cream cotton stationery. The longhand stretches to the paper’s edges as though evenings once unfolded infinitely.

Our work progresses until I find the photo stack, family pictures in black and white. We girls sit in velvet Christmas dresses, our fat, pale dolls on our laps. The boys in Little League uniforms stare out to the diamond as dust whirls at their backs. Dad carries in a Thanksgiving turkey. There are dozens of images, dozens of us. Then I spy it, a single shot of her.

“So beautiful,” my older sister murmurs touching the photograph’s edge. We stare at first trying not to blink then look away, finally grasping her absence and former youth.

Thighs crossed, my mother sits on the edge of my parents’ bed. Dressed only in a slip, her slender arms pour from the ribbon straps. The echo of a lipsticked mouth and the loose curls of evening’s end frame her face. Her hand moves to cover her mouth in surprise and a final futile “shoo.” Caught in the spotlight, she doesn’t know whether to succumb, but she does. She succumbs. Her chin leans into that flash, and she laughs.

This could be a perfume ad, but it’s not. It’s my mother. When I look at her, the household I knew dissolves—the lockstep kingdom where parents wore bathrobes with belts that wound and rewound their waists and children pulled on slippers to protect wood floors from damp footprints. I do not see the woman who, that day, had folded umpteen cloth diapers and sliced peanut butter and jam sandwiches on perfect diagonals. I see a young girl captured by a camera.

In my mother’s bottom drawer of the final bureau we clear, we find little else: the last emergency room bracelet and unworn hospital slippers. In a manila envelope, lab films chronicle her damaged heart, but I slide back their bleak shadows. Her real heart stares from one exposure, ardent and youthful, laughing in bare light.

Skirt Magazine, November 2007


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