At a very young age, along with my older sisters and cousins, I made Christmas cookies with our grandmother. She had a special recipe that my entire, extended, enormous family still uses though she died many years ago (1997) at the bright age of 100. I still see her hands rolling the dough, patiently helping me place the cutters, the kids pouring the sparkles all over everywhere—and can smell that hint of burned sugar. Making the cookies meant Christmas was here.
Mamie and Mickey at the edge of Carnegie Lake, Princeton
This year, however, I broke the tradition. Livia decided she wanted to make more elaborate cookies, cookies we would paint and glaze and color and luster dust and pipe and flood and blow with sanding sugar—terms I’d never heard of. She found this cookbook:
So we got to work Saturday afternoon and worked into the evening,
trying to replicate the pictures in the book.
With all the flooded icing and sugars, I wondered who’d ever want to eat them.
Though this art will take many years to master, I was wrong about who’d want to eat them. Both the sugar and gingerbread cookies were delicious—just as good, or almost, as Mamie’s.
“Conrad wrote that, ‘a work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line.’ This is the heart of the matter. No great work is remembered for its plot, that clumsy replication of ‘real life.’ Fiction, like poetry and music, lives in each moment of its being. It exists outside of time, in the hope of inducing an altered state of consciousness, and stands or falls on the quality of echo it can ring against a reader’s sensibility.”
Livia and Una, 2004. Taken by my mother Pryde Brown
Jasper ran through the apartment in his Clone Trooper costume and caused the picture to fall off the wall. The glass shattered, shards everywhere. I was annoyed, of course. It was 9PM. He and Livia should have been asleep, but I’d gotten home late, was exhausted, had been running since 7AM when my husband left for work, when I began getting the kids ready for school: out the door, up the street, drop off at school, race home, prepare dinner (for much later), straighten up, in the car, drive to the university, read a few student stories, faculty meeting, lunch with a former student, office hours (“Do I really need to set the scene? It’s just a NY City apartment?” student asks. I give her a curious, I-Can’t-Believe-What-You’re-Asking look and say, “Yes. Yes. You need to set the scene. Watch, smell, taste, touch.”), teach two classes, home again in the car (45 minutes on the LIE), my son’s person-of-the-week project (glue and photos and crayons and glitter) all over the place, cat unfed, apartment a mess, my husband just home too, baby sitter leaves, dinner, baths, (how many months has it been since I’ve written a word of fiction?), Clone Trooper storms the hall, I warn him to be careful, picture falls, glass shards everywhere, I want to scream, think instead of Hilary Stout’s piece in the NYTimes on yelling being the new spanking.
I pick up the picture of my baby girl, five years old, with her Nonna’s dog in her Nonna’s garden in red and pink, hair in braids with tiny bows, standing before the foxglove, her little haunting wisdom—like those newborn eyes of hers that held mine, latched onto mine as if to say: I am yours; you will take care me, you will love me: commanding, determined eyes. On the wall, I hadn’t looked at the picture in a long time. Now nine, Livia holds onto Jasper; they watch me crouching by all the glass, waiting for my reaction, suspended in…is it fear? “I’m sorry, Mommy,” Jasper says. I’ve gone back: he is a newborn again and Livia is four—a fall afternoon in my mother’s garden. It is all there—the smell of wood smoke, the chill, the crisp sky and lazy clouds—and everything in between. A marvelous compression of time which then, less marvelously, leaps forward five years—Jasper ten, Livia fourteen, almost grown. “We can fix this,” I said, as my husband vacuumed up the glass and I took the children to their beds and read to them from The Magician’s Elephant, Kate Di Camillo’s wonderful new book. And on the street, sixteen stories below, the man who roams our neighborhood most nights chanting HALLELUJAH began his evening song.
I have many stunning students, but every once in a while I read something so terrific it makes me shiver. Adam Bedell’s writing glitters with passion. I love my job at Hofstra University. I adore my students. Working with this quality of prose, I believe there can’t be a better job out there.
From Bedell’s “The Graveyard Lies Like an Inuit”
We had been walking over an eroded bridge in the woods by Shu Swamp. A stream trickled underneath us, a canopy formed above—branches in the night hung like lanky piano fingers. The sky was deep dark blue with white mountain clouds puffing past the moon, sending eclipses of light between the branches of the canopy. I swear I could hear flutes singing in the wind and crickets, crickets, crickets. She nudged her shirt up, enticing me to finish. Her body peered out like moonlight and I shadowed it with lunatic kisses.
After, we floated on our backs in the stream with the bottom of our feet each touching, one pointing to the left, the other to the right. Our knees bended, making an oval between us — a giant womb; I saw Triton rising upward, blowing his wreathed horn, our precious…Lily said something real strange. “If we have enough love, we could raise a god,” then she pushed up out of the stream bed, water dripping down her legs. She pulled a leech off, and I jumped out of the water, panicked—she laughed as we hugged…dripping wet, drops sliding off our bodies and pelting the stream.