The eiderdown of snow that had blanketed the yard and decorated the trees, the houses, and even the clothesline (much more festively than we had, with our one twinkly, light-wrapped wreath on the front door) and had lasted through New Year’s Eve, is all gone now. I was surprised by the nakedness of everything when I arrived here yesterday from the city. But the winter sun is cheery, and the air is crisp and cool.
I have missed my lunch due to the train travel, and so at 3 o’clock I stand at the kitchen counter and eat decadent slabs of the Stilton, left over from my New Year’s Eve splurging, which was waiting loyally for me in the fridge. I alternate nibbles of celery, crunchy and saline, with the Stilton, which coats my mouth with savory, mulchy richness- and round out each bite with a slice of sweet Pink Lady apple from the orchard down the road.
I am alone in this foreign quiet, this shell of a house. Just at 4:15, as dusk descends, I open the door to illuminate the wreath- and with a reflex I bend my leg to keep the puppy from running out the door. But just as quickly I remember that the dog is not here.
It’s dark before five and the lights are shining on our little tree. Yesterday I had an urge to bake gifts to give to friends: tiny brown sugar-apple cakes, compact and rich. These I wrapped in waxed paper and tied with a bright bakers’ string. Cheery, satisfying and good; they looked adorable all wrapped and ready to go. Before heading out to visit a friend, I baked off a double batch of cakes and prepped a large amount of granola, also for gifts. I don’t really have time for all this- I’m supposed to be packing and organizing my home, tying up loose ends; paying bills and suspending magazine subscriptions. We’re moving to Rome for the semester and there’s so much to do.
So what does all this baking bring me at a time like this? I can’t help but wonder where my priorities are. I know that busy hands help me put off doing the things on my list- I’d call it productive procrastination. Busy hands help me manage my feelings; and busy hands are also a way of remembering.
These apple cakes are filled with memories. About ten years ago I created the recipe for a magazine story, which featured a gifted ceramicist and her stylish husband. Our team from Martha Stewart Living brought a van and two cars filled with food and props from the city to the country, where we laid them out and spun a story out of pictures. In their kitchen I cooked mushroom and pumpkin soup, and spread artisanal cheese on wholesome bread. Then I checked with the photographer before darting out to the bathroom, where I unpacked my plastic breast pump and anxiously listened to the voices of my co-workers on the other side of the door while the pump did its work, extracting the nourishing milk from each breast. I would bring it home in little bottles for my first baby, Lucian. No matter that I had been away from him for two days. This mundane activity gave me a sense of purpose and allayed my guilt; if I could produce milk for my son while I made this beautiful meal for the ceramicist and her husband, I was still a virtuous mother.
The baby is gone, and now so is the child- taken much too soon. The hole that remains is so large. Can I fill it with my boundless love for the one who’s left behind – little Theo? Not completely. So here, in this new landscape of mourning, I take what I know and turn it into these warm cakes; lightly fragrant with cinnamon and nutmeg and filled with warm apple slices. This is one way I can feel sure-footed while the ground underneath me shifts and I see the tilt of the planet as if from above. I can hold these in my hands before I give them away- they are nourishing and good.