Lizzie’s Saucy Applesauce Cake
Letter to My Mother
This letter has taken a very long time to get to. It has been forty years since we all sat around the kitchen table together, wishing for your dreams to burst through the next CT scans. That was 1980, my senior year in high school. It is only now that it occurs to me, I was not present the following year, for your 38th. I was 300 miles away, in upstate New York, beginning the first weeks of my adult life at college, while you were blowing out your last candle. It’s unclear what my seventeen-year old mind was contemplating on September 22, 1981, but I do recall holding two thoughts in my head; that we would never return to the family table to light your candles, and I was fulfilling the wish carried in your last breath.
My life has been long with good health, and knowing that longer days means broadened experiences, I am grateful for the lasting genetic markers you’ve given me. But the linguist in me cannot allow these fortuitous strands of conception to get lost in translation. It’s true that at nearly 57, I have no known ailments nor addictions, and I can still account for ten fingers and ten toes. As a matter of fact, I can account for twenty more of each on the equally robust physiques of your grandsons. However, I’m learning that the length of a life span is equal to the sum of all of its parts, those that quiver at the heart and those that leave you trembling. Added into the mix of success, joy, and love relationships, swirls an equal measure of loss, despair, and screaming into the fearful wildness of unknown destinations. I have learned that the fact that I am here, left to wondering what’s next, is evidence that there is more work to be done.
It was important to you that I attend college to pursue a life, more satisfying than your own, and according to my own edict, independent of the command of others. When you were a majorette on the Port Jefferson High School squad, you hadn’t known that your aspirations to rise above the role of records clerk at the Office of Unemployment would have been cut short by giving birth to me, four weeks after your twentieth birthday. For this I both apologize and thank you. I thank you not only for your courageous outlook for the new future growing inside you, but for gifting me the seventeen years to have known you, more so than the daughters you would bring forth later. Although the memories don’t come easily, I am fortunate to have been old enough to contain a shared past that cannot escape me.
The most prominent impressions in my memory are of a sensual nature. Returning from school to the aromas of beef goulash, ragu sauce, and apple pie. Running into the house, after spending hours raking and jumping into leaf piles on chilly autumn afternoons with the neighborhood kids, to your operatic voice chanting romantic tragedies. And racing back out again, a tailwind of parched bits of oak and maple descending onto the red carpet, with a fragrant Tupperware of chocolate chip cookies. Waking up Saturday mornings to the heavenly scents of apple pancakes and sizzling bacon. The sweet, tanginess of the lemon bars of summer, and October’s orange-chiffon cake. And then there was the Amish friendship bread, the ever-growing yeast chain-batter that just seemed to outgrow the number of friendships any woman in a single-car household could conjure. You tried your best, baking and storing, and growing and sharing, and baking again. The ebullient starter seemed to be growing a face and pigtails, I wasn’t sad to see you kill your sweet sourdough.
One thing we’ve shared is our love of the fall season.
Your birthday, falling on the Autumnal equinox, signaled a change in the axis of everything, the cooling air, the north-east brilliance of Mackintosh and goldenrod, the falling leaves blanketing manicured lawns. For you, it signaled a renewal, a chance to exhale as we skipped off to school, to reset ambitions for childless afternoons and plan the upcoming new year that carved another notch on the kitchen wall. This time of year, when the air is crisp and energies run high, was punctuated by bushels of apples we gathered from local Long Island farms just a few miles out into the east end. For a solid eight weeks, the warm colors and sweet scents of our home would take on the character of the center of an enchanted orchard. I loved the way the waning daylight shadows cast a warm glow of color through the crimson drapes framing our front picture window. Undulating light pulsed through the waving maple’s and danced across the red carpet in our living room as though it were a pulsating heart, beating in perfect time. A gleaming stage light on a vital force of driving impulse that circulated love and fury in the center of the total personality of us.
From the bushels of deciduous orbs, your creative spirit shined in your labors to produce apple sauce, apple-baked pork chops, apple pie, apple fritters (my favorite), apple pancakes, candied apples, and apple-cinnamon friendship bread. Apples with slits filled with coins floated in Dutch oven baths with little bubbles of saliva, and hung from strings in October birthday games. Apples were peeled and left to shrivel up, poked with cloves to look like old men’s faces. The one autumnal treat that has a salient home on my tongue is your Applesauce Cake. Dozens of sweet, spicey loaves of Lizzie’s Saucy Applesauce Cake made their way from the hearth of 224 Munsell Road to kids’ lunch boxes and adult tea tables, as well as to the gatherings of the many Aunts, grandparents and cousins in our life.
Christmas, 1980, you gave me a Royal classic (non-electric) portable typewriter, for my future college papers and a vinyl brief case to carry them in. Between rounds of chemotherapy treatments, you broke-in the keys by typing up some of your favorite recipes from the love-worn cards in your recipe box. Maybe you were eager to share your recipes or perhaps after you received the news that the cancer had traveled to your spine and liver, you wanted me to have what you valued most, ingredients to serve the perfect loaves and stews, keeping the kinship alive.
You passed away just twelve months later, in the January of my second semester. Dad quickly packed away all of your photographs, holiday decorations, and recipe books into cardboard boxes, stacking them in a corner of the damp basement. I hadn’t known what was actually in those boxes, what was discarded when I was away, nor what dad carried with him to his next home, with his next wife. My life became busy with college, graduate school, career, marriage, and kids. I myself had been living in cardboard boxes for nearly ten years as I moved through the development phases of adult life, creating my own family, and outlining plans according to my dreams. Through it all I found myself crafting versions of favorite childhood dishes from memory, a palimpsest of all the hours I spent watching you perform your magic in the kitchen. I accessed the tastes of childhood by reaching into a palatial well of savored memories of cinnamon and clove as well as the texture rendered of the moisture to flour ratio imbedded in the sensory corners of my mind. And although I have been attempting to resurrect your Applesauce Cake through various attempts by way of Google recipe searches (too difficult to explain), I was never able to quite mimic the same texture and spice of my memory. Until today! I found your recipe tucked in the fold of a binder, typed by you, on my Royal. I no longer have the clunky typewriter, with the sticky ‘H’ key, however today, your cake will spice up my hearth with the sweet scent of apples plucked from my very own tree, and make a home on your grandson’s tongues.
Today I celebrate you and remind myself that I am happy for this day on which you were born. Seventy-seven years ago, you came forth from within the midst of global unrest, a child of war, goddess of birth.