East Durham Bake Shop
I used to bake, before the arthritis ruined my hands, before my children moved away. Back then, we ate cake for breakfast. My kids always had a little extra layer of insulation on their cheeks and around their middles and so what, is what I always said. It’ll help keep them afloat, I said in the summer. In the winter I said, it’ll keep them warm. It never occurred to me that they may resent me for it someday, the cake for breakfast and the pie for lunch and the quiche for dinner. That’s a lot of crust, my son said once. And my daughter, too early someone told her the terrible lie that women should be thin. Worse, skinny. What an awful word that is - skinny.
Today is the first day of spring and there are big fat flakes of snow falling out of the sky and everyone, literally every single person who walks into the bake shop this morning, comments on this as they order their coffee or their sugared croissant or their cheddar biscuit. ”Snow!” they say. “On the first day of spring!” I am sitting alone along the south wall of the shop on a flowered couch. Above me is a map of the world. Australia sits sweetly above my head in camellia pink, and beside me a jade plant pushes its dozens of green palms into the sugared air. On an antique hutch along the opposite wall, a dozen glass tumblers are stacked like miniature ice blocks, just like the ones the ice man used to deliver to my grandmother’s back porch. If we got to it before she did, we’d lay our cheeks against its cool in the summer heat, dare each other to lick its frosty edges. I watch as someone removes one of the tumblers from the top of the stack, flips it over, and fills it with water from a stainless steel carafe that is beaded with moisture.
This morning over the telephone, my daughter said, if anyone should live next door to a bakeshop, it’s you mama. I think of her round face as I sip my coffee and watch the fat flakes fall. My neighbor with the long dreadlocks walks in wearing a flowered dress and orders a blueberry muffin and I wish she would sit on the flowered couch in her flowered dress, but she walks back out into the chilly morning, wiggling her fingers in a wave. I wiggle mine back, shocking myself with their gnarled appearance. Like a tree, my grandson says when they visit from far away. I try to teach my daughter the recipes so he can enjoy them but she waves me away. Ma, she says, I’m not a baker. As if you had to be a baker to bake.
After my neighbor in her flowered dress come two men in construction helmets and orange vests and they grin over their slices of pie. Then a father with two toddlers - a girl and a boy - who smear the windows with their sticky fingers. It’s hard to tell which of the children is older. I wonder if they are twins but don’t ask, even though the girl stares at me for a full minute with her wide, wet eyes, disarming me the way only a child can.
When my children were her age, they used to call their father pops. We would sit in a line on our long front porch in the long summer evenings and the neighborhood kids would come by, dragging their baseball bats and comic books, shoeless sometimes, just to see what I had that day in the basket - raspberry popovers, maybe, or almond cookies. Their shy smiles when they bit into whatever they found there.
One day, one of the neighborhood moms came by to tell me to stop feeding her child sweets. I was making him fat she said, and my husband, he just laughed and laughed until he just about fell over, and my kids looked at her with their heads cocked sideways. And I just said, well what would you like me to feed him?
Across the street from here is a place where you used to be able to buy the best hot dogs you ever tasted. We’d eat hot dogs sometimes, too. And spaghetti. And vegetables, of course, and salad even, now and then. But all of those things taste better, really, when you put them inside a pie. With a crust. And some custard. And on a big old serving plate your grandma left to you when she died. And with a whole mess of spoons, for sharing.