Bigmom gave her granddaughter a lasting taste for salt air, rockers, porches and feathery sponge cake.
My grandmother lived in a big house on a ghost of a road at the end of which lay the Atlantic Ocean. Her house had once been an inn, was reputed to be haunted, and she bought it for $11,000 in the late forties after my grandfather died. Once a year, from wherever we were living—Baltmore, New Orleans, Minnesota—my family made the trek back for summer vacation. This was the place that was always the same. Always the same bright green grass, the big gray front porch, the huge elms, flowering privet and roses and salty air, always the beach at the end of the road. Always summer.
The smell of camphor and old books mingled at Bigmom's with whatever was in the oven. There was always something good going on in her kitchen. The first thing I did when we arrived was the run and look in her icebox. There (as I'd hoped) were the glass ramekins filled with custard, each wtth a sprinkling of nutmeg. These I considered all for me, as this silky treat was my favorite and I was allowed to have two or even three in a row. Sometimes she was making applesauce, hard green apples cut up and cooked in orange juice, which she pressed through a fine sieve, and this thick, delicious substance was served with heavy cream. Her recipe for fudge, now alas lost, contained the instructions: "Cook until the bubbles look as if they don't want to burst." My mother poured it over marshmallows. On the back of the old stove was a pot of broth, thick chunks of beef cooking with rice in water. Even though this was mean for Winston, the ancient, ailing English bulldog, I would stand at the stove and secretly eat spoonful after spoonful.
The earliest aroma of the day was Bigmom's coffee percolating at 5:30, and I tiptoed down the wide front stairs and into her kitchen, where I sat in the old rocker (now in my living room) and talked, about what I can't remember. For an hour my grandmother was all mine. She let me have a cup of coffee, then sugar and cream, and I felt alive with the possibilities of what life might be like for me. I guess this was because she appeared to take me seriously. Our coffee was accompanied by buttered toast cut into long strips she called soldiers. When the rest of the household woke up, we kids went to the beach. We grew up there as much as anywhere, on that beach, in that water, stopping for lunch at noon, eating our chickent sandwiches—white meat, plenty of butter and salt, the crusts cut off the bread—or red onion sandwiches on tiny rounds of rye, hard-boiled eggs, everything eaten with the sand you could never quite keep off.
When the sun was over the yardarm, we trudged our sunburned selves back down Indian Wells Highway to her house. Interesting grown-ups were drinking their pink gins in the library; to the left was the parlor, filled with mysterious objects under glass domes and always as hushed as church. We'd race each other to the shower (her updatirs bathroom had a skylight with an old metal chain) and then back downstairs, avoiding the room where our parents were happily occupied with people other than ourselves. So it went, summer after summer. Our winter lives were harder, schools and cities changed; almost as soon as we got settled somewhere, we were moving again.
My grandmother died and the house was sold, but for years and years afterward, whenever I returned to Amagansett, I felt at home. This was where I belonged. Anytime I walked down that half-mile of road to find the ocean glittering at the end, I was a child. Now although it looks the same, it feels different. The village has been discovered, and people I don't know are everywhere in their expensive cars. I can't find myself there anymore. But I can bring back some of the old feelings whenever I go in my kitchen. Out of all the delicious things she made, Bigmom's sponge cake is my favorite, and she taught me the fundamental rules of baking: Never run in the kitchen when a cake is in the oven, and close the screen door softly or the cake will fall. She tested its doneness with a straw from a broom. We held our breath when she carefully opened the oven for a look; I didn't dare speak lest the cake fall. It was a layer cake with simple white buttercream icing, and over the tope she poured melted bitter chocolate in lines and streaks and dribbles. It was a Jackson Pollock of a cake, and the smooth bitter chocolate on top combined wiht the sweetness to make a taste rather like life itself.