The Eternal Question: What If?
We wash our hands and preheat the oven. I get the mixing bowl down from its shelf while she heads for the box of Duncan Hines muffin mix in the cupboard. We hear a dull thwumph sound from someplace beyond the dining table, where we've set up our workstation. "What was that?" she asks, and I tell her it was either The New York Times being plopped at our doorstep or her great-grandmothers (both accomplished bakers) turning in their graves. I snip the bag of dry ingredients open and she pours it in the bowl. She tells me that her pal Fiona would like to be a pastry chef when she grows up: "She's going to make squillions and squillions of cookies and cover them in rainbow frosting." I ask Jules if she'd like to do that, but she remains committed to a career in the ballerina industry. "I wanted to be a ballerina when I was 5," I say, pirouetting to the refrigerator for a couple of eggs. "So what stopped you?" Leave it to a kindergartner to ask the $64,000 question. There's the short answer: my distinct lack of athleticism and grace coupled with an abiding love of all things potato. And then there's the longer answer, the one about having the confidence and guts and perseverance to go after what you want. The one about the need for approval and the fear of failure and (in my case) the even greater fear of success. I measure three-quarters of a cup of whole milk and reply, "I turned 6."
I like being a writer—you get to wear a lot of black sweaters and claim to be on a hideous deadline when your mother calls—but I do catch myself wondering from time to time about the road not taken. Julia and I hunt for the vegetable oil and I talk to her about what might have been. "Your grandfather was a stockbroker with Merrill Lynch for 37 years. He worked very, very hard cold-calling strangers and turning them into loyal clients, creating a career out of thin air and intense ambition. He never came right out and said it, but I know it would have made him really happy if he could have taught me how to be a broker. The thing is..." Julia's interest trails off somewhere around the Merrill Lynch reference, which I suppose is to be expected from a person in oven mitts and a tutu. Fair enough. How can I expect my daughter to make sense of this allergic reaction I have to corporate life? Do I explain that Mommy doesn't take kindly to management seminars and fluorescent lighting? Perhaps I should simply present her with my SAT scores and leave it at that. We open the can of blueberries that Mr. Hines so thoughtfully includes in every box, drain and rinse them in the sink, then begin folding the berries into the batter.