My mother was a good cook and a great baker; her desserts were so delicious that my father and my older brother wrote a song about them, to the tune of Dvorák's Humoresque. It began, You may think us quite disgusting / We eat though our belly's busting / Mother, pass another piece of pie.
As a child, I used to watch my mother in various long, narrow New York apartment kitchens shaping piecrusts with a rolling pin; taking rounds of dough wrapped in waxed paper out of the icebox and slicing them into cookies; pressing fruit into the top of my favorite dessert, a flat cake with apples, peaches, or plums
. It was sweet and tart and buttery, infused with the flavor of its fruit. Like all her baking, it was emphatically homemade, and like the woman herself, it was unpretentious, without frills or tricks. She had learned to make it from her mother, who had learned it in Austria. She made it deftly, and she made it look simple. I could never get enough of it.
When I was young, I had no ambition to bake the cake myself. My mother did not school me in the womanly arts, not wanting me to be a housewife. "Never be financially dependent on a man," she would say to me darkly, alluding to my father, a tyrant in her eyes, whom she left and then returned to countless times in the course of a 70-year marriage. I was a daddy's girl. I wanted to grow up to be like my father, who was a literary man, and in many ways, that was what happened. I did not become a housewife, and the more I devoted myself to writing and editing, to literature, theater, art, and to friends who shared my interests, the less my mother and I seemed to have in common. We lived in different worlds.
Then some years ago, when I was in a reasonably stable relationship and feeling domestic, I asked her for the recipe
. At that point, she had stopped baking. Because she had always done it by feel, she said, the recipe she wrote out for me might not be right. I knew less than nothing about baking—less than nothing because not only was I a novice but I assumed it would be easy. I tried the recipe the next time I had a dinner party, substituting whole wheat flour for white, to make it healthful. The one guest who commented at all said it tasted "very New England," by which I think he meant tasteless and mealy—if you had enough grit you could get it down. A few years later, a friend who knew how to bake tried several variations and her version didn't taste right, either. This fumbled passing of the recipe seemed symbolic of the lack of communication between my mother and me. I loved her but she was boring and irritating; I was so busy feeling superior, I failed to see that I bored and irritated her in turn.