by Emily Sproch
There were two sweets my mother made: oatmeal raisin scones, which were marvelous, and S’s & O’s, which were terrible. The former conjured all things charming and British—yellow-and-cream papered walls, blue porcelain pitchers brimming with heather cut from the moor, raw cotton pantaloons, empire waists. The latter were the very opposite: bland Italian Christmas cookies, as outdated as the Italian bakeries that dotted every Jersey highway (the red, white and green awnings; the pitiful signs with their scripted halogen letters, the K’s burnt out long ago). The cookies themselves were, as suggested, shaped like the letter S and the letter O, a detail my mother could never explain, and then dipped in a lemony frosting and sprinkled with jimmies. Both items were rare, S’s & O’s only in December, and the scones appearing one or two mornings a year, as if, on those occasions, some downstairs staff had been summoned to work through the night.
Those were her signatures, the scones from a page in the “Everything You Can Do with Quaker Oats” freebie booklet, and the cookie recipe materializing, I suppose, somewhere from the depths of her Italian heritage. I knew from television that some mothers baked more, that chocolate chip cookies held a sort of collective national importance, that dessert was sometimes served, but I was not deprived. My mother made plenty of dough, pounds and pounds of dough all the time, but it was mixed with salt instead of sugar and then rolled and pinched and patted into a menagerie of little figurines—doodads that were dried and fired and painted and glazed and carted around to sell at craft fairs. I rather liked her salty dough; truth be told, my mother had to shoo my hand away from the mixing bowl as often as she would have if it had indeed been filled with cake batter.
And then one night—despite the comfort, joy even, with the status quo—an incident with doughnuts.
The night was good already. There was a lurid made-for-TV movie involved, and the pull-out couch pulled out: atmosphere. It was like a party—my mother, my sister and me under the sheets, engrossed in the delicious drama. It is impossible now to tell what we watched, most likely a story of the violent or devious sort—blackmail, hired hit men, the murder of a cheerleader. (Sexual content was not allowed, so I’m certain there was no mistress or child out of wedlock). Whatever the specifics, it was the distilled essence of drama itself that soaked into our bones: me, eight years old and fully aware of my vinegary addiction to the stuff, like licking a sour pickle and getting a shiver; my sister, four, prepared to lap up whatever was placed before her; and my thirty-three year old mother breathless and squealing like a teenager.
A commercial break and an ad for Dunkin’ Donuts—the famous one from the 1980s, with Fred the Baker waking up early to get to work. As the mustached Fred rubbed his tired eyes, an understanding grew among us—silent but clear—a collective yearning for sugar and fat and sticky fingers and eating in bed. It was so foreign, this desire—we never ate Dunkin’ Donuts. My mother was strict with her diet and weight; I had never seen her with a doughnut of any kind. Fast food for us meant breakfast on road trips and that breakfast was McDonald’s, where you could get an entire meal for your money. The commercial ended and there was that television pause, the breath between spots when the screen goes brownish grey, as if the box itself is daring you to pounce. And then my mother, staring straight ahead:
I know how to make doughnuts, you know.
The slow choreography of heads (my sister’s, my own) turning to face this stranger between us, the kind of moment a film could never get away with now, the perfect widening of eyes, the symmetry, the art of reaction.
We could make them right now.
They were pure spontaneity, those doughnuts. My mother was a master of spontaneity, but her intentions were so often at odds with her motivation. Build-up and excitement could go nowhere; she could convince anyone that her latest idea was fantastic, an absolute must-do, and then, moments later, that it was too much hassle and really not worth it at all. I sensed, though, something different that night, an element of follow-through, a whiff of accountability, and I knew right then to treasure it forever, to store it up and to catalogue its significance in my deepest parts.
We ran back and forth during commercial breaks, kitchen to living room, salivating at stove, salivating at television. The fact that we had the main ingredient—a frozen tube of dinner rolls that pops apart when you twist—was another miracle. We broke it open, separating the slabs and wiggling our fingers through their centers to make holes. We put them into a frying pan with half an inch of vegetable oil and watched them blister and gurgle. There were two brown bags from purchases at the corner deli and we filled one with powdered sugar and the other with a cinnamon and sugar mix. The hot little orbs were plucked up with barbecue tongs and dropped one by one into a bag, which we then held closed and shook shook shook to coat. We did them in batches, so as not to miss any of the show, piling them on a plate as we went. In the end, the plate came with us to the sofa bed, and we ate to the last thrusts of the drama—our lips, our bellies, and the tips of our tongues atingle—the memory crystallizing behind us before we were even through.
Emily is a graduate of the MFA Creative Writing program at The New School and has been published by Ceasura, the Awakenings Review, and the NY Press.