My birthmother, Suzanne, came to visit last weekend and she and my daughter Franny made a gingerbread house.
They stood at the kitchen island, rolling out dough, cutting out walls, a roof, and a door. They used a hammer to smash Life Savers into slivers that they then turned into star-shaped stained-glass windows. They decorated the cooked dough with Dots, Sno-Caps, mini M&Ms and candy canes.
When they finished assembling and decorating, Suzanne placed a light bulb inside the house, fastened to an electric cord that she plugged into an outlet. The house lit up, its stained glass windows glowing yellow, green and purple. Heat from the bulb sent the aroma of ginger, cinnamon and cloves meandering through the air.
After breakfast, Luca wanted to watch Planet of the Apes on TV, so we went back to my hotel room. He kicked off his Vans and crawled in bed, under the covers. I crawled in next to him, and we watched the rather dopey remake of the classic film, in which scientist James Franco brings a lab ape back to live with him. For awhile, the ape is happy hanging out with James and his doddering dad in their glorious Craftsman house in Berkeley.
But the ape, being an ape, is too wild to live in the suburbs, and winds up caged in an animal control center. Franco goes to visit him, and the ape is furious at his “father,” refusing to communicate with him. Eventually, the ape commandeers an ape mutiny, and legions of apes storm the Golden Gate Bridge, waging war with SWAT teams. Franco and the ape survive the massacre, and Franco takes his “son” into the forest, where he sets him free.
I looked over at Luca, who was clearly enraptured by the film. I wondered if he was wrestling with the irony of watching a primate being freed from captivity, when he was headed back into it. He didn’t seem to be.
But I was.
I liked his boarding school. I liked his therapist and the staff, all of whom seemed like members of that proverbial village, the village that it takes to raise kids. Especially kids who are challenging to raise. Kids who can’t be raised in a regular home, or learn in a regular school.
Before Luca went to boarding school, when he was living with me the majority of the time, and the house was a battle ground, I used to fantasize about having a grandma, or an aunt and uncle, who lived on a farm. I’d heard stories, generally from bygone eras, about parents who sent their unruly kids to live with a relative on a wide open space, where they had to rise when it’s still dark and milk cows, or muck barns, or do whatever you do on a farm at dawn.
Ever since he was a toddler, Luca’s outsize energy has seemed almost to burst through his skin. He was not a kid who could tolerate any down time, ever. The last two turbulent years before he went away, Luca chafed inside my house, and his dad’s house, pacing frenetically, calmed momentarily when presented with an activity he enjoyed — paintball, riding those stomach-curdling flippy rides at carnivals — only to plunge into a dark, restless funk when the bells and whistles went away. The park-your-butt-in-a-chair demands of homework and tutoring invariably crescendoed in screaming fits and head-banging. Luca took to bolting out of the house, sometimes shoeless, roaming the streets, for hours at a time.
These were the moments I longed for an Uncle Fred who would offer to take in my too-big-for-city-life kid and plunk him down on a ranch where he was free to roam. In my fantasy, Uncle Fred, with his Alpha-male calm and his calloused hands and pot belly, would intuitively know how to settle down Luca, because he’d had years of practice settling down wild animals. After a summer of non-stop physical labor, but labor that translated into tangible results — eggs, milk, corn — Luca would emerge with a sense of self-agency, and the ability to regulate himself, something no traditional therapy, or social skills group, might ever succeed in teaching him.
Isn’t this what ADHD meds aim to do? Create enough stimulation that kids thirsting for high-octane action calm down and focus on school work? What would happen if “hyperactive” kids were sent to farms instead of loaded with stimulants? Would it be easier for them to learn?
My hunch is that the equine therapy utilized at Luca’s boarding school is modeled on the “send ’em to the farm” theory. Paired with horses, the kids quickly learn how their energy affects the animals. If they want the horses to move a certain way, they need to focus intently, calming themselves in order to gain their horses’ trust so they can work together.
In the corner of the dining room, I draped a green table cloth over some stacked boxes and put the gingerbread house on top. Guests at our family’s annual holiday Dessert Party leaned over to inspect and admire the handiwork as Franny proudly recounted the culinary efforts behind her and her grandmother’s masterpiece.
I didn’t meet my birthmother until I was 20, and for years after our reunion I couldn’t shake the emptiness, the ruminating over lost years and what-ifs, that I was sure meeting her would fill. In the past year, I have had the somewhat surreal pleasure of watching my daughter engage in gloriously simple activities — cooking, swimming, flower-gathering — with her grandmother, activities that become memories that when strung together form a sense of connection, a context for one’s being, a template for how to relate.
I remember when my grandmother taught me how to make a gingerbread house. When I think of Christmas, I think of gingerbread houses, which makes me think of my grandmother. I remember how her eyes widened as she watched me roll out the dough, how she complimented me on how carefully I spread the icing. When I grow up, I want to teach my daughter how to make gingerbread houses, and teach my daughter’s daughter how to make gingerbread houses. I want to make them feel special, the way my grandmother made me feel…
Franny and Suzanne have an easy way with each other. They are not particularly alike, except for their fair skin and freckles, but they share the same ebullience, the same ability to immerse themselves in the moment. Watching Franny do things with Suzanne that I wish I’d been able to do with her, like make a gingerbread house, has been more healing than years of therapy ever were. I am thrilled that Franny gets the gift of being shaped by her grandmother, and I’m thrilled that she has the chance to give something as well.
One afternoon, after Suzanne got up from a nap, she led me into the guest room and pointed to the bed, where Franny’s white blanket and stuffed tiger lay. “When I was lying down, a little fairy crept up and covered me with a blanket, then put this,” she smiled, picking up the stuffed animal, “next to my face. I didn’t want to spoil the moment for her, so I pretended to be asleep.”
Suzanne’s mother, Lucinda, died shortly after Franny was born. She was a gracious, elegantly beautiful woman who excelled at the traditional “women’s work” of her era: cooking; entertaining; dress-making; being a devoted wife. Although I visited her just a few times, I saw something of myself in her: an unlikely blend of friendliness and emotional aloofness; long, thick hair swept off the face with a clip.
Lucinda was a doting grandmother to the four granddaughters she had watched grow up. And although our relationship wasn’t typical by grandparent-grandchild standards — infrequent visits, several letter exchanges, gifts when I married and had children — she somehow made me feel special. She had a way of listening, of widening her eyes and smiling, of proudly pointing out things she noticed about you that you hadn’t thought were remarkable.
The last time I saw Lucinda was during her 85th birthday celebration. I took Luca, just a year old at the time, to Florida and spent the weekend with her, Suzanne, and my two half-sisters. Lucinda had borrowed baby toys and spread them around her apartment for Luca, her first great-grandchild, to play with.
Lucinda always had fresh-baked desserts on hand for visitors and for this visit she had made lemon squares, which just happen to be one of my favorites. Before I left, she gave me her recipe, written in her precise script, with the signature, “from the kitchen of Grandma Lucinda” at the bottom of the recipe card.
Besides the gingerbread house, Suzanne, Franny and I made five desserts for our Dessert Party. One of them was Great-Grandma Lucinda’s lemon squares. During the baking, Suzanne glanced up at me and smiled, her eyes slightly rimmed with tears. She didn’t have to say anything. I knew just what she was thinking.
Great-Grandma Lucinda’s Lemon Squares
Ingredients for Step 1:
1 cup butter
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 cups flour
pinch of salt
Combine and mix with pastry blender. Pat evenly into 9×9 baking pan and bake at 350 degrees for 2o minutes.
Ingredients for Step 2:
2 cups granulated sugar
4 tbsp flour
1 tsp baking powder
6 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp grated lemon rind
Beat eggs slightly. Stir in sugar, flour, lemon juice and rind. Mix well and spread over baked crust. Bake at 350 degrees about 25 minutes. Remove from oven and sift powdered sugar on top. Cool, then cut into squares.