I don’t remember her ever being in a church or attending a service even at Christmas; Nature was my Grandmother’s sanctuary. We attended her church each Sunday; the tall steeples of Northern Pines which uncloaked themselves once a year in the season before the Christusknabe, as she called it, letting the inside needles, closest to the sap and heart of the trunk, turn yellow and drop off the branch, allowing squirrels their added acorn cover, and providing soft bedding for any pilgrim; the stained glass windows of light playing in the constant stream, flanked by reflections of the saintly face of her middle daughter, the beauteous of her eldest, and the rebellious Joan of Arc countenance of the youngest, broken up by pebbles skipped across by the sheer demon boy-child whom she loved the best. The blue-jay and the robin cries, the chickadees, were her bell tower, loons – her tome. She believed their call would bring us to our deeper senses the same as the loud low boom of a church bell would. Her congregation met year-round.
She was particularly proud of us, her grandchildren. We were numerous and as varied as her woodland creatures; one took after a doe; one just as slow as a bear; one as funny and destructive as a woodpecker, she would say. She would feed her known forest alliances on suet and multiples of seed-mixes. Then she would feed us.
I remember many Sunday picnics, and especially the ones with snow. I’d strap on my head-to-toe snowsuit with little band-aids of fabric brackets that snapped across wrists, waists, ankles and neck. Mine was a pale green. The others wore shades of dark blue and rose pink. Each variant of colour was unique, as though some clothing-mill fairy created it for the specific human who wore it, but the truth was the hues varied due to untold cycles in our mothers’ washers and dryers. Often the suits were passed down between cousins. Zipped all the way, and hood pulled up, we might be called by the previous owner’s name; their memories living inside the suit outweighing our lesser years.
Grandma chose each Sunday’s spot in a new park, easily done in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and woodlands. Especially in winter, she knew she would have no competition over the chosen grey picnic bench from other parties. We arrived in forest-green (the name of that year’s favourite car colour) and maroon station wagons, mothers and fathers with two or more children who spent the trip in the pulled-down cargo-hold, not a seatbelt in sight, looking out the back windows at state license plates and signs along the roads. Memories of historical markers – the spires of St. Peters in Minneapolis which they had never been into, the Perkins restaurant which they visited occasionally on a special holiday, and the golden arches of MacDonald’s on many family outings. These occurred on a weekday night, followed by a twenty-five cent Dairy Queen soft-serve for dessert. Even our basset hound had been there.
The quiet hour of 3 pm found us gathering at that grey weathered picnic table. She brushed the snow piles off from the benches that were connected with curved and rusted iron arms. Nothing, especially weather, deterred my grandmother from her ritual event celebration. We, the grandchildren, scooped out stones by the stream, that we placed on top of pale pink/green/blue pastel 4-ply paper napkins. These had small squares in a pattern, embossed to make them look nice; 4-ply was fancy. She added silverware and paper cups, and then we all were equal in status – any of us could open the huge heavy igloo storage containers and spread the feast on the table’s wood surface still dotted with scrapes of bird dropping. To have added a tablecloth (or even oilcloth) would create a whipping annoyance from the wind, that stones could not cure.
The wooden picnic basket had a gold latch closure. Taking my snow gloves off, I’d quickly flick the latch to the right, and then shove my already stiff fingers back into my even stiffer plastic mittens. The treasure was released. I’d open up the woven cover, and take out the foundation of cutlets of chickens that although we’d seen them – the same entry – last Sunday, these were a beauty in the market this week; along with slices of white bread she’d spent the day before kneading in flour that coloured her forearms so that the dough and her floppy upper arm flesh seemed one and the same; a few jars of pickles brined in the Fall on an auspicious Friday when nothing else seemed to be going right; and a surprising canning of carrots which we kept opening throughout that winter; a prized purchase of Delmonte mayonnaise from the grocery; and some homemade mustards heavy on the grain and strong enough to make a young girl know there was more to come in life.
There were hard bright white-green sticks of celery, and winesap apples dug up from the fall harvest but now stored in dirt holes to keep ‘til the spring, and thermoses storing milky hot chocolate we savoured in small sips all afternoon. Truthfully, our mouths had to keep moving to keep from freezing. We felt we had to gustily appreciate our grandmother’s offerings, be it from our Germanic Presbyterian background of hard work equalling worthiness in God’s eyes.
In the final moment, in its own basket – a silver tin box that only my Grandmother carried to the table – was the Angel Food Cake. She’d lift it out and look at her daughters. They’d become quiet, and look at us. We settled. Cake was cut and served by passing plate from family member to family member.
The cake was unfrosted. From the days of the war, she learned not to add a frosting that was too dear to the concerns of the Armed Forces, and sugar rations. She so wanted to decorate it with powdered sugar and colored sprinkles; always hoping to make a party. My grandmother who arrived at Ellis Island, age 18, speaking no English, on the eve of World War I, making picnics outdoors in her adopted country who never accepted her Germanness during both World Wars. My grandmother, even as her husband’s family thought she was a spy, scrimping on frosting in respect for the country’s war rations long after the wars were over, planting a naked angel food cake in the midst of a snow-covered grey weathered wood picnic table midst her gathered grandchildren, beloved pine trees and stream in the midst of a Minnesota November.
Angel Food Cake Made from Scratch
Whites of 8 eggs
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
|1 teaspoon cream of tartar||1/4 teaspoon salt|
|1 cup sugar||3/4 teaspoon vanilla|
Beat whites of eggs until frothy and glossy; add cream of tartar, and continue beating until eggs are stiff; then add sugar gradually. Fold in flour mixed with salt and sifted four times. Add vanilla. Pour into an unbuttered angel food pan with sloping sides and a tube in the middle to leave a hole up the centre of the cake. Bake in a hot oven, allowing the edges of the cake batter to crawl up the sides and brown on top. If you don’t turn the angel food pan upside down once the cake has baked, the uprising will fall.* If your pan doesn’t come with cooling legs, flip it over the neck of a beer bottle you have on hand in the pantry. Use a sharp serrated knife to allow a clean cut, so as to not smash, squish or compress the cake.*
- *Article 1. Sister-in-law’s found evidence that Gramma was surely a spy.
The bear watched the young girl with the long brown ponytail carry the bowl of eleven eggs over to the counter. He was sitting in the snow, with his front paws on the windowsill. His breath fogged up the glass. Rummy smells of apples in rivulets of brown sugar and butter, popping while roasting in crusts had brought him here. The odour of hot food made him drowsy. He wanted to let his worries melt into a deep sleeping puddle. But not here out in the open. Besides, he knew the girl would take the eggshells out to the garbage. He would eat first.
She took one egg in both hands, and holding it over another bowl, hit the glass side. Even through the windowpane he could hear the crack a good fresh country egg made. Looking down, almost over her shoulders, he saw the creamy gel sac move from one half of the shell to the other, the weight of the white plopping irregularly into the bowl, while the yellow stayed firm in the shell. His pads tingled on all his four feet. He flexed and tensed his paws. With one claw, he knew he could open her up and suck her marrow and pinkish fluid inside her white skin, just as much as he could stick his tongue inside each tiny shell and lick them lick by lick dry.
He could eat her, but then where would he be? Better to have her leave scraps every day throughout the next sixty days of his Sleepy-Time. He relaxed and sat deeper into the snow, his stomach thinking of chomping white eggshells still moist on the inside like candy meringues.
The girl continued cracking the eggs.
“Why are there eleven eggs? Why does the recipe say eight? What do you do with the ones left?” The bear saw another girl, smaller than the first. Her hair looked like cornsilk. Perhaps she would taste like that, tiny explosions of juice around a firm vegetable cob. She dragged a stool next to the brown-haired girl, and stood on it, to reach the counter.
“Eight for cake, three for foibles.”
“What’s a foible, Rose Red?” She moved her stool to the other side, both she and the bear eyeing the growing liquid mass.
“Back off. You’re going to make me break the yolk,” Rose Red said.
“I want to do it.”
“No, you’re too little.”
“I’m big. I’m as big as you. I’m as big as the house. Lemme do it.”
“Rose and Winter, you girls have to stick together.”
The bear followed the looks and the sounds, and saw more of the kitchen. It was an odd size for a kitchen, no centre island, no breakfast nook, just a long narrow aisle. Under the bear’s chin, it looked like a sink or two with white enamelled insides. Opposite, there was a refrigerator (its white door not shut all the way; he could see cold cuts inside and hotdogs, and was that a turkey roast, his stomach wondered). Next to it, a long counter with four burners in the back, with copper bottom pots hung above. He didn’t feel like moving, but he twisted his head a bit further to the left, and saw a beautifully full flowery dressed bottom, from which two legs were planted in sturdy workshoes. Up from his stomach came the thought that that would take a few days to eat. Ah! The joy of ripping away at the flesh and licking the bones. How much he desired to tear loose, to be wild again. The bear hummed deeply and reminded himself of the goose who laid the golden eggs. He resumed his patient nature. He was a very patient creature. He’d also seen the men with guns.
The gramma closed the oven door, and stood up, pulling down on the cotton apron over her flowery blue rayon dress. “Rose, you have three extra eggs, I want you to help her try.”
“Winter-whimper, bo-binter, banana fana foe finter, fee fi foe – ”
“Rose Red, Rose Red, picks her nose in her bed!” Winter jumped up and down on the stool in time to her rhyme.
“Girls, you have to stick together. You can help me sift the flour, you can squeeze the oleo, and we can leave the eggs for now.”
Winter knew squeezing the yellow food-colouring dot in the midst of the oleo-margarine from their monthly rations, was a much better duty than cracking old eggs you could do anytime. She jumped high off her stool, at exactly the same time Rose turned with the bowl in her hands.
Winter slowly took off her egg-soaked pedal pushers. “Oh chickadee, don’t worry, we’ll have more eggs next week,” Gramma said, “Put your coat on and run this mess out to the garbage. Then we’ll make a party. I’ll tell you a story. We’ll play canasta. “ Rose dabbed at the wet pages of the Fanny Farmer cookbook and wouldn’t look at either of them.
Winter put on her rubbers and coat, and grabbed the bag of trash. “You, Winter, are a mess. A royal mess!” she said to herself. “A roiled, moiled, spoiled, oily mess. A pokealong puppy, a Donald Duck Bonomo turkish taffy mess,” she sang, flicking her head from side to side, repeating the words she liked best in the moment. She dumped the garbage. She ran back to the house as the smell of popping corn became stronger. Popcorn and canasta!
The bear watched, and followed back quietly in her snowy footprints, not bothering to try to find her scent midst the butter and salt.
“Gramma, I’m back!”
As if to say, “and so am I”, the brown bear pushed through the back screen door into the hallway. Winter screamed and ran towards a shock-startled Gramma who held a pot of popped corn with her apron in one hand. Rose Red grabbed a broom and raised it high. Winter grabbed the pot and threw it at the bear, who stood up on his hind legs. He was much taller than Rose Red’s broom for all her heroic effect. His head reached up into the patched rafters. He did a sound-shattering bear Roooar, so as not to disappoint, and immediately settled into eating the corn scattered all over the linoleum.
“girls,” Gramma quietly said. “Move slowly, tiptoe to the hearth and light a fire.”
The bear licked the butter off the floor, watching Gramma do a dance she learned as a young girl. She hummed a repetition of low notes in triples and moved her arms slowly. The bear thought how drowsy he felt watching women dance. She raised her arms high up in the air. How much she seemed to change; at once heavy and small; and then light, transparent like a bird flying high. How beautiful she could become on the edge of her fear, he thought, and then he understood. She reminds me of she-bear before they shot her and took the cave. Raising her paws up clawing at the air, with two cubs behind her. The shake of earth when her body hit the ground. He looked at Gramma. He knew. You are trying to protect your babies.
“Gramma. What are you doing?” Winter whispered. “You look so funny.”
“Winter, go quietly to the pantry and bring me the jar of stewed apricots from my private shelf. Just put it on the floor and I will get it.”
The bear watched the females move around the house. The fire began to melt the ice lodged deep in his fur. He was embarrassed not to have a cave to go back to. This cave, his heart, these people perhaps? They were not going to hurt him he knew. He was still hungry, but if he behaved he might stay awhile.
Gramma unscrewed the Mason jar and placed an apricot, glazed with syrup, on the floor. A sniff and his long black tongue scooped it up. The bear sat back, as if to wait for another. He was blocking the doorway; there was no way around him. She threw another apricot down, and looked at him. He was thin for a bear, and old by the look of his greying snout and muzzle. A few of his claws were missing, and he seemed to have trouble sitting on one side. “Oh, you old bear,” she said. “Come sit by my fire.” He looked up at her, in that moment.
She threw down a trail of apricots leading to the fire. “It’s going to be fine. He’s a bit arthritic, and the heat will relax him.” Rose Red held the broom tight. “Get me the Grimms, Rose,” she said, and Rose did as she was told, not knowing what else to do in a situation like this.
With Winter on her lap, and Rose standing by turning the pages (still clutching the broom), Gramma read out-loud. Bear made three.
“Guck mal! girls, the bear in this fairy-tale kills the ugly mean dwarf. Then the bear becomes a prince, but only, only, because the two sisters are kind to each other and get along. Here is the picture of the two of them arm in arm. “
“But Gramma, that’s a fairy-tale. It’s not real. Nobody lives like that,” said Rose.
“Some of us have, Rosie. My mother sent me off on a long trip. She wanted me to have a good time. I left her behind happily. I arrived here, but then the war came like a big black bear, and killed my mother.”
“Yes.” Gramma closed the book. “So you mustn’t ever be mean to each other.”
“We will never desert each other,” Rose-red answered.
“No, not as long as we live,” said Winter, and the Großfmutter added: “Whatever one gets she shall share with the other.”
The bear, indeed, had settled by the fire, lulled to sleep by Gramma’s voice. He slept long and hard.
They left the back door open, and tiptoed off to bed. Winter pulled her covers up high. She tried to figure out why it was necessary to get along with her sister, and have a friend in her, in case things went wrong. I never thought anything could go wrong, she thought. Everyone smiles at me. But just in case, I should be kind and just like my sister. She repeats, stick by each other. Share what you have with each other. And what else?
The older sister fell asleep, in peace finally. Now everyone will behave and no more upsets. She didn’t want a younger sister anyway. Especially not this one who thrived on chaos just to stir things up. What’s the point. I mean, who can’t bake an angelfood cake? Dumcuf.
Gramma thought how glad she was she’d used an extra cup of brandy to stew the apricots. She thought about her mother. Seeing those eleven eggs with Rose Red today, mama, do you remember the basket of hard boiled ones you sent me off with in Bremen? The trunk you packed for me full of dresses and slippers? The ship’s rats liked them. But I was glad to have it to sit on during those eight days. We spread our cards on it and played canasta like papa taught me. I’m sorry he’s dead. Mama, I remember you.
The next day the bear was gone. Was not in the house. They looked outside the back door; they poked around in the basement. There were some prints but because the snow was on and off they couldn’t tell; besides, the neighbour dogs had been all over the back yard sniffing to be sure if there was a bear there, they’d be there too. Checking their job status, and who peed what where.
The bear did not want to be around when they went shopping that afternoon. When the girl Winter tried to be like the Rose and was then told by Rose to mind her own beeswax. He did not want to see Winter so anxiously sitting on her hands, fidgeting, biting her lips. He did not want her to look in wonder at Rose coming out of the Macy’s Department Store dressing room in what was to be Rose’s confirmation dress. The dress was black on chocolate-brown dotted swiss, with a thin black velveteen ribbon around the end of each three-quarter length white frilled sleeve and empire waist. Only to be worn with nylon stockings. The bear didn’t want to hear the two girls argue about what to do when Gramma was gone too long making a phone call, and to know that Winter guessed what had happened but decided to keep quiet after Rose made a fuss and shamed her. He didn’t want to know the dress wasn’t bought and the girls rode home in silence, sitting far apart from each other in the station wagon’s back seat. He didn’t want to feel the responsibility Winter felt to stand by her sister at all costs.
He didn’t want to know she’d decided in her disgrace, to run away and find him.
Rose Red prayed that night. Please let that little crybaby be found so she can be my slave forever. I need that dress.
Gramma fell asleep early, dreaming of the many cards of canasta. Jokers and wilds extra. The set she left behind. Jokers are void, papa. I’ve got to find the red threes. Where are the red threes?
Christine Säng is an MFA Fiction student at The New School. She lives in New York City and Los Angeles.