Personal Essay: Helen Candland Stark Personal Essay Contest winner
Dana Haight Cattani
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
In the midst of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.
On a cold Sunday afternoon in late January, I stand in my kitchen in North Carolina, squeezing lemons. Out the window I see two deer have wandered into our yard and are scavenging the few green leaves which happen to be attached to the shrubs I planted last fall. I tap on the window, and the deer startle and leap back. They’ll return, I know, like the squirrels I keep shooing away from the bird feeder. Every wakeful animal is hungry, and these short, brown days in the barren woods give them little fuel to warm and nourish themselves. So I discourage them halfheartedly, weighing benign resignation against my own carefully planned will.
In the living room of my parents’ home there is a ceramic ornament that sits on a coffee table. It is a white lattice bowl filled with lemons, bright yellow with tiny green stems. It has survived countless visits by curious and rambunctious grandchildren. I remember hearing at her funeral that my grandmother Verona refused to put breakable items up high when children came to visit. She felt that it was important for children to learn respect for the lovely and fragile. I have sometimes placed my mother’s bowl of lemons on the mantle, out of the reach of my children who tend to view anything remotely spherical as a ball and anything stationary as a target. Nonetheless, I am attracted to my grandmother’s philosophy. It is a foolish wisdom. Respect for the breakable is one of life’s more profound lessons. Not capitulating to poor odds is another. I imagine my grandmother staring down the forces of carelessness in the person of any child who sauntered toward her china dolls and cut glass dishes, all in easy reach. Faith, hope, and charity permeate her gaze.
I add the lemon juice and some grated peel to the creamed butter, sugar, flour, and salt. I strike each of three eggs against the lip of a metal bowl and catch the slick yolk in its shell while the white slides overboard. The yolks and milk join the other ingredients. I whip the egg whites and fold them in, my spatula a gentle paddle.
When I was a child, my mother used to make this lemon custard. Those winter Sundays in California we might still find lemons at the side of the house on our little tree. No longer fragrant and humming with bees, it stood brazenly evergreen bearing its remaining orbs, vivid in the glistening gray. An allergy to bee stings kept me at a respectful distance from that tree in the summer, but in the winter it required no arm’s length.
My grandmother made this recipe, too, and in my family it bears her name. The custard seeps to the forefront of the memory in the bleak midwinter. The first daffodils won’t trumpet for weeks. From my window, all those glorious deciduous trees are stark, and the landscape is transformed, a photo negative of its verdant summer self. I want to eat something brilliant and warm, pungent and sweet. Last week it was scones with lemon curd, the week before rice pilaf with lemon zest.
The tea kettle purrs and sputters. With my spatula, I ease the airy mixture into a white soufflé dish, set it in a bath of boiling water, and slowly place it in the hot oven.
As I clear the sink, I pick up a discarded rind. I make a tight fist around it, crushing it until my fingernails scrape into the white flesh. A few beads of juice bubble out. I put my forefinger to my lips, taste the tartness, the flavor of it.
My mother is having chemotherapy. The shock, the choking sorrow have dissipated, and what remains is will and hope. Yellow, I think, is the color of faith.
When the custard is lightly browned, I take it from the oven. I serve overflowing spoonfuls into cream-colored porcelain bowls and give them to my husband and two older children. I spoon feed the baby. He will open his mouth wide like the chickadees in spring, gullet stretched to the sky, telling me in all but words that this is what he needs more than anything in the world. Take, eat, I tell them.
In my mother’s house there are many lemons.
Verona’s Lemon Casserole Custard
1 T flour
1 C sugar
pinch of salt
1/3 cube (not cup!) butter or margarine
juice and rind of one fresh lemon
3 eggs separated
1 C milk
Cream a heaping tablespoon of flour with the sugar, pinch of salt, and 1/3 cube of butter. Add the juice and rind of one lemon, the yolks of three eggs and the cup of milk. (The mixture will look quite grainy at this point; don’t worry.) Beat the egg whites until stiff and fold into the mixture. Pour into a casserole dish.
Set the casserole into another pan filled with hot water so that it comes about halfway up the sides of the casserole. Bake at 350 for about an hour.