A lesson and a recipe

October 17,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I’m not normally a jealous person. I’ve learned, over the years, that jealousy is a pretty fruitless emotion, and it makes you feel bad, too, which is never good. But yesterday I stood in the sweltering heat (86 degrees! It’s October, remember?) at the walk-up line at L.’s school. My shoes were too hot, my pants too hot, my shirt too hot, my hair too hot. Leaves trickled down from the trees above but they were dry, pathetic-looking leaves, not the crisp bright colors you get with a good fall. I felt peevish--even angry, about being cheated yet again of good fall weather, the season I love the most. I was tired of heat, tired of bugs, tired of being hot. Then a fellow mom came up behind me with her toddler son and we got to talking about school.

This is where the jealousy part comes in. You see, they are moving this spring--moving to a small, idyllic, New England town.“We’ll be right on the water,” she told me. And then I felt it: that grip (or pang) of jealousy that cut right through me like a knife.

Small New England town! Beautiful fall weather! Cozy sweaters and snug boots! Idyllic winter wonderland scenes! Rugged coastlines and sea air! This is the landscape that I crave, not the muggy, bug-infested, overgrown, downright jungle-like landscape of these parts. It’s not just the idea of a better climate that tempts me, but a Utopian grass-is-greener idea that somehow, if we could just get to the right place, my sensitive, high-needs son would do better. I imagine him combing a beach for odds and ends, or delighting in a massive snowfall come winter time. I imagine a landscape that will offer him something (I don’t know what, exactly) that he’s not getting here. I imagine a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment that will fill us all up inside. I grumped and groused inside about it all afternoon. I must tell Scott about this, I told myself at various points. I must talk to him about how I hate fall around here. I must tell him about this family who gets to (lucky them) move to the small idyllic New England town and we DON'T!

But then, as always happens, I got too busy to think about my grouchy inner monologues. We went home. We swept acorns. We swatted bugs. Scott came home, and we gathered in the kitchen briefly, talking and preparing dinner, while the kids ran in and out being, well, just kids. Our kids. The daylight began to diminish little by little as we ate, and T. and I walked Willa after dinner, and watched the shadows lengthen and the early daylight moon appear over the trees. A few stray leaves trickled from the trees above.

"Look, Mama!" T. exclaimed. "Fall is here!"

And I guess it is, really. I guess my own inner turmoil about what I want from here, or what I'm not getting, is mine alone. For my kids, fall is here--in plain and simple and beautiful ways.

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None of this has stopped me, of course, from trying to bake my way into fall. On Wednesday I made the most delicious cake--not a fall cake, really, but a delicious one all the same, and it filled the house with a warm vanilla smell. This isn't a made-from-scratch cake, mind you--it's been far too crazy and difficult a week for that. But sometimes wonderful things can come from boxes.

On Wednesday night I was looking through the cabinets for something to bake, and I found a box of Trader Joe's vanilla bean cake mix. But I really wanted something with chocolate, too, so I dug further into the cabinet and found half a bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips. What would happen, I wondered, if I tossed the chips into the batter? What happened was, of course, that the chips sank to the bottom of the cake while it baked, which I should have guessed would happen. But the results were amazing! The chips at the bottom mixed with the crust in a spectacular golden, chewy, chocolaty way that's just so delicious.

This might just be my current favorite cake in the whole world. It's quick, and delicious, and satisfies both the urge for vanilla and the urge for gooey chocolate--perfection, in every sense of the word.