Sometimes, something we see or hear sticks with us. Who can say why? Sometimes it tantalizes us with possibilities, or teases us with hidden agendas, or torments us because we have no clue as to the answers to the Six Primary Questions: Who? What? When? Why? Where? How? More often than not, it opens a Pandora’s Box of images, more questions, and, if you’re lucky, flights of fancy.
Once upon a time, a middle-aged man was standing in a checkout line at one of California’s major supermarkets. The man in front of him was having trouble swiping his ATM card to pay for his groceries. The middle-aged man’s attention wandered to the aisle next to him, where an older woman was buying a small number of groceries. The bagboy was doing an exceptional job keeping up with bagging the items. The middle-aged man was about to look elsewhere when the older woman sharply said “No! That should be bagged separately.”
And there it was, encased in hard plastic: an absolutely sinful looking chocolate cake, small and rich and decadent – from the bakery, no doubt. It was very much in contrast with her previous items. The older woman then, on her own, her attention focused completely on the cake, opened a paper bag, and furtively placed the cake inside, saying under her breath, “My husband mustn’t see it.”
She paid the checkout woman and left, holding the paper bag in one hand, and the plastic bags in the other. Finally the man with the troublesome ATM card gave up, and wrote a check. And the middle-aged man paid for his own groceries and left, his mind fascinated with the older woman and the chocolate cake. Because, you see, he burned to know “Why?”
Why must the cake be kept hidden from her husband? Was the cake for a secret lover? Was her husband a diabetic? Was she? Did she want to eat it all by herself, not sharing a single, delicious mouthful?
And so, many months later, the middle-aged man tried to answer that question. Finally he came to the realization that the answer was ethereal and forever out of reach; it was the question itself that mattered, that held for him a special magic. It was one of those very rare questions that held the magic of dreams.
I hope these stories give you half as much pleasure as I had in writing them, and gift you with some dreams of your own.
THE FAMILY RECIPE
Marguerite Jacqueline Goldberg walked the final flight of stairs up to her second-story condominium. She rarely went out anymore, and had not done her own grocery shopping in years. Her husband Shlomo handled that. Today she had waited, patiently, for him to dress and leave for his annual check-up at Dr. Ashraq’s office. It took ages for him to put on his hat and coat. Then, he had to find the keys to their old Cadillac. When he finally drove away, the fitful sound of the engine fading into the distance, Marguerite (or Marge, as the Americans called her) thought she might dance for joy.
She tried to, in fact. But no sooner had she shifted her weight to her left foot, when her right leg seized up. It is okay, she thought. My hands are still good. She put on her long, fashionable black coat from the 1950’s – long since out of style, but she wore it well.
As she reached the top stair, her bad leg seized again, throbbing and tingling. She stopped, waiting for the pain to pass. Frozen in place, she resembled some rare exotic bird, poised for flight. Nervously she checked her watch, twisting the left hand which held the plastic bags containing the other groceries she had bought so she wouldn’t feel guilty about the one purchase that mattered. The purchase she had secreted away in the paper bag held tightly in her right hand.
It was, she saw, one hour later than when she had left the house. She still had enough time left. After finally making it to her door, and entering the simple but elegantly furnished anteroom, she hurried to the kitchen. She placed the plastic bags on the counter, where they were all but forgotten. The paper bag she cautiously placed on the kitchen table. She collapsed into a chair, both exhilarated and exhausted. Taking a moment, she caught her breath. Opening the paper bag, she removed its contents and placed it in front of her: the reason for months of sleepless nights. She stared, hopeful and hopeless, at her nemesis: the chocolate cake. How, she thought, had it come to this?
Months before, her best friend Juliette came over for coffee. She had known Juliette for over 60 years, since they were girls in Normandy, France. They had grown up together. When Marguerite moved to the United States with her husband, Juliette moved a few months later. She met her own husband, Harold, and raised six children. She hadn’t seen much of Juliette since Harold’s death, a few years earlier.
After they embraced, Marguerite took a good look at her lifelong friend. Juliette seemed pinched – thin and frail – not at all the robust mother of six and tower of strength she remembered. After her first sip of coffee, Juliette sighed deeply. “Marguerite,” she said quietly and with longing, “why don’t you bake anymore?”
Marguerite put down her coffee, and wondered why, after some many years, she asked a question to which she already knew the answer to. “Juli,” she began, “you know, when I moved to America, Shlomo insisted that I not work. He wanted me to stay at home, and raise a family.”
“But, you have no children. Surely…” began Juliette.
“No! He always hoped the doctors were wrong. Even after we were too old…I couldn’t. It would be too painful.”
“But your family have been bakers for 700 years. Certainly now you could…”
“No!” cried Marguerite. She was very close to tears now. “Shlomo made me choose: to be a baker, or to be his wife. He gave me a choice that was no choice.”
“I am so very sorry, ma cherie,” said Juliette. “I did not mean to upset you. But I was thinking how much I miss your Chocolate Miracle. Remember how, when we were girls, I would beg your grand-mere for the recipe, and how she would laugh her wonderful laugh and tell me ‘It’s a family secret. But you can always ask my Marguerite to make it for you.’ Remember?”
Marguerite did remember. The Chocolate Miracle was a cake made only for friends and family, royalty and celebrated artistes. It was what had prompted King Louis XIV to call her family “The Chocolate Magicians.” She nodded.
“I was hoping you would make one, for old time’s sake,” asked Juliette.
“I cannot, Juli. You know I cannot.”
“Very well,” Juilette replied, in a strange flat voice. “I just thought I would find out if the cake I had the other day really was better than your Chocolate Miracle. But now, I’ll never know. I’ll have to buy one at the supermarket – you know, the one just up the street.”
Marguerite stood very, very still. She could not believe her ears! No one – no one! – had ever questioned the supremacy of her family’s baking skills. And here was Juliette, her best friend, doing just that. There was only one thing to do. She stood up, and straightened her back. Not even her bad leg dared to trouble her when her pride was challenged. “Juli, I will bake the cake. You will be the first to experience it in 40 years. How can you forget what heaven tastes like? But you must bring me the ingredients, and take them with you when you go. Shlomo mustn’t know about this.”
And so, when Shlomo went on his weekly trip to the library, Juliette climbed the stairs. Opening the door, Marguerite couldn’t help but notice how pained her friend looked. They both laid out the ingredients on the kitchen table. Then Marguerite hustled Juli into the living room. “No one must watch me work,” she explained. The secret of making the Chocolate Miracle belonged to her family. It would, alas, die with her.
She put the cake in the oven, and carefully washed the bowls and utensils; wiped the counters; mopped the floor; and packed the ingredients away. She opened the kitchen windows, so the divine aroma of the cake would not linger, making Shlomo suspicious. As she joined her best friend, she saw Juliette tremble, and start to cry.
“Ma cherie, what is wrong?” asked Marguerite.
“I cry for you,” Juliette sobbed gently, “that someone who says he loves you made you give up something you love. Oh, Marguerite, what an incredible success you could have had here! You were an amazing baker!”
“Juli, I am still a baker. I choose not to bake, for love. That is all.”
“It is not fair!” cried her friend.
“No,” agreed Marguerite, “it is not. But now, now – the Chocolate Miracle is ready.” She took the cake out of the oven, and wrapped the pan in towels. “Now you must go. Then tell me if my Chocolate Miracle is still the best.”
“But, Marguerite, it is in your pan – the one with the family crest. This is what? – 250 years old, or more…”
“Shlomo does not know that I have it. Keep it. It will be safe with you. Now go, and eat. I must know your answer.”
“Thank you, ma cherie. This means so very much to me.” And that was the last she heard or saw Juliette. No visit, no phone call, no letter. Each morning, for months, she would awaken hoping that, today, Juliette would tell her which cake was the best. She hid her obsession from her husband. He never noticed her jitters or occasional nervous tics.
Yesterday, her world turned upside-down. That afternoon, her doorbell rang. She could barely contain her emotions as she opened the door…to a stranger. In her hand she held Marguerite’s baking pan, the one with her family’s crest, the one she had given to Juliette.
“Excuse me,” said the woman, “Are you Marguerite Jacqueline Doucement? My name is Marie-Claire. Juliette was my mother.” Marguerite felt her bad leg give way, and found herself caught up in the young woman’s strong arms. She smelled of exotic spices – cinnamon and cardamom. “I’m sorry. I’ve a bad habit of being abrupt. Let’s get you seated. Oh – I’m sorry! May I come in?”
After getting settled, Marguerite gathered up her courage, and spoke. “What do you mean, Juli was your mother?”
“I am so, so sorry.” And Marie-Claire told her when her mother had passed away. It was the very same day Marguerite had made the Chocolate Miracle.
“She knew she was dying. She hated knowing, and she hated not knowing when even more. The doctors told her, no more sweets. She hated that advice the most.” Marguerite nodded. That sounded just like Juliette. “We found her in the kitchen. She was wearing her best clothes. In her hand was an empty fork, and on the counter was this empty pan. It is yours, I think.” And Marie-Claire handed Marguerite the pan.
“Why did no one tell me sooner,” asked Marguerite, “She never told me she was dying, that she couldn’t – if I had known, I would never – Oh!”
“Yes,” said Marie-Claire, and her eyes were kind. “No one told you sooner, because most of my family thought you had helped her.”
“I don’t understand,” said Marguerite, “helped her what?”
“Why, to kill herself. Whatever it was you baked for her, well – she ate all of it. The doctors said all that sugar, and butter…well. But she used to tell us all about you, and your marvelous baking: your pies, your cakes, your Chocolate Miracle…”
Marguerite gave a little cry.
“I thought so,” smiled Juliette’s daughter. “I know she would not have told you, otherwise, as you have said, you would not have made it for her. You baked her that cake, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Marguerite, brushing away a tear.
“I would dream about that cake. Mother made it sound like the most wonderful thing in the world. That’s one of the reasons why I became a pastry chef.” Marie-Claire beamed, and stood up. “It has been a pleasure to finally meet you, even under such sorrowful circumstances.”
Marguerite Jacqueline Goldberg nee Doucement felt her pride swell. “Wait,” she said quietly, “wait. I have something to give you. Have some coffee, while I find a pen and some paper.” And so it was that Marguerite passed on her family’s most secret recipe to the daughter of her dear childhood friend.
“Please,” asked Marguerite, holding her breath, “Please tell me when you found her – did she leave a note…a message about my cake?”
“No, we found no note,” replied Marie-Claire. Marguerite’s nerves caught on fire. She had to know the answer! “But,” continued the young woman, “she had the oddest smile on her face – as if she had just played a trick, and was the only one who knew about it.”
Now she sat in front of it, the store-made cake Juliette had taunted her with, the one she had hinted might be better than hers.
She raised her fork, and gouged a small piece out of the cake. Her hand began to tremble, and the piece of cake fell off of the fork and onto the table in a shower of chocolate crumbs. Marguerite, as she cleaned up the small mess, began to laugh. How silly of her, she thought, an old woman, to get so worked up over a piece of cake. What did it really matter?
It mattered a great deal. She had to know. With amazing speed, she sent the fork aloft and sheared off a piece of her prey, and tasted it. Then she cleaned the plates and fork, took the cake outside to the trash, and erased all signs that she had been such a fool. Now she knew the truth, and could rest.
When her husband came home, he noticed something different about her. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, though. Had he been more observant, he would have noticed her smile.
It was an odd little smile, one that her friend Juliette would have known very well.