She Always Knew

She always knew how to do things. I got engaged and my family threw me a bridal shower. She took me aside and away from the judging eyes of our grandmother, gave me a tasteful piece of lingerie. To this day, it's the only lingerie I've received as a gift. She always knew.

I had a baby, she sent flowers from the best florist in town. How did she know it was the best florist when she lived 300 miles away? I didn't question it. She always knew.

She was a hair stylist, and from the ages of 15 to 25, she was the only one who touched my hair. It was only after I moved to another state that I allowed someone else to cut and style my auburn locks.  In those days when I sat in her chair, I marveled at her insight into people, politics and family dynamics. I hope she knew, she was the sage in our family.

Our grandfather died. She collected money from all the cousins and ordered a funeral spray. It was stunning. The ribbon across the giant bouquet read "Beloved Honey" (that's what we called him). It was a perfect tribute to our grandfather. She always knew how to do things.

She was in her 44th year, soon to turn 45. I received a shocking phone call. Michelle was in the hospital, her condition grave. She had collapsed at home and likely had had a heart attack. My family members nearby were rushing to be with her.

She taught us the importance of Dia de los Muertos in the years leading up to her death. She started coming up to Northern California to participate in our local community event. The year before she died she painted her brother and nephew's faces in the traditional skull and marched alongside them carrying candles. The next year she would be gone. 

Last year was the first Dia de los Muertos without Michelle. Our larger cousin clan gathered, painted our faces and marched for her, like she always knew we would.


The Down Vest (my armor)

Fall is here and so is my vest. I love my vest. It's a thick black down vest with giant pockets.The pockets are so big I could fit a newborn or litter of kittens in each one. My mother wears a robe around the house, I wear a vest. It is not the fashionably fitted cute kind most moms wear. It's boxy, roomy and perfect.

Some days I sleep in it, other days I remove it prior to climbing into bed and hang the lofty friend off the bed post. It is my armor.

The vest was a Christmas present. In those first weeks of acquaintance, the vest mostly hung  in the closet. I was unsure where it fit into my life. Slowly, I started wearing it on short trips to the grocery store, then to volunteer at school. I decided the vest was a good thing. I did not have to carry a purse when I wore it. My wallet, phone, sunglasses and keys all fit with ease in the voluminous pockets. When I wear the vest, I can turn the thermostat down a few degrees. A box of tissues even fit into the pocket which is helpful during flu season. My daughter needs a rubber band for her ponytail, I probably have one in my pocket. The house phone rings, it's in my pocket. My cell phone buzzes, it's in the other pocket. My husband calls the vest my uniform.

I love the warmth the vest offers. Warmth is security. You never hear of someone who is hot and scared, it is always cold and scared. Being too hot indicates ill health. Being warm is perfect. Like the intuitive baby bear in the Goldie Locks fairy tale, warm is just right. I do not fight with my kids or husband when I wear my vest. It makes my home life easier.When I'm warm, all is right.

A couple of years ago my husband and I were invited to a Christmas party. At the end of the night the guests grabbed their jackets and coats and emerged into the cold winter night. We were the last to leave. I found the coat closet, picked up a lonely down vest and kissed the hosts good-bye.

As we drove home I noticed my vest felt a little bigger than usual. I let the thought pass as my husband drove on.

At home I walked straight to our room. I removed my vest to sling it over the bedpost and suddenly stopped. There was already a vest hanging on the bedpost. I picked up both vests and compared the labels. They were the same brand and color, but different sizes. Obviously I had grabbed the vest by mistake (and oddly had forgotten I didn't wear the vest to the party in the first place).

I e-mailed the hosts to alert them about the wayward vest. No reply. I saw the hosts again for New Year's Eve and I mentioned the vest. They said nobody had claimed the orphaned vest. The conversation ended.

I now own two vests. They keep each other company on the bed post on those days and moments when I am vest free. Perhaps the universe knew I needed the armor and sent a back-up.



The review of Desert Cabaret in the morning paper was a sign that I had landed. I was home. I slowly read the words, which filled me with pride: “The lead stole the show, his sparkle lit the night."

Desert Cabaret is now showing in ‘the biggest little city in the world'; Reno. I moved here because I answered a call. I grew up in Chester, a small town in the Sierra Nevadas. I never fit in at school and besides mom, my only ‘friends’ were the school nurse and an English teacher from freshman year.

The day after high school graduation my mom found me lying in bed. I was depressed and staring through the window without much thought; my leg was hurting more than usual.
“You should try Reno,” she said. Mom knew I would never be happy in Chester. The smart kids were off to college and the stout ones had jobs in the lumber mills; I was neither of these.

I rolled over, “Why Reno?”

She bounced out and came back to my room with a crisp newspaper. “Look at this terrific ad,” she chirped, “it’s asking for ‘actors of every make’, that’s you.”

A new casino had taken out a full-page color ad in the local paper. The newest card house was to focus on ‘Vegas style shows’. The call asked for everything from actors and singers to comedians and dancers. I sat up straight and read the entire ad; trying Reno seemed plausible.

Throughout high school, mom had always urged me to audition for all school plays. The lead was never mine, however and I blamed it on my limp. I was cast in endless minor roles: the keystone cop, the odd-uncle, the little brother. They were small parts, but I always transformed them into memorable moments on-stage-- small moments that made us both proud.

Mom drove me to Reno to audition. I could not drive, because we did not yet have a car fit for my leg. When we reached the city, she pulled off the freeway and into a sea of crawling cars. The slow traffic and ticking clock required me to walk the last few blocks to the casino. I emerged from the car at the nearest curb and like a tumbleweed, walked with gusts of wind toward my destination. As I neared the entrance, I felt suddenly at home and began to walk a little straighter. Young men and women gathered on the sidewalk leading toward the entryway. I saw many familiar faces, but yet none known. 
I dazzled on stage and found the lead. Did the director notice my limp? I wondered just once. 
Reno is now my home. My first floor apartment is where I sleep and eat and the casino theater is my living room. I re-read the review as I pulled on my knee-sleeve and prepared my leg for the day. I didn’t need to send the article to my mom, she knew without reading that I was in the right place. Reno called and she helped me answer.


Flash Fiction: The Sunday Night Call

Sunday Night November 4,  9:00pm

"Hey sweetie, it’s your Sunday night call. Well, um I missed you again—I’ve missed you the last few Sundays, I hope you're doing well. I sure love talking to my sweet daughter."

"I remember that you started that new job—I hope you’re liking it. Your last boss sounded like a real jerk. I still can’t understand it; giving you a hard time for going to a weekly dentist appointment. Appearance is everything when you're a receptionist. He should be grateful that you wanted to look your best. He didn’t deserve to have a hard working girl like you in his office. It’s good you quit. Next time though, you need to have a job in hand before giving notice—I thought I taught you and your sisters that."

"Anyway, I'm glad I could help you out. I saw that you had cashed the check I sent. I hope I sent enough— rent, car payment, groceries, other unforeseeables. Yeah, I think I sent enough. If you need more cash before that first paycheck though, just let me know; I’d hate to see you put things on a credit card. I didn’t get my first credit card until I was 35, I still can't understand how you got a credit card in college. You needed to graduate with a degree, not debt. Ugh! Well, if you’re short – it’s best to call me at the office. Your mom thinks I help you girls out too much, so call me there and we will keep her out of it. "

"Hey, if you get a chance this week, call Grandpa. He has not been doing well. It would have been your grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversary last Thursday. He just can’t believe she’s gone. Your grandmother always talked about what a grand party she wanted to plan for their 50th— at the country club with all her sisters from Kansas and all the grandkids. She wanted an ice sculpture, punch table and a steak dinner.  She really looked forward to throwing that party.  Hard to think she’s been gone four months now. She was a neat lady. Her sisters and you kids came to her funeral instead of her party— sad.  Anyhow, give Grandpa a call if you can. He says he can always hear your smile over the phone when you call. It would really make him happy to hear your pretty voice."

"Alright sweetie, I will hang up now. I hope you answer next Sunday. And I am serious, if you need a little cash before that first check, just call me at the office. Oh, also Election Day is Tuesday, I hope you vote. Remember voting is the only way we can have our say in this country. Maybe your new boss will give you some time off to go vote—just an idea. "

"Okay, I love you, talk to you next week, keep up your hard work.  Bye."

Sunday Night November 11,  9:00pm

"Hey Sweetie, it’s your Sunday night call. Well, um I guess I missed you again…"

The Chocolate Cake

In January 2008 I threw a dinner party to celebrate the birthdays of two dear friends. What was served for dinner has faded from memory, but what was served for dessert has not. The dessert enjoyed that cold winter evening was chocolate, dark, moist and amazing. The recipe in Food & Wine magazine titled the cake: Crunchy Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Layer Cake. The name alone inspired me to create it for my friends. The recipe claimed the cake took four hours to prepare; I found it took six, but I loved every minute.  As I finished the cake and topped it with ganache, the thick chocolate ran over the sides of the cake and overflowed onto the counter-top. The mess and mass of chocolate worried me: Would the cake be too much for the crowd to handle? 

After the table had been cleared of the dinner plates, I anxiously jumped up to slice and serve the cake. Many of those in attendance begged that the slices be thin, for they were 'not that into sweets' or 'watching what they ate’. I tried my best to make the slices thin, but the cake demanded just the opposite. The plates of the dark brown slices were passed about. A few plates were returned to the kitchen half-eaten, but most of the guests slowly enjoyed the cake in amazement. "What is this?" I was asked more than once. I reveled telling the story of the recipe and all the marvelous ingredients...rice krispies, sliced almonds, creamy peanut butter and over a pound of chocolate. I also got to say words like ganache and meringue which filled me with pride.

A small amount of cake was leftover from the evening’s festivities and one friend happily volunteered to escort it home. The cake was wrapped and sent away. I went to bed that night pleased with the dinner party and dreaming of cake.

One week later
I received an e-mail inviting me to a lunchtime gathering of old co-workers. One of the women in attendance was the same dinner guest who had taken the cake home the week prior.  During lunch, I found the leftover cake made it to the office. After the word ‘cake’ was blurted, the conversation turned to all things cake. They loved it. They marveled over it and I again got to talk proudly of my master baker moments.

Then the proposition came: The dinner guest asked, "Will you make it for my 40th birthday?"

"Of course!"

Five years later
My friend, the dinner guest, is turning 40. She has decided that renting a house in Healdsburg is the perfect way to celebrate her grand day. The e-mails are sent and I’m asked to bring a side dish. I remembered about the cake, but since it was her day I figured that she had something else in mind for dessert and I didn't want to impose. The day in Healdsburg was beautiful. The friends, the setting, the weather, the food, it was all good. Then came dessert...

A stupendous chocolate fondue platter with fruits, cookies and marshmallows for dipping into either dark or milk chocolate had been prepared. The crowd clamored over the fondue; nobody could get enough. The children were almost shark-like in their frenzy.

As we were polishing off the tray of fruit and other goodies, my friend turned to me and mentioned the cake, “Do you remember the cake you made a few years ago?”

A tingle went down my spine, yes the cake! “Of course I remember the cake. I would've been happy to make it and I will make it again.” 

Two weeks ago 

The same dinner party group has an annual Christmas party. When the date was set in early December, I immediately offered to bring dessert and simultaneously started the hunt for the November 2007 issue of Food and Wine (yes, I do save those special issues of food magazines but could not remember if I was looking for Bon Appetit or Gourmet which hindered the search).
Baking the cake took a little less effort; this time taking five hours to prepare instead of six. In the final step of preparation, I poured the ganache over the cake. I held my breath waiting for the ganache to overflow onto the counter and…this time it did not. Had I made a mistake or had I mastered the cake? It was midnight and I had to wait a whole day to find out. I stored the cake safely beneath a domed cake plate and stored it in the frigid garage overnight.  

Party time! 
We were the first guests to the party. My husband offered to carry the cake from the car, but I declined. I carried it through the house confidently and asked the host to make room for the cake in the outside refrigerator. The second dinner guests arrived. After greetings and hugs they announced they'd brought chocolate martinis. The crowd cheered and the hostess begged, “Are you making these martinis now?”

“No, I thought I would make them for dessert.” The husband replied.

My heart sank. I was worried that the martinis would outshine the cake or that guests would opt for one over the other.  I asked for a glass of champagne and took a moment to strategize. After a few handfuls of nuts and a glass of champagne, I offered to the host,   “hey, let’s have the chocolate martinis right after dinner and cut the cake after we open presents.”

“Perfect!” she piped.

And perfect it was… (and my dreams are are still tinged in chocolate)