One day this past summer, I got a craving for my mother’s famous lemon dessert (she died / let me say that right here). Over the years, my sister, Amy, and I have often called each other up in search of the recipe. “Is this it?” Amy would say, then read off a list of ingredients. “No,” I’d say. “That sounds too much like lemon bars. It doesn’t seem like it would have that light, whipped texture like Mom’s did.” (“Bars” are what Minnesotans call anything sweet and gooey baked in a cake pan and cut in squares.)
I remembered my mother (golden haired / fatigued) making the dessert on the nights she hosted Sewing Club, an informal group of women who got together once a month and worked on various sewing projects while they “visited,” drank coffee (never alcohol) and ate dessert. The location rotated month to month, and likely my mother dreaded when it was her turn since we lived in the trailer court (butt end of trailer faced graveyard) and I knew this brought great shame to her.
The women all had names like Pixie (pockmarked / redhead), Diane, Faye (rich from real estate) and Marcia (knobby tall). This was the 1970s, and although I have no recollection of feminism hitting our small town, my mother and her friends did demonstrate a certain female solidarity (accidentally?). The sewing part of the club (popped-off buttons / embroidered dishtowels) was just an excuse for them to gather. As Amy has said later, “It was almost like an ahead-of-their-time book club.” Men were absent. My father loved it because he could go to the bar and drink (buy rounds for all / lose money on scratch-offs / get drunk / win points with townsfolk for being fun-loving crazyass guy). I loved it because I knew it meant lemon dessert was on the menu.
I’ve looked and looked through my mother’s recipe box, which is white with strawberries around the lid and very sticky.
(INSERT PHOTO OF RECIPE BOX HERE)
(but make sure photo doesn’t show the stuff on your bulletin board or little Rolodex with a monkey sticker on it / stage the recipe box somewhere that looks clean yet warm and personal / remove books, cell phone chargers, mugs, mail/ make sure your shadow isn’t hanging over the image / decide against it)
One day I brought the recipe box up to my study and accidentally dropped it, ruining years of careful organization and order (true / not true / it did fall and spill but not so bad). As I sat there trying to sort the recipes into the correct categories, I noticed that some of them were in my mother’s handwriting (classic Palmer cursive) and some of them were in my grandmother’s handwriting (feathery blue Bic).
I began to wonder: had my mother also inherited her mother’s recipe box just as I had hers? Like her, I would now add my own recipes to it, making it a three-generation collection of family recipes. My grandmother’s era (Bacon Grease Molasses Cookies), my mother’s generation (Tater Tot Hotdish), and my generation (Chicken and Chickpea Tagine). The difference between my recipes and theirs, though (besides the profusion of ethnic dishes), was that theirs always provided a careful crediting of sources: Tuna Hot Dish (Aunt Rosemary), Egg Casserole (Church), German Sugar Cookies (from Alma Meyer via Laura Litfin). Mine, on the other hand, were without personal links, a hodgepodge of cultures, places and influences I couldn’t credit even if I tried.
I searched through every single recipe but couldn’t find the lemon dessert (as I write this, it’s snowing / kids are skiing / I’m listening for the mailman / I keep forgetting this is supposed to be about the lemon dessert). I did, however, find an odd recipe.
Hot Dish for 50.
2 lbs. egg noodles, boiled
2 lbs. Velveeta cheese
3 lge. cans tomato soup
8 lbs. hamburger
½ lbs. onions, chopped
1 stk. margarine
(For fifty?) My only guess was my grandma had gotten it from church. Maybe someone from The Ladies Aid (martyrs) had given it to her since whenever a member of the congregation died, each “lady” (baby soft hair / powdery blush / slacks / sweatshirt with kitty or snowman / navy Keds) was required to bring a large hot dish “to pass.”
I also found a recipe for my grandma’s spaghetti sauce that used to be my favorite. I hadn’t thought of it for decades, and seeing it triggered an intense memory of pleasure and comfort (the Lord’s Supper painting in her kitchen / white metal kitchen cupboards / chickadee feeder out the window / heater blowing behind velvety recliner > my spot). It was the mildest, gentlest spaghetti sauce ever (almost not a spaghetti sauce). She’d sauté minced onions in butter until they were very, very soft, then add a can of Campbell’s tomato soup (not generic / not her) and a spoonful of sour cream and a pinch of sugar and simmer until it bubbled. It made her tiny kitchen steam up and smell sweet and tangy.
But still no recipe for the elusive lemon dessert.
For almost a week, I left messages for Amy (mostly texts / we’re texters), asking if she had the recipe. Finally, one day in July, she called me. After catching up on every little thing (mostly her things), I circled back to the lemon dessert recipe.
“No,” Amy said. “I never found it, but I have it in my head. It’s called Borden’s Lemon Dessert.”
“What? You’ve had it in your head all this time and never told me?” (upset but acting not upset).
“Well, it’s hard to explain. I’ve never written it down.”
“So let’s hear it!” I said. “I have a pen. I’m ready.”
It was a gorgeous summer day (maybe / I think). Sun spilled onto my desk and all over the recipe cards I’d dug out of my mother’s box. I scribbled everything down while Amy narrated the recipe to me.
“So you take one package of graham crackers, just crackers, no butter or anything, and crush them all up for the crust. It’s weird how pans can be so different. It should be enough if you use a regular pan.”
I asked her if she used the one our mother had given us each for our birthdays once—an aluminum 9×13 with a sliding green cover with our names engraved on them.
“No, mine got a hole in the side of it. Wore out.” (Could that really happen? / How would a hole form on the side of a pan?)
“Anyway—oh! Save some of the cracker crumbs to sprinkle on top. Okay. Then mix 2 cans of Borden’s or whatever brand sweetened condensed milk. Then the juice of 4 real lemons. I tried it once in a hurry with fake lemon juice and it was terrible. But maybe use 5 lemons. I can’t remember. Just taste it a lot. It should be tart.”(Our mother only used fake lemon juice / green bottle / yellow cap /real lemons cost.)
(INSERT PHOTO OF REALEMON BOTTLE HERE)
(but why? / is it because the little lemon-shaped squeeze bottle is so iconic of childhood? / the 1970s? / what does it add to this narrative though? / if your mother’s old recipe box didn’t make the cut, why should this? / it’s commodification/ actually, not really / more or less a strong wish to keep readers sustained / stimulated / grounded / it’s unnecessary / decide against it.)
“Okay,” I said, and wrote it all down.
“So then,” she continued, “refrigerate that for a while. Then whip like a big carton of real whipping cream, and add sugar—just enough to make it nice and sweet but not too sweet. Then sprinkle the extra graham cracker crumbs on top. And it’s best overnight. To chill it overnight. You know, so the wet stuff kind of soaks into the crust. Yeah, umm. I think that’s it.”
I told her how excited I was to make the lemon dessert (finally), which brought up a whole other conversation about our mother, and Sewing Club, and the past.
“You know what today is, right?” she said (see title).
Usually I was the one who called my siblings on the anniversary of our mother’s death, so I was glad Amy brought it up. “I know,” I said. “It seems like just yesterday she was here” (6 years/5 months/23 days/I could figure out the hours but that would be false / exaggeration as lie).
“Really?” Amy said. “It seems so far away to me. Like it was so long ago.”
I could feel the way time had softened the edges of my memories. I could still see my mother’s warm brown eyes, but the basic shape of her face (perfect oval) was slipping from me, the way she held a cup of coffee (Chase Sanborn/Corelle cup) or chuckled as she was telling a story—fading.
“Anyway, I should go,” Amy said. “I have to go shoot T-ball pictures today. It seems like that’s what I’ve been doing all summer long.” (Amy’s kinder than me / more socially open / I read / I hide / I fret.)
“Yeah,” I said. “I have to go get the kids.”
After we said goodbye, I found one of my mother’s blank recipe cards (wanted it to be cute with maybe hearts / cuckoo clocks / spatulas / but no > plain ), and began filling it out.
“Mom’s Sewing Club Lemon Dessert,” I titled it (is it horrible to admit that I’m proud of my handwriting? / I get compliments on it sometimes). Then, giving credit where credit was due, I wrote, “From Barb Panning, via Amy Panning Hardel, July 27, 2011.” I tucked it back in the sticky recipe box in the section labeled “Sweets,” and felt a small piece of history settle (echo) into place.
(INSERT DELETED PHOTOS HERE)