Every year when I was growing up, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the stern adults who peopled the landscape of my childhood, making me miserable much of the time, became almost sweet-faced each year as they asked this question.
“Is your mother making mints this year?”
I used to wonder—how could I possess knowledge of my mother’s plans? My life was only a part of some grand, unfathomable scheme of hers. But those who constituted the authorities in my young life—the public school teachers, girl scout leaders, my piano teacher, even my sharp-tongued Hungarian ballet teacher—became nearly conspiratorial with me at these times. Their faces betrayed the smallest smile, became momentarily foreign, inquiring about those mints.
“Of course I’m making mints. I’m waiting for the right time.”
She always said that. She always said she had to wait for the right time. Why? we asked her. Why couldn’t she make them now, tonight?”
“It’s not cold enough,” she’d say. Or, “Willie can’t come over tonight.”
Willie was the woman who, for the space of one whole evening, had the unbelievable power to make our doting and indulging mother forget entirely about us. Because as those two women waltzed in and out the back door, pulling long ropes of taffy between their two pairs of hands, in maneuvers as complex as figure skaters, they talked. They exchanged the news of the town.
It seemed to me that Willie knew more of the world outside our kitchen than our mother did. Willie would reveal whose daughter had to get married, and whose son finally committed an act shameful enough to send him off to a military academy. While she listened, our mother’s eyes would fix on the taffy.
The two women would twist the rope of taffy, then pull it into a thin strand, each backing up—a predetermined number of steps it seemed—then they gathered it again, coming together with their four hands, in a move that reminded me of my teen-aged sister dancing the jitterbug with her many boyfriends.
“Watch out Willie, it’s starting to turn.”
With those words, they would step out of the kitchen onto the back porch, where the winter air would keep the worst from happening— the worst being that the carefully tended taffy would turn to sugar. There, on the square of concrete that was our back porch, they exhaled small clouds. When the crisis had passed, they would move, in tandem, through the screen door, back into the warm kitchen, where rows of food coloring lined the back of a marble slab that had been laid out on the kitchen counter. I used to study the configuration of gray veins running through the stark white surface of that marble slab. It was smooth as silk or velvet, white as sugar, or snow, impossibly white. It was, we understood, a necessity for the magic of the mints. Though the marble slab was heavy, seemed to weigh a ton, it was also fragile, another oxymoron that daunted me. I was told that if it dropped a certain way, the slab would shatter like cut glass.
It took two people to place the marble slab on the kitchen counter, and I don’t believe our father helped with that chore. Our father was very nearly useless at these times. He sat in the living room, smoking, banished from the kitchen. His own authority held no sway, even over our rambunctious attempts to regain our dominance in the household.
Our father did, however, provide one essential service in this regard. From his drugstore downtown, from a supply closet that smelled of sulfur, he brought home the oil of peppermint. It came in a small brown bottle with a label that looked as if it had been designed and printed around the turn of the century. The oil was dispensed with a teeny little glass eyedropper, too delicate for us to hold. From that tiny eyedropper though, came an aroma the size of the Grand Canyon. The fragrance of peppermint stayed inside the house for days and we lived with it like a relative that we knew so well we could almost but not quite ignore.
While Willie and Mother moved inside and out, from the kitchen to the back porch, doing the dance of the mints, oil of peppermint scented the air entirely. The fragrance seemed heavy somehow, and intoxicating, sensual. I used to hang onto the door frame between the kitchen and the dining room, letting my head fall and breathing that peppermint. I would think: mints, mints, soon, soon. Mints to pop into your mouth until you get sick of them.
But we never did get sick of them, only of their long and tedious production, which was swathed in mystery, an aspect I hated.
Most things were mysterious to me when I was a child. I could not seem to ferret adequate information out of the stubborn adults around me. For the life of me, I could not discover how corn syrup, sugar, and oil of peppermint could combine to form these pastel-colored mints our teachers seemed to crave. After all, the mints started out as a clear liquid swirling in the ordinary pan we used to make mashed potatoes or its even duller counterpart—cream of wheat. Then, at some time determined by our mother and Willie, a tiny amount of this swirling liquid was dropped into a chipped coffee cup that held plain water. If a little ball formed in the water quickly enough to suit these two women, it was time to pour the mixture onto the marble slab, then knead it like bread dough until another appointed instant when the taffy was ready to pull. The ropes of taffy held a certain shine, visible only to Mother and Willie, and that small gloss, I was given to understand, was why Mother kept her analytical stare straight on the taffy ropes even when Willie was revealing the most startling news ever. The moment the shine was almost gone; that was the proper moment to lay the taffy on the marble, add the food coloring, and cut.
The scissors to cut the mints were kept in the freezer, and after more than 35 years I can remember what they looked like and how the cold metal would feel on my fingers. Willie brought her own pair from home and they were different, black-handled.
If the mints were cut too early, they might remain taffy-like and stick to the teeth, pulling out everyone’s fillings. If they were cut too late, they’d turn to sugar. But most of the time, the mints were perfect.
Keep in mind that all this occurred during the 1950’s, a time when women didn’t worry about their weight so much and the word “sugar” was not synonymous with “poison” and “fat” not synonymous with “bad,” And we didn’t know what we think we know now about psychological phenomenon like “Seasonal Affective Disorder” or the “Christmas Blues.” No, any suggestion by a mother in the 1990’s that these mints might cure S.A.D. or the Christmas blues in one bite will be taken as lightly as mutiny on a ship.
When the 1960’s approached, Mother was still making mints. And as I got a little older, the puzzle of this candy-making became maddening to me. In school I was good at riddles, but here in my own home was a conundrum I could not untangle. How long does it take to pull the taffy? Depends. Why do we need that marble slab? Just do. So what if it turns to sugar; sugar is good. Why do we need Willie? And why in this world did we, of the prosperous upper-middle class, bring homemade presents to teachers? When even the poorest, the most countrified kids brought in something shiny, with brightly colored wrapping paper and store-bought bows? Our mints were presented in old coffee cans with plastic lids that we lined with wax paper. Why?
Why? Because after the boiling, the pounding, the pulling and the cutting, the mints emerged as cool and as light as the winter air itself. Mother swore it wasn’t possible, but I believed each pastel mint tasted differently.
Blue was music in the air and pink, candy direct from a fairy. Green was a promise, somewhere out in the backyard; and yellow—a taste inside a flower, a taste only we were privy to.
“But food coloring has no taste. It’s only color,” she’d say every year.
How could I believe that when my own mouth told me she was wrong? I was getting to the age when I thought my parents were wrong about everything. I was at the stage when I pretty much believed I’d been adopted; I was really the daughter of royalty, and soon it would be revealed, probably in the press. I planned to wave a grand good-bye to my siblings and father, but I would lay a consoling hand on the weeping woman who considered herself my mother all these years.
The mint-making continued at least as long as my elementary and junior high education. The ritual repeated itself with the regularity and predictability of our frantic, last-minute Halloween costume making, the vinegary smell of our Easter egg dye, and the way our pharmacist father took a picture of us at Christmas time and signed it “Love from the little pills.” I think the mint production probably ended with high school. By then we really were such pills our mother must have known that no mint could be sweet enough to win our teachers’ hearts.
I have two daughters now and when elementary school ended for the youngest, as I drove away from that building for the last time, having deposited my end-of-year teacher present, I couldn’t help but remember the first song they learned. It was “I’m a little teapot, short and stout.” The children would lean over with their pointed palms and sing, “Tip me over and I’ll pour out.” But it was me, their mother, who felt as if I were pouring love into that school—in the form of volunteer time and holiday gifts. Pouring love to persuade those stern-faced teachers to be sweet to my child.
Times being what they are, until I can create the no-fat variety, I won’t try homemade candy.
Human nature being what it is, and grown children being who they are, we tried, for a few years after our mother died, to make the mints ourselves. In some ways, we were barely past our own childhoods. The youngest had graduated from college only the year before. And I think our first attempt to make mints came that very first lonely Christmas, 16 days after we lost her to cancer. Someone came across the recipe, hand-written in her elegant script and, as was her nature; it was not filed away in a recipe box or even stuck inside a cookbook, but somewhere else, somewhere seemingly incongruous, like inside a novel, or her address book or checkbook. It was serendipity; we found the mint recipe! We were temporarily elated. As we tried to pull the mints fast enough to work out the shine, our arms flailed, clumsily and helplessly. My smile felt like stone, stubborn in the face of the cold, there on the back porch in the winter dark. But we were determined to keep our spirits aloft, to keep the home fires burning. There were at least four of us—my two sisters, myself and my sister-in-law. There was some laughter, some remembered good times. Then the mints turned to sugar. They looked broken and forlorn on the wooden cutting board. They crumbled into dust if we touched them. We tried again, used the Formica of the kitchen counter and remembered the frozen scissors. That time the mints didn’t dissolve into a sugary powder but stayed hard, like taffy, and at least one of us lost a filling.
The next year my sister-in-law found the marble slab. Miraculously discovered it in the old milk barn, the one, ghost-like barn that went unused for so long while the other half-dozen barns on our farm held hay, or cattle or our ponies, and for awhile, chickens. The barn where, as a teenager, I once dribbled a basketball on the cement floor; then noticed how the floor slanted down in the center to a drain. I remember the dribbling had echoed eerily, so hollow and haunted and sad that I had to leave. I realized that those drains must have been like the ones in the Nazi gas chambers I’d read about after devouring The Diary of Anne Frank and mentally rewriting the ending so that Anne could survive.
There was a short period when the milk barn was actually used as a milk barn, but by the time we lost our mother, it had long since gone back to its earlier, ghostly purpose. For some time it contained the melancholy remnants of my older sister’s marriage. She stored some of her belongings there en route from house to apartment and some had simply stayed. As for myself, I once bought a butter churn at an antique auction, but my ambitions as an antique collector faded, so the churn found a home in the milk barn.
But who moved the marble slab there? No one could remember doing it. Our father couldn’t have managed it, and our brother now owned a large dairy farm five miles away. And when had the marble slab been moved? I had been through that barn many times and stumbled over many odd items, the guitar case of my older sister’s ex-husband, the tennis racket of my younger sister, my old butter churn, and a bird cage I bought for no good reason. Suddenly, there was the marble slab. It was as if our eyes were opened to it. How many years had it been since our mother made those mints for our teachers? She became ill with cancer one year after the last child graduated from college, at a time when three of her four children were married, with homes and holiday traditions of their own. Only I was alone.
When the marble slab was discovered there, when I saw it for myself, I began to believe in the hand of God. And that one small article of faith has lifted from me a burden that I sometimes face every day. Because until that moment, I had been living under a great labor, the work of a terrible suspicion. A suspicion that there is no real love aside from maternal instinct; that there is no real romantic love, just hormones and physical urges; that there are no well-intentioned people, only people driven by guilt or fear of social reversal; that selfishness and greed are the ruling forces of the universe. It is a suspicion that there is no pure feeling, not even between family members, that even remembered birthdays results from nothing but force of habit and obligation; it is a suspicion that “the good life” is gained by genetic heritage or luck; that “good people” are harder to find now than ever before; that violence runs rampant in our society and the old adages don’t apply—hard work and a kind heart guarantee nothing but aching backs and hearts sore from the sight of evil. That finally, everything is superficial. Even the act of watering geraniums, for instance, springs not from a love of beauty or a respect for nature, but from a desire to put on a good face for the neighbors. Only for show. Only surface, nothing beneath.
This despair is a part of grief. It is perhaps the only true despair, and results, I think, from a misguided belief in a shallowness of the human spirit. It existed in me as a suspicion, a nagging in the mind, a narrow vein of thinking I did not want to live with.
Sometimes the nagging persists; my rational mind wages a war with the other part, the part that celebrates instinct and intuition. “What a ridiculous conclusion!” it argues. “God chose to lead someone to an abandoned milk barn to find a slab of marble? Or God moved the marble there by divine intervention? God relied on some silly mints to make you all feel a certain way! Ridiculous!”
To retort I recall a candy thermometer. I bought it after I left home for college and learned the scientific method and the Socratic method and declared to my family that the winter air and Willie and the marble slab were all nonsense; all we needed was a candy thermometer.
It’s there still, somewhere on a kitchen shelf, nearly unused. It never worked quite right. Never worked as well as the chipped coffee cup and the swirl of water with two women’s faces poised above it, looking to see if the liquid formed a ball. Just as we, even with the marble and the frozen scissors, never made mints that tasted quite right. Ours were too sweet or too buttery and one year I silently criticized my sister-in-law because her pastels were a shade too intense. The green, the color I thought of as a promise, was almost garish, was too bright.
Why was the marble slab put in the milk barn? Why was I the only one at home the day my mother came in crying from the draft board? If my father had been home or one of my sisters or my brother, I think she would have hidden in her bedroom. She would have told no one what went on inside the courthouse. But she told me. I knew why she could confide in me. It was because I was born with death on my lips, born after she lost her second son. He died of polio at nine; her first son was lost to a lung disorder as an infant.
Only weeks before she went to the draft board, as the Vietnam War escalated, we considered our brother safe from the threat of military duty. College students were not eligible for the draft. But that exclusion applied only to full-time students. Our brother had become secretive, had been dropping college courses, longing for the life of a farmer. We didn’t know he’d done this. But his part-time college status had not gone unnoticed at the local draft board.
It must be remembered that in the life of a small town, everyone knows everyone. We knew the head of the draft board, and he knew us. This familiarity must have made it easier for my mother when she went into the courthouse to see him at his office there. He told her about the draft’s agricultural deferment and its sole surviving son provision. The provision: the farm must need daily attention, and therefore, would have to be a dairy farm, not the beef cattle farm we owned. To meet the minimum standard we would have to have 13 dairy cows, but could produce Grade C milk, the kind used for ice cream. The head of the draft board intimated that it would be an easy exit.
But our mother did not get a graceful exit from the courthouse that day. She ran into a woman there, a woman who was a member of our church and one of our mother’s lifelong friends, but a woman who had found out what mother was up to. I knew the woman must have said something devastating because as Mother tried to relay it to me, she started sobbing.
“She said she had two sons eligible for the draft, two.” Then she started ironing, and our gentle mother began slamming the iron down, repeating herself, almost hysterical. “She said, ‘I have two sons and they both have to serve, ’ and I told her, I’ve already lost two sons, ’ and then I left because I was crying in the middle of the courthouse.”
I stood there by the ironing board, so engrossed and preoccupied by my narrow teenage world of hairstyles, parties, and my own popularity that I barely had the wherewithal to comfort her. But I knew she believed that she was fighting for the life of her son, the sole surviving son, in the courthouse that day.
I knew she had been advised, shortly before my birth, not to wish too hard for my life. The doctor told her it was likely that I’d have polio too; I might contract it in utero, in the way we now know that babies are born with AIDS. The doctors told her not to expect too much, to remember that she’d also had German measles when she was pregnant. But I believe, that because she got more than she bargained for, she knew she had a child who would live to tell the story.
When our mother was dying, she confided only in me. When she died, I was the only person there. At 24 I was still a child. Twenty years later I am 44 and trying to reconcile work and family, past and present, and where they, and I, all fit in. I meet a Native American poet who describes families as tribes and tribe members as having certain jobs. There is always, she says, born into each tribe a storyteller, someone to keep a record.
I do know I couldn’t confide in my mother about what it was like for me at school. Each year I’d overhear some teacher whisper to another: “That’s the little girl whose brother died of polio right before she was born. And she survived.” I couldn’t tell her what I deeply suspected—that none of us survived.
I couldn’t tell anyone what it was like to stand in a long line waiting for a sugar cube laced with polio vaccine when the one time I’d been given an injection with that vaccine, my arm swelled enormously, then sank; and to this day I can reach my right hand to my left arm and touch nothing but bone where I got that shot. The live virus killed the surrounding muscle where the needle penetrated my upper arm. “There’s no living tissue there,” the doctor told us. What did he mean by that? One day, when I was 10, after I’d eaten the sugar cube, I went home, got into bed, and waited to die. What did that doctor mean by. “There’s no living tissue there.” What do I mean when I say I felt “the hand of God”? I don’t even know if there is a God; maybe it’s the hand of fate. Why the marble slab? Maybe, because in that moment of turning the sweet liquid into a stiff rope of taffy, our hands enjoined—for that moment and none other, we learned why we bother to gather together.