Thursday, August 24, 2006

Sweetness and My Father's Voice

I used to make lemon pie for my father. He said its sweetness was light on the tongue and the tang lasted all the way down his throat. It was his favorite. In a double boiler I'd stir five egg yolks and an overflowing cup of sugar, some butter, a little cornflour and the outer rind grated off two lemons. As it thickened, I'd squeeze the juice out of the fruit itself, pulp and seeds and all, flicking out the larger pieces as I stirred. I made the crust beforehand and baked it some. When the sauce was thick enough I poured it into the crust and let it sit while I made a meringue. He liked lots of meringue so I put several egg whites in a steel bowl and beat them till they were frothy and white, standing up in plurps as I pulled the spoon away. Then I added a spoonful of clear vinegar, some vanilla, and sugar until it was shiny. I heaped it up on the nearly cooled pie into a sort of mountain, spiraling around with a spatula, finishing off with a loop, and baked it just enough to crisp the meringue beige with little golden beads here and there, like sweat.

My father sometimes had a piece later on after supper, if there was any left. He savored it in a way I find myself doing, licking off both sides of the spoon after each bite, running my tongue over the inside of my teeth. When he read to us in the evenings, with me in his lap, the lowest sound of his voice came about at my left shoulder. The up and down rhythm, deep sounds inside his ribs, heart beat and rough wool sweater against my cheek, his breath coffee-scented. He used to change his voice for each of the characters in a book, talking in a way that was almost singing. Leaning in to the sound of his voice, I let myself flow along with it, as if it was coming from me. Out of my eyes perhaps, or my thoughts. I liked the sound even more than the story, and sat very still, letting it go through me like a pulse.

I was a daydreamer. And I procrastinated, often ending up struggling with geometry homework at midnight, trying to be quiet in the room where two younger sisters also slept. The night sounds included the creak of front stairs as my father took them two at a time up to my room to catch me still awake long after lights-out. He delivered the lecture in emphatic whispers, his hand grasping my arm to make sure I heard every word. As if I could avoid that voice. The sharp smell of lemon on his breath mixed with black coffee, faint scent of tobacco in the gabardine shirt he wore. The whispered admonitions ominous, full of a future without him because of his weak heart. He told me there would come a time when I wouldn't have him around to guide me, when I'd have to go on alone. Flooded with sadness I could barely hear his words. Even now the taste of sweetened lemons brings back those midnight lectures in a flash.

My father's punishments were often softened by a treat later on, a walk up the street to Wittig's for a strawberry sundae, just the two of us. The evening warm, elms rustling overhead, neighborhood quiet in those days of not many cars. We'd sit in a booth across from each other, enjoying the ice cream in silence. Then he would talk to me. And I'd fall into his voice, missing most of the words, fidgeting, running my fingers along the edge of my hem, the slip edge too, its slippery softness. He wanted me to grow into his favorite woman, a big bloom of a dark pink rose. I nodded as I listened but in my mind I was miles away. Even at 11 and 12 years old I knew there was more to life than he was telling me. But his voice went in my ears and stayed. I loved and ignored it. I miss it even now, forty years after his death. I'd give anything to hear those deep thrilling tones again. The sinuous in and out rhythm that tugs at heart and belly, the softness in the grip of anger or passion, the sadness. The sweetness that went down deep and made me clear my throat whenever I heard it. Like I do every time I taste lemon meringue pie.


Blogger jo(e) said...

Wow. Another gorgeous piece.

12:40 PM  
Blogger May-B said...

That was lovely. I am in awe.

3:53 PM  
Blogger zirafah said...

i think there is a book in this FireAnt. plurps--what a great word!

8:28 PM  
Blogger Magpie said...

Thank you for pointing me in this direction.

4:16 PM  

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