By Ronita Sinha
It so happened that Minnie started baking treats for the neighborhood kids. It began the day Dr. Fish gently insisted that Minnie find something to do that gives her joy, a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Sitting in his grey impersonal chamber Minnie’s eyes misted over. Through the haze of thickening tears, she gazed down at the veins on her folded hands thinking of her porch bench in which she spent a large part of her days simply feeling sorry for herself.
“Mrs. Ray, I remember you had baked a lovely cake for Ravi’s birthday once and brought it in for the staff here. You had told me you love baking.” Dr. Fish prodded, as if trying to ignite a forgotten spark.
Driving home Minnie found the doctor’s words trapped in her mind like a maple shoot between ancient patio stones. True, there was a time when Minnie relished the precision that governs a baking task. It appealed to her methodical and somewhat rigid nature. And now, after all these years, the desire to try her old recipes struggled to root like a spring seedling in the barren soil of her consciousness. Almost involuntarily, she stopped at a Metro and started shopping for some familiar ingredients.
Once home, cookie-sheets clanked, parchment paper rustled, chocolate chips gurgled and soon the small bungalow swelled with the heady smell of baking cookies. A tired Minnie sat on her porch bench wondering what to do with the treats now that they were out of the oven.
Almost as an answer, a posse of noisy soccer-sweaty kids emerged around the bend in the block and as they passed, Minnie leaned over the porch-rail. “Who would like a gooey-mooey cookie straight from the oven?” All chatter stopped. Several pairs of rounded, unbelieving eyes turned on her like “Eyes Right” in a military march-past. Minnie’s own eyes twinkled back at them. “Come on in!” Her palm gestured a come-hither motion and suddenly there was a tumult of famished feet, jocund jostling and her lonely abode chirped with the cheer of young voices.
She brought out a tray, the cookies still warm and glistening. A flurry of happy hands landed on the plate. Molten chocolate chips oozed under hungry teeth and delightful babble skidded off the walls while Minnie watched and smiled. Smiled and watched.
“Minnie Mondays”, as Amy-Jean fondly named them, became a routine with the kids on Rainbow Crescent. They floated in on the late afternoon breeze like a bunch of lively kites in a clear sky. The high-fliers, Chad, Alex and Kim grabbed their treats and confidently climbed the bantering air. Sue and Sammy, treaded the draught, buffeted by the surrounding buzz. The hangers-back; Charlie, Ritika and April bobbed in shallow skies, searching for cues from their cookie host.
Then, there was Amy-Jean.
Amy-Jean remained firmly tethered to the porch bench and refused to be part of the milieu. She claimed her treat when everyone else had claimed theirs.
Amy-Jean, with her light tresses and solemn brown eyes, became Minnie’s favourite. One Monday when the others left, she asked if she could spend the evening with Minnie. “Of course, you can sweetie, but won’t your Momma worry when you don’t return home?” Minnie glanced at the serious face. The child seemed to be lost in a puddle of thought that Minnie could not step into. Wordlessly, Amy-Jean rose and walked to the door, turned, and mouthing a silent “bye” was gone. With a catch in her heart, Minnie watched the blazing sunlight swallow her retreating figure.
Next day, Amy-Jean arrived with her mother. Pam spoke quickly and laughed a lot, all the while holding her daughter’s hand. After the introductions were complete she came to the point. “Amy-Jean’s baby-sitter is pregnant and has advised she will not be able to continue. Honestly, didn’t we keep at our jobs, the housework, everything in that condition? But,” she shrugged, “I can’t change her mind now, can I?”
For a loaded moment, she scrutinized her shapely hands, then looking up addressed the waiting air. “Now, this is Amy-Jean’s idea, she would like to spend the Mondays with you, if she may …. The rest of the week we can manage, Gerry and I both work from home a good deal. Of course, please feel free to say no. You have every right. I must say though Amy-Jean absolutely adores you … and of course, I shall pay you for your time … “ She stopped suddenly, choked by her own garrulity.
Minnie’s heart leapt like a stoked flame. “Of course, I would be delighted. She is a beautiful girl. We will find things to do now won’t we, dear?” Minnie smiled at Amy-Jean’s flushed face.
Life, they say, can change in a heartbeat and so it did for Minnie, but she didn’t know then that it was going to change again much before the summer was out.
Amy-Jean came to be not only Minnie’s cookie-companion that summer of Mondays but a doppelganger for her lost loves. She arrived punctually in the morning and the two worked in the garden before the heat got out-of-hand. Minnie had, of late, given up on her garden. There was a time when it gave her tremendous pride. The flower beds were sharply edged and the grass lush and green. Now the perennials looked they had a hangover and Minnie no longer rejoiced in planting annuals. Minnie watched as Amy-Jean reached her small fingers deep into the wetted earth and retrieved the root of a dandelion holding it up triumphantly for Minnie to see.
“I got goosebumps when Ron and Harry fell into the Devil’s snare”, shivered Amy-Jean, tugging at a stalk of thistle. Minnie, now hooked on Rowling, nodded in concurrence triggering an animated discussion on the trio’s exploits in the Philosopher’s Stone. Later, in the coolness of the living room, a grey and a brown head met over Amy-Jean’s iPhone and an uninitiated Minnie explored the rolling, rollicking world of You-Tube videos under Amy-Jean’s able tutelage.
Minnie was pleasantly amazed at how much interest the ten-year-old displayed in the ways of the kitchen. At first, Minnie wielded the baton; mixing, pouring, baking while Amy-Jean played second fiddle; sieving the flour, proffering the right pan, the baking-soda, the toffee-bits. Then, Minnie reversed the roles and let Amy-Jean be the conductor, herself retreating to a kitchen stool, talking shop and indulging the budding baker.
It was in Minnie’s kitchen that Amy-Jean first shook hands with shortbread, toyed with turnovers and grappled with ganache.
“How do you remember all these recipes, Minnie? My Mom doesn’t have much time to bake but when she does, she follows recipes from her tablet.”
“It’s easy. Let’s say for the zucchini squares, I just have to remember the word OBZEC.”
Amy-Jean’s head shot up from the mixing-bowl. “OBZEC?”
“1 cup oil, that’s ‘O’
2 cups Bisquick, ‘B’
3 cups zucchini thinly-sliced, is ‘Z’
4 eggs for ‘E’ and
5 Tablespoons grated cheddar, so ‘C’, and then 1-2-3-4-5 and
O-B-Z-E-C; not that hard, is it?”
“Oh, clever, clever Minnie!” Amy-Jean rewarded her mentor with an admiring look. “Another recipe Minnie, please.”
Minnie thought for a moment, then wistfully, “Here’s one I haven’t tried in ages. It’s called ‘Happiness Pie’.”
“Let’s start with a fistful of fun, shall we? So that’s ‘F’.” Minnie drew out the ingredients slowly. “Then add
1 tablespoon Rapunzel
2 headful Incy-Wincy
3 teaspoons Excitement
4 clumps Nonsense
5 cups Delight
6 miles of Smiles ….
and the magic word is?” Minnie, excitement gleaming in her eyes, turned to the recipe-seeker.
“F-R-I-E-N-D-S!” Catching on quickly, Amy-Jean clapped in glee. “We need friends to be happyyy”.
Minnie, now on a Happiness high continued. “Next, put all these ingredients; the fun, the nonsense, the smiles, everything, in a thirteen by nine kitchen and turn on …” pausing dramatically, she raised her chin and exploded in a crescendo, “the muuuusiiiiic”. She shrieked with girlish delight and on cue, Amy-Jean reached over and pressed the knob on Minnie’s 1990s radio. Instantly, the air filled with the rich tones of Tony Bennet’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
Amy-Jean sprang up, grabbing Minnie’s hand and after a moment’s hesitation so did Minnie and the mismatched pair whirled around the toasty kitchen in an utterly abandoned topsy-turvy tango, while a robust batch of squares sizzled in the oven.
It felt like a work-out to laugh out aloud. Strange muscles in Minnie’s stiff body vibrated under the blitz of her mirth.
They stopped, flushed and panting. Minnie removed the squares from the oven while an ecstatic Amy-Jean leaned into them and took a luxurious whiff, eyes closed, nose upturned. Breaking out of her reverie she cried, “I made zucchini squares, yay!” Then bolting around the kitchen table, she flung her arms around Minnie.
“Careful, careful, you are going to knock this old woman off her feet, Silly-Millie!”
“You are not old, Minnie-whinny.”
“Whinny? You mean I look like a horse?” Minnie, eyes widened in mock dismay, made a neighing noise and Amy-Jean erupted in laughter.
Minnie gazed into the eyes of the hugging child. Sparks of mischief glinted in their limpid depths. Reflected in the café au lait pools she saw her own son’s eyes. Years ago, Amit had found a job and moved to the States. What was to be a year’s contract turned into several years of job-hopping and eventually settling down in San Jose with a wife and child. Visits dwindled to phone calls till last year he forgot to call Minnie on her birthday. She hovered by the phone the whole day, finally dragging her bruised heart to bed at midnight.
Amit called the day after, full of sorries. Minnie listened, till his litany of excuses exhausted him, finally saying softly, kindly, “It’s alright, son. It’s just a birthday.” Hearing his disembodied voice made up for every lapse, every folly. Clouds of happiness hung around her the entire day till at bedtime she greedily gathered every wisp, rolling them up tightly and hugging her pillow of happiness she fell asleep.
“Oops, Silly-Millie, I forgot something.” Escaping her thoughts, Minnie unclasped Amy-Jean’s arms from around her and bustled to the yard. She picked a handful of snow-white mock-orange blooms and headed to her bedroom. Amy-Jean, trailing after her, hung back at the door studying Minnie’s every move.
Minnie walked to the dresser. The wood was dark from years of use but buffed and spotless. In the middle stood an olive-wood crucifix, brought home from a long-ago trip to Jerusalem. On one side was a picture of Ravi. It was taken the year they were engaged. His youth, his beauty immortalized in a silver frame; head averted casually so the lens captured three-quarters of his face leaving the other quarter a tantalizing secret. Ravi, sparkling with life, wielding a tennis-racquet and gulping lemonade from a pitcher. Brimming with iconoclastic views and always asking Minnie to loosen up. “Life’s too short to be so serious, honey.”
And indeed, it was, for him. A fatal aneurysm felled him the year before he turned sixty-five. Before he could retire. Before he could do the things he was waiting to do. With Minnie.
She emptied the blooms from her palm into a crystal plate and the room filled with a familiar fragrance. With a practiced twirl Minnie adjusted the slats of the window blind till the sunlight fell on Ravi’s face at an angle that broadened and enhanced his smile. She smiled back at the picture.
Bowing her head by the crucifix she folded her hands. An age-old habit never transgressed.
When she turned, Amy-Jean, standing close at her heels, startled her. “Oh!” Minnie exclaimed as if the child had trespassed on an intimate moment of her day.
“What were you doing, Minnie?” Amy-Jean asked with wagon-wheel eyes.
“I was saying my prayers.”
“Prayers? To whom?”
“You do this, I mean pray, every day?”
Minnie nodded, still in the grip of her mock-orange induced trance.
“And does God give you what you ask for?”
“I don’t ask God for anything, Amy-Jean.”
“So why pray? I don’t understand.”
“I just feel at peace when I pray, that’s all. I feel protected.”
“And who’s that man in the picture. Is it Mickey?”
“Well, if you are Minnie then that gotta be Mickey.”
Laughing, at that irrefutable juvenile logic, Minnie pulled Amy-Jean into her arms. “Yes, that’s my Mickey. And you are a very smart girl for guessing Mickey spot-on!”
Words, like paper-boats, bobbed on the streams of inconsequential tête-à-tête between pre-teen and septuagenarian; often picking up on currents of shared interests, dwelling on islands of Harry Potter, Lemon Bars, and Dandelions or resting gently at the shores of a hushed camaraderie. The youngster aerated and irrigated the soil of Minnie’s cognizance, loosening it, turning it over and rendering it so fecund that the sapling Dr. Fish had planted mellowed rapidly under the gentle sunshine of their communion.
In the afternoons the pair inevitably baked together for the Rainbow Crescent kids. When the sky turned strawberry pink, Minnie gathered the scented blooms and bowed in prayer, while Amy-Jean waited in companionable silence.
One Monday, in mid-August, Minnie’s young friend did not arrive at her usual time. When Minnie stepped on the porch to wait for her, she noticed a film of dust on the bench and made a mental note to wipe it. Morning rolled reluctantly into an anxious afternoon and Minnie began to wonder if she should start the macaroon-tarts on her own when the shrill doorbell pierced a startling hole in the awning of stillness. Through the shards of silence, Minnie picked her way to the door.
It was Pam; her face broken up by the bevelled angles of the front-door glass. Beside her, Minnie could see the top of Amy-Jean’s silky head. She pulled the door open. “Please … “, her greeting froze on her lips at the look on Pam’s face.
Pam lost no time. Her attack was swift and inexorable. “Mrs. Ray, we trusted our only child in your care, we didn’t have to, right? But we did, so you have someone to talk to, play with, so you are not so miserable but what is this thing you’ve been filling Amy-Jean’s head with? This mumbo-jumbo about God and prayers and flowers before mickey-mouse. Crazy, absolutely!”
Pam clutched her temples with angry fingers.
Minnie stood like an ice figurine. “Oh, but I …”
“Enough, Amy-Jean will no longer be coming here. We have made other arrangements. We are rational folks and we wish to raise our child as such. Do you have a problem with that? To think that a young child’s mind is filled with such utter nonsense. She’s a twenty-first-century kid for Pete’s sake. Can’t you see that? Honestly, if only we knew!”
With that, she turned on her heels and marched Minnie’s Silly-Millie down the porch and into a waiting car.
Minnie gaped at the retreating backs; one rigid with sanctimonious rage, the other cringing in confusion. Car doors slammed, an engine gunned. Minnie looked on. Goldfish lips squished in a kiss against a car window, café au lait eyes, luminous with unshed tears, unspoken apologies. Swaying slightly on her feet Minnie watched the Bimmer signal, then turn left at the lights and fade into the bleeding sunset.