My LTYM essay posted here

Mom Susie Max GrandmaOh heck, I have this pretty site up now and everything.  I’ll throw my essay in here as well.  Let’s see how this works out.  You can also see the video here.


When I was seven or eight, my mother Nancy entered a baking contest.  One of those old-fashioned ones run by a local grocery store where you make something at home, bring it in, and then half a dozen judges decide which entry is best.  And the winner gets something like a $25 credit to the store.

Now, my mother’s a really good cook, but always needs a kind of double validation to feel okay about herself (“Do you really like the pork chops?  You’re just saying that. So you really like them then?”).  She decided to enter these lemon-currant muffins she’d been making for years. They were light and airy while still retaining just enough moistness to feel satisfying.

And yes, Mom, I really do like them.

I didn’t get to see any of the contest firsthand because I was at home with my sister.  But when my mother came back, she told us she’d made it to the semi-finals, and then to the finals.  And that she was supposed to bring a brand-new batch of the muffins to the judges that afternoon so they could choose a winner.

My mother came in second place.

They didn’t give her a plaque or a trophy.  I think she got a $10 store credit.  But, of course, that wasn’t enough validation for her.  She wanted something physical she could point to as proof that she was among the local baking elite.

The organizers of the contest had written the names of the winners on a small piece of construction paper and taped it to the window of the store.  “First place—Marge Turner; Second place—Nancy Langert.  Third place—” (It’s not important).

My mother asked if she could have this piece of paper and ended up taping it high above the tallest cabinet we had in the kitchen, where it couldn’t be touched or messed with by anyone.

And it wasn’t.

It’s still hanging there, thirty-some odd years later, covered in a thick layer of grease and dust, faded and bleached by the sun.

And whenever anyone asks about it, she always says the same thing:  “I would have come in first; it’s just that I didn’t make enough muffins.”

According to my mother, the judges asked all the finalists to bring in six samples.  My mother brought in exactly six, but Marge Turner brought in enough peanut brittle for at least fifteen helpings.  So the judges kept going back to Marge for seconds and even thirds, while my mother’s muffins were long gone.

Marge effectively stuffed the ballot box.

Back at home, away from the excitement of the contest, I was waiting to hear the results with my older sister, Susie, who is severely autistic.  When I was a kid, she was totally unpredictable, prone to regular tantrums that could tear the house apart.

You could tell when one of these tantrums was about to hit because the floorboards would creak, a door would close harder than usual, and there would be aggravated foot shuffling on the carpet upstairs.

I remember this happening one day, a couple of years after the baking contest.  The floorboards creaked, a door closed too hard, and suddenly my sister was on the stairs screaming at the top of her lungs.

My parents and I sprang into action, each of us looking for a different way to diffuse the situation.  My father was the angry one, my mother the gentle one, and I was somewhere in between, angry one moment, gentle the next.

“Get in your room!” my father boomed.

“Would you like to read a book together?” my mother cooed.

My sister would have none of it.  We approached her like FBI agents at a hostage crisis, each taking a step toward her, cautious, with our arms held straight out.

My sister swung around and lunged for the metal banister, which shook and rattled all the way up and down the staircase.

It just so happened that my mother was making her muffins that afternoon.  I could smell them baking and decided to take a different approach.

“Would you like a muffin?” I asked my sister, hoping to distract her.

And it worked.  Suddenly her body froze.  She looked down at me.  “Muffin!” she grunted.

“Great,” I smiled, and started walking toward the kitchen.

But my mother reached out and grabbed my arm.  “No,” she said.  “Not yet.  They’re not…quite…ready.”

“How long?” I asked.

“Eight minutes,” my mother said.

“Eight minutes,” my father groaned.

“Eight minutes!” my sister grunted.

“It’s too long,” I said, and bolted toward the kitchen.  I popped the oven door down and reached for the tray, but it was too hot.  I found an old towel and used it to yank the thing out.  I tried to grab one of the muffins but it scalded my finger.  So I stuck the whole tray inside the freezer and waited.

I could hear the struggle continuing in the hallway.

But I knew the only thing that would save the situation at this point was those incredibly flavorful second-place muffins.

So I counted to thirty, pulled them out of the freezer, popped a couple of them into a paper towel—where they fell into pieces—and ran back to the hallway.

“Muffins!” I announced.

“Muffins,” my sister repeated.

“We should go somewhere,” my mother said.

“Go somewhere?” my father asked.

“To the park,” my mother said.  “She likes parks.”

So I ended up Hansel-and-Gretel’ing the crumbs for my sister, offering one or two at a time as I led her slowly out to the car.

She and I got in the back seat as my father put the key in the ignition.  It was sunny out, nice, and suddenly everything was calm as my sister continued to pick at the pieces in the towel.

After we’d been driving a while, my father muttered something I couldn’t make out.

“What did you say?” my mother asked him.

“First place,” he said, checking the rear view mirror.  “First place muffins.”

My mother grinned and shook her head humbly.  She didn’t need any more validation.

Marge Turner could have her $25 store credit.  We had another afternoon of peace.


1 Comment

  1. […] I’m telling is a new version of the story I told for Listen To Your Mother almost exactly 10 years ago, which is right around when I started this […]


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