Abby Frucht

Twenty-five years ago, Uncle Walt and Aunt Irene, on a visit from Europe, flew to Ohio to see us. Recalling the meal of pigs’ feet they’d once cooked on a visit to Mom and Dad’s on Long Island (a meal designed to convey that they were the sort of church mice who felt more expatriate there in Huntington than where they had lived for years in Switzerland) and recalling the pigs’ knuckles snug in the goopy jar, and then the stew they’d cooked on another visit (airfare courtesy of Dad) with dumplings they’d learned how to make in Ireland (no income tax), I prepared for them a couscous of quasi-exotic origin with prunes, eggplant, chickpeas etc.

After laboring far too long over the dish, I was proud of it, and I was proud, too, of the giant red enamel cooking pot and the artisan’s ladle and even of my husband, who was, in the eyes of a different uncle, “too Jewish,” and of our toddler son, Alex, who never asked for sweets, but who once, as I have written in another essay, asked, “Can I have something not not sweet,” by which, as it turned out, he meant strawberries. Walt and Irene were the kind of people who smoked filterless cigarettes on long-stemmed holders, gilding all their European-style conversation with swipes, dips, and curlicues of smoke that have accompanied my not-too-fond, I have to admit, memories of the pair of them over the years.

When Alex was twenty-four and working for a pittance in Washington, DC, I urged him to get on the train to Williamsburg, Virginia one Friday to visit Walt and Irene, whom none of us had seen since the day of the couscous, the prunes like pudding in the pot, the lid itself so substantial that Irene could barely lift it to get a whiff of the simmering. She was the kind of person who wore the same white jumpsuit every day for six months because it made her look slender. They had met while on a blind date—Irene, the date’s roommate, welcomed Walt at the door and listened to him talk (about himself) for half an hour while the girl got ready.

When Alex arrived at the train station and Irene picked him up in their European car (down payment “borrowed” from Dad), Irene offered him a joint before bringing him to Walt , who was dying of a rare blood disorder on the bed in their apartment. Walt was a writer of lurid detective novels and fulsome historical thrillers, and even on his deathbed, he talked about the movie deal that never transpired and the literary agent who stole half his royalties and the novel that won the award in France but hardly got “picked up” anywhere else and his memoir-in-progress that Irene pledged to finish writing for him once he was dead. Alex couldn’t remember if they still smoked cigarettes, only the joint, and that the first thing they said, when they were gathered in the bedroom where Walt lay dying was, “Your mom’s a fine writer, my dear. It’s too bad she’s such a terrible cook.” Then Irene served a meal Alex doesn’t remember.

When Alex was twenty-five, not liking to gnaw on the “huge chunks of cow” people ate where he was studying in Argentina, he moved to Peru. The girls are beautiful there, I told Irene on a walk we took together at another family funeral. Walt had been dead three years already, but Irene was brittle with me for not being the kind of niece who might have flown across country to sit Shiva with her. “How’s the memoir coming?” I thought to say. “I keep forgetting to ask.”

“What memoir?” she said. She stopped dead in her tracks, her in her flats and me in my heels, and then I told her about the girl Alex met in Peru. The idea was they’d marry in a church down the road from my house in Oshkosh, and Chuck and I would throw them a giant party, one of our boozy Pheasant Fajita Fests, to which the usual slew of Wisconsin hunting dogs would not be invited. The bride-to-be was Catholic. Alex, wearing jeans but a decent shirt, was to meet with the pastor to discuss the possibility of stomping on a wine glass wrapped in a handkerchief in the middle of the service.

“I’ll order a giant wedding cake,” I’d promised Alex, who is still the kind of person who never asks for anything. Even the concept of a party unnerved him. His younger brother, Jess, is the opposite sort of person. Jess’s first complete sentence was: “Buy it”, when I told him one day at the supermarket—Jess in the fold-down toddler seat of the cart—that we couldn’t eat the cookies straight off the rack in the bakery aisle. I was choosing a bread to accompany my usual spaghetti, made with dolled-up spaghetti sauce out of a jar, the knob on the lid of the red enamel cooking pot broken in half for ten years, already, but the pot still better than serviceable. I was proud of the onions, mushrooms, and peppers, even in advance of throwing them in.

Alex was disappointed—no, maybe even devastated—when I promised to order a big white wedding cake to go with our pheasant fajita fest the night of his wedding. His brother would insist, “The more expensive the cake the better, get it at Zuppa’s not at La Sure’s. No, order it online from Zabar’s,” but Alex is the kind of person whose entire aspect secretively darkens when he is unnerved, except that since I am his mother, the darkening isn’t a secret from me.

”I want it to be your cake,” Alex said. He meant the cake I’ve baked all these years for their birthdays, the not-sweet cake with not much sugar, made with apple sauce instead of butter, and egg whites not yolks, but with rich dark espresso-like bittersweet chocolate of the best variety to be had (if you don’t live in Europe), topped with freshly whipped cream blended with a spoonful Ovaltine granules. The cake is my recipe, a variation on a far more conventional and way too goopy cake.

“You want that cake?” I said to Alex. “My cake! Not a bakery cake?” Jess is the kind of person who buys me the perfect earrings for my birthday and then tells me they come from Alex, too. They both love my cake. I like to serve it straight out of the freezer, when the chocolate is frost and the whipped cream, snow. You need to wait for the layers to thaw before you push in the knife. Even Irene might enjoy a slice.

When we were walking that day, the day of the other funeral, I asked what became of the jumpsuit she used to wear. “What jumpsuit?” she asked. “That white one that looked so cute,” I said. When Walt was a young man, writing Blood for Sport or Dial D for Destiny or Don’t Look Down or Killers at My Window, he missed his own mom’s death. She died of pneumonia over a weekend and he didn’t come sit by her side at the hospital. “Really I had two of those jumpsuits exactly alike so if I had to wash one I could wear the other,” Irene confessed. “Thank you, my dear. I’m so flattered you remember.”


Abby Frucht, who was visiting fiction writer at Bar-Ilan University a year ago, has served on the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts for 18 years. A winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Prize for 1987, she has since published five novels and a new story collection, The Bell at the End of a Rope (Narrative Library,



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