I don’t remember exactly when, so lets say April 4, 1971. I’m turning 7 today, and so is my twin sister, Pammy.
I don’t remember exactly where so lets say lunch at the Walnut Room at Marshall Field’s. We are sitting ladylike at a table close, but not close enough, to the giant spring display at the center of the dark paneled room. Mama is miffed. She says something like “I told her, its your birthday. We should have a table where you can really see the tree.”
Oh the tree. Yes, the Tree. Blossoms and twigs gathered into a towering replica of a spring hillside. Easter lilies crammed around the trunk, hyacinth crowding daffodils, most likely a delightful family of Easter rabbits in giant scale, with baskets full of eggs – pink, mint, butter yellow blooming below the vault of the ceiling that rises at least two stories, a sort of retail cathedral.
Let’s say Pammy orders chicken croquettes. She always eats these, which means I have to eat something different. I don’t know what to choose. “Will she like the macaroni and cheese, you think?” Mama asks the lady in the black dress with a white cap pinned in her grey hair. The lady nods, and takes the order slip Mama has marked using the little pencil left on the table. When we come here with Daddy, we always draw on the paper placemats using this pencil. We have never come here with Mama before.
Lets say Mama is wearing a pretty dress, with a gathered skirt, and a supple wide black belt. The fabric has tiny red and white checks that look like the new bedspreads for our new canopy beds. Mama ordered it all from the Sears catalog for a surprise. If Pammy and I had known, we would have asked for pink. Mama likes blue better.
The macaroni arrives. The cheese tastes tangy and sour, not like the salty orange tubes we fix in a pot at home. Mama is a little miffed at me for not liking the macaroni. I am in trouble for not eating it.
At last, a piece of cake arrives for each of us. The frosting is pure white and called buttercream. It is as dense as a deck of cards and tastes like velvet. Mama is talking:
“When I was a little girl,” she says, “My mama took me to the tea room at Block’s Department Store. And for dessert they brought something special…”
Mamma’s voice is sweet and lonesome, like the feeling I have when I sneak into the hallway late at night to watch her watching television, waiting for Daddy to come home from a guitar job. I can’t pay attention to my cake anymore.
“…there was a little china doll on top…”
Mamma makes a space between her thin forefinger and thumb.
“…and her skirt was made of ice cream…”
Pammy and I have both stopped eating now.
“… covered in flakes of fresh coconut…”
A doll with an ice cream skirt. My own dessert is forgotten, replaced by a picture of something so beautiful and impossible, it is like a fairy tale. I am trying to believe what Mama is saying. I know I can never taste or see it. I want that doll dessert more than anything I can actually have today. Stronger still, I want that sound of happiness to linger in my Mamma’s voice.
“You didn’t finish your desserts,” she says, including both of us in her judgement now. “Didn’t you like it? If I knew you didn’t want it, I wouldn’t have ordered it for you.” She is miffed again.
“Ok girls. Lets go look at dolls. Would you like to do that?”
We nod. We know where the dolls are, two escalator rides down. The tiaras we have be oggling are close by. Maybe today, Mama will buy us the ones we really want.