Small Gifts

My mother’s treats have always been unexpected precious morsels,
savored as much for their surprise as for their flavor—
a summer lunch of a lobster roll and coffee frappe at Gulf Hill creamery,
a butterscotch candy retrieved from deep within a purse,
a gingersnap or two with tea after dinner,
a thin sliver of an Andes mint chocolate before bedtime.

But my favorite treats were those offered in the warm kitchen as she baked—
half a spoonful of cookie dough scraped from inside the stainless-steel bowl,
a mixer blade coated in cake batter, a small circle
of sweet, uncooked doughnut reserved from the bubbling oil.

Two or three times a year when she had the time
—or perhaps when she didn’t but was simply moved to make it—
my mother would place her heavy cast iron Dutch oven on the stove,
fill it with lard, take out her rolling pin, cutter, some flour and sugar,
and set to making doughnuts.

Not the kind of doughnuts you might buy at Dunkin Donuts
or in the supermarket bakery, but old-fashioned fried cakes,
the kind of doughnuts her grandmother born in the 19th century
used to make once a week on her farmhouse woodstove,
reaching her arm deep into the flames to place the logs just so.

Her grandmother, who I always imagined in the layers
of long skirts, petticoats, aprons of a too far bygone era,
could not understand her growing granddaughter of the forties and fifties
in cuffed up jeans and bobby socks or, later, calf length pencil skirts,
wondering aloud how it was possible that her bare legs did not grow cold,
as she smartly barred her own skin from the chill with thick lisle stockings.

I had thought that this was her grandmother from England who out of
astute superstition refused to take her three girls on the Titanic
—or was it her husband Wilkes coming before her who had the ticket?—
family memory blurs with time, who said no to the largest ship ever built,
surviving to make do during the Depression,
a time so difficult that her daughter, as a young woman,
took pleasure in circling around with friends,
a pint of ice cream shared between them,
each taking just a spoonful or two or three—
so little, yet more than enough to satisfy.

But I was wrong.
This was the grandmother displaced by eminent domain from one farm
to another during World War II, long after her husband had died,
longer still since the death of two infant girls—Ruth at five months,
the other forgotten entirely over time—
as her three boys grew strong.

This was the grandmother working the new land just as the old, 
one grown son and a nephew by her side,
another son’s children coming to stay in summer months,
preserving, passing on simple family gifts.

So it was she who made fried cakes for her grandchildren,
and even though she favored the boys, indulging them
as they snacked from the pantry stuffed with cookies and treats,
I like to think that the doughnuts were just for my mother,
the girl who had so few treats, growing up oldest in a time of scarcity
offering her up a single ball of uncooked dough, cut from the center of a cake,
the remainder dropped into the pot of boiling lard,
one small bite to be enjoyed slowly, the sweetness
dissolving inside her mouth.

-Ann Wallace 


Ann E. Wallace writes poetry and nonfiction about illness and loss, as well as about family memories. Her work has recently appeared in Intima, Wordgathering, The Literary Nest,  Eunoia Review, Mothers Always Write and other journals, and is featured in Raising Her Voice: An Anthology of Women Writers by The Same. She lives in Jersey City, NJ where she teaches English at New Jersey City University, and she is on Twitter @annwlace409.