I was brought up in the fifties, when television sitcoms depicted an idyllic picture of happy American families. I was impressionable and I yearned to be like the other kids in my first-grade class, but I’d watched enough episodes of Father Knows Best to understand my family was different.
My father didn’t come home with a smile and say, “Hi Kitten, how was your day?” He came home late, in disheveled clothing reeking of Schlitz Malt Liquor. My mother didn’t put on a nice shirtwaist cotton dress and a string of pearls and spend her day dusting the bookshelves. For one thing, we didn’t have any bookshelves. For another, she didn’t know how to dust. Nor could she cook.
When I came home from school, the smell of stale cigarette smoke greeted me. They smoked Raleigh’s, which came with a coupon inserted between the package and the cellophane wrapper. One of my weekly chores was to remove the coupons and store them in a Cigarillo cigar box. When enough coupons were amassed, my mother redeemed them by mail for a cheap knick-knack, forever doomed to a dusty existence.
The TV sitcoms never showed children sorting and saving their parent’s cigarette coupons, but until I was six years old, I thought this was a normal American family pastime. My first sleepover with my new friend, Maddie, shattered that perception.
Arriving at Maddie’s house was like walking into a magical wonderland. Maddie’s room was clean and had pink curtains and a matching bedspread. The kitchen table had colorful cotton place mats and the lingering aroma of freshly baked cookies. If it was possible for a six year old to feel nostalgia for things that never were, I felt it the instant I walked into Maddie’s world.
We had one cookie each; Maddie was to take the rest of the batch to school on Monday to give to Mrs. Conklin, our first grade teacher. This was not a new concept to me; I spent the first half of the school year watching my classmates as they scampered up to the teacher’s desk with all manner of baked goods, made by their mommies. I longed to be like everyone else and offer homemade goodies to Mrs. Conklin, who would gush over the gifts and fuss over the givers.
More than anything, I wanted Mrs. Conklin to hold up something my mother had made and fuss over me before the whole class. To that end, I begged Mom for months to hone her culinary skills and learn how to bake. Then I devised a plan one weekend; a plan so clever I bounced around the house like a kangaroo all weekend, anticipating the arrival of Monday and my long-awaited fawning over by Mrs. Conklin.
Monday morning found me up early: clean, scrubbed, brushed and bursting with pride. I brought Mrs. Conklin cookies from home, wrapped with care in a used, but clean, piece of aluminum foil.
“My mommy made these for you, Mrs. Conklin,” I said with a shy smile, belying my excitement.
“Why thank you, honey.”
I shifted from foot to foot, each of my hands squeezing fistfuls of my dress, my eyes focused on the packet of foil. When she had unwrapped the foil and the cookies were in plain sight, I realized after a moment that Mrs. Conklin hadn’t spoken. I looked up at her expectantly. “I want to talk to you after school,” she said with a tight smile.
I stumbled to my desk, confused and anxious. Instead of standing proudly in front of the class listening to, “Look what Paulette’s mom made,” I spent the rest of the day hunched in my seat enduring stares and whispers. When the bell rang, I waited for the others to leave and went up to Mrs. Conklin’s desk.
“Your mother didn’t make these cookies, did she?”
“Oh, yes, Mrs. Conklin, she made them just for you.”
“Paulette, these are Oreo cookies.”
I looked at her blankly. I was six, lacking in all ulterior motives, and so I continued my charade.
“I don’t know what she calls them, but they are for you.”
“These are store-bought cookies. Your mother did not make them. Telling lies is wrong. Go home and print one hundred times, I will not tell a lie. And you can take your cookies home with you.”
I cried all the way home; my mood shifted from pain and sadness to the awful fear that I was surely going to go to H-E double hockey sticks for this terrible thing I’d done.
That night, the assignment was completed under my covers with the aid of a flashlight. I had plenty of time to print my atonement, because upon discovery of the pilfered Oreo cookies, I was sent to my room for the remainder of the night. The next morning I smuggled the punishment pages into my satchel and put them on Mrs. Conklin’s desk before class started.
“Well,” she said primly, “I hope you’ve learned your lesson, Paulette.”
I did learn, and that lesson stayed with me through childhood. But when I grew up, it flew out the window the first time I got away with passing off a frozen Sara Lee pie as my own. Very simple: Transfer the pie to your own dish and garnish it with whipped cream.
Take that, Mrs. Conklin.