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The Inadequacy of Gingerbread

July 24, 2015



My dad built a lamp, in the living room at my grandparents’ house, when he was in the 6th grade, and in this photo I am 9.  He threaded the wires through a rod, wrapped the neutral wire and hot wire ends around the bulb socket, mounted it on a block of wood, and there it sits in the bottom right corner, its yellow light on my hair, his sleeve, my sisters and aunts and uncles, a glow on my granddad’s wrinkles.  Little golden shapes interlocked, constructing the form of his face, creating this gathering of a family on the glossy page.  In combination, our shapes jibe and balance, as though someone’s careful hand has cut us from a single sheet into a golden jigsaw puzzle.

It was Christmas 2005, around when my granddad had begun to quiz me on math problems; a NASA nuclear rocket scientist making sure his daydreaming granddaughter could solve.  Earlier that day, he sat with me on the couch and tested me: How many cheerios would it take to fill Maple Lake?  How many balloons would you need to lift up a house?  How long would it take you to walk around the earth?  The numbers crumbled and melted in my mind, vanishing before I could piece them together and stack them up.  The cosmic scale would baffle me, I had no idea where to start, I wanted to just sit blankly on the couch in the living room, but he would prod me along until eventually, eventually an answer was sorted out.  But they never came easily.

The photo was taken as my family puzzled over the gingerbreads. Each year they came out, after we had eaten the Cavicchi Christmas feast—Brussels sprouts roasted on their stalk, a pumpkin tureen, green beans, pear sauce and brown bread—after the grown-ups had talked, after I’d drawn pattern after pattern in the sauce pooling at the edge of my plate.

On the table between us there sits a crowd of politicians, athletes, religious leaders, and celebrities.  My aunt mixed their batter in her Massachusetts home.  Never have I witnessed the gingerbread creation, but have had my own doughy days with dad and sisters in the backyard.  From dad’s lofty hands came powdered milk like snow upon our palms and honey, golden sticky brightness swirling round and round in the large metal bowl, a beam intercepted by outstretched fingertips.  Where we had watched the sun print leafy patterns across our knees, where we had scooped and pushed and patted powdery snow into new homes, little spaces just large enough for a squishy snowsuit padded body to curl into, was the sound place to be.  Dad was our cloud and sky—firmament—and we were fixtures in the garden, out where we wanted nothing but to be inhaling.  And the daisies too were graced with flour spilled from our clumsy mixing, the simple meeting of like to like.

And so, I can picture Aunt Elizabeth, too; how she must have rolled the lump of dough, sliced their male and female shapes, and baked their forms in her oven.  Then the mystery, which I have often imagined; the transformation as she lays icing loaded knife to crisp, warm body, endorses them with vivid blues, pinks, yellows, disguises them in raisins, chocolate chips, coconut flakes.  Maybe she spreads out an array of magazines before her, referencing People, Time.  Maybe she keeps a list all year long, a stash of schemes waiting for this moment of enigma.  They lie mutely before me: 14 figures, a cryptic congregation. 

The family has convened to decode their identities, a project of deciphering the symbolism of a trail of sliced almonds, a ring of maraschino cherries.  That year Lance Armstrong was a cookie, having won his 7th Tour de France, and rightful cookie status.  A caramel medal hung from his neck, a blue icing Tour de France road lead down one leg, a single sprinkle engagement ring sat on his hand.  I made none of these connections then, or I would have guessed his identity, gotten to eat his sugar-encrusted body.  But my dad guessed, and won his cookie, and today I wonder if Lance knew that year that he’d survive his cancer but would be convicted in 2013 for blood doping.

To me, their histories were as unknowable as their futures, these secretive cookies and their goading blueberry eyes.  On Aunt Elizabeth’s 5-hour plane trip—over and across—the cookies had fractured; torsos, legs, severed heads of these famous figures were jumbled in her wide, teal Tupperware bin.  I was inadvertently present, bobbing adrift at the far end of the room on a giant pink rubber ball, as she gently lifted them out, laying them in a broad array on the long table.  Eventually, my hands followed suit, and brown sandy limbs grated and crunched as I disturbed and displaced them onto placemats.  All the while her celestial telescope was trained fervently on me, the psychological experiment, willing an outcome to prove a hypothesis.  Under her wide astral eyes every action held gravity, was met with sharp gasps of fascination, abrupt bursts of laughter erupting into thinner interstellar air.  But I didn’t know who they were, couldn’t tell; I put Lance’s arm on Condoleezza Rice and it looked just fine to me.


The grown-ups returned, and decoded the cookies, as I leaned my elbows on the table and watched them at work, considering the great secret of how their minds might be turning, working out the puzzle in front of us—this great strangeness of pulling answers out of a walnut, a patch of dried cranberries.  I observed, fascinated with the mystery of the gingerbread people, carelessly content that it would be years before I began to get them right.

The checkered green and red knit tablecloth imprinted my elbows with a bumpy pattern, each thread on the table a wrinkle, orderly squares pressed into my skin.  In the photo, you can't see this, my elbows hidden by the lamp.  You can’t see my face either, just the tip of a nose showing past a pentagon of hair, my head turned to watch the guessing.  All eventually made logical sense to my deductive family.  The lamp covers my shoulder just enough that it looks almost like my dad’s hand is attached to my arm; he’s leaning his head on the oversized hand of a 9-year-old child.  The discombobulation amuses me now—as my mistake, the secret of the mixed up gingerbread people had then—though no one is trying to guess my identity, no one to decode my row of raisins.

I wish someone could have told me then not to expect a gingerbread life.  No one’s going to be telling you why that string of raisins is heading down your leg, what the dried pineapple means. You might learn one day to decode these confectioned puzzles, but no one will ever decode you.  You have eaten too many gingerbread cookies.

This was the last time we had Christmas in our playroom, the only space in our 19th century house long enough for the 11’ folding table that my dad kept in the garage.  I had helped him carry it through the house on Christmas morning, neatly sliding it past the grand piano, under the rope swing, around the old hardwood corners.  We added in chairs, lamps, people until the room was like that tile game, where there’s only enough empty space to slide one tile at a time, move by move, until the pieces have re-arranged into their proper places, and they form some unified picture.

It’s the room that would later become my bedroom after, in my previous bedroom, lying asleep, I got a Charlie horse and jerked my leg out straight. It went right through the window, glass shattering over my sleeping bag, across the hard wood floor.  I had thought it was a dream, but when I woke again in the morning all of the shards of glass were still there, so I lay scared and waiting until my croaking morning voice called out to my dad in the room above and he came down and swept the shards and carried me out of the room so that I wouldn’t cut my bare feet.  Over the next week, he dismantled the broken window, driving back and forth from Home Depot, a flurry of hammers and glue and splinters crumb of wood until the new window was in the old house.  He brought me into the room when it was finished and showed me the insulation, how the levy system of weights that opens and shuts the window had broken, and he had bought new rope and wheels and put them in place, how he had hammered together a patchwork of wood pieces to hold the window in its frame.

Years later, last week, it actually would be a dream, but the glass wasn’t shattered, it was blades in my hand and I was crouching in the beams of the ceiling of our perfectly sized playroom in our 200-year-old house, slinging them like Frisbees at my sisters, my father, until one struck him and they vanished, and then the glass did shatter, shards flying everywhere.  Nothing was left but my empty room and the shards of glass and I.  No more questions.  No more projects.  No more anticipation, expectations, disappointments.  Then I was on the hardwood floor, grasping at the fragments of window pane, frantically trying to piece it back together, but the shapes kept squirting out of my hands, morphing and changing, never fitting together like they had, until I woke with a salty dampness covering my pillow, scared and waiting.

Now we do the gingerbreading 357 miles from home, 4 days after Christmas. My granddad died last year, and grandma can’t walk as well as she could.  I don’t know who grew her ginger, how a doughy life gets cooked. She sits in her wheelchair at her dining room table, a round table in a square room.  I saw no way for this family to jigsaw around the table as we had before: How could we possibly fit?

But we aren’t puzzle pieces, and we are not puzzles either. There are prisms spinning in the window in Ohio, elongated rainbows refract across our shoulders, hands, and still, somehow, we are together again around the gingerbread.  We’re eating the people, the year’s crop of figures dwindling as one by one we take our bites.  Having considered the puzzles of their bodies we consume, their buttery crumbs melt on my tongue, flakes of coconut drifting from our mouths and land on the table, complacent shards of glass.


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  • July 24, 2015 - 9:04pm (Now Viewing)

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