When the smoke clears
If you’ve spent your life in education, you know September is the month of promise. Summer ends, and suddenly there’s a bright shining new year ahead of you. After weeks of togetherness, you’re ready to trade your biological children for someone else’s. First-day outfits, first-day pictures, first-day jitters — the anticipation is great … until it’s the final first day.
Our baby girl is a senior this year, and a tinge of sadness has dimmed the excitement for me. I feel the impending loss far more than her. Phoebe has senior year and post-graduate possibilities to look forward to. I’m starting to feel the quiet of an empty nest. So, as she packed her lunch that first morning, searching for a little sweet treat, I froze. While grocery shopping, I gathered lunch supplies, but I had forgotten about dessert or even a little snack.
“Don’t worry about it, Mom,” she said as she headed out the door.
But I did, and I dwelled on my oversight. That is until I had a “Mother of the Year” thought: I would make Maria DeAngelo’s chocolate chip cookies. They were quick; they were delicious. I could surprise Phoebe with them at lunch, and she would forever remember that her mother made her homemade cookies on the first day of her senior year.
Maria’s cookies, like Maria, are legendary. During her time as a middle school teacher, the warm cookies suddenly appeared whenever the staff needed them. A late parents’ night? The scent of vanilla and chocolate would waft from the faculty room the next morning. A tough, tedious March? Nothing like a gooey cookie to ward off cabin fever.
Although she must have been as tired as the rest of us, Maria went the extra mile to brighten her colleagues’ day. I often wondered if the cookies were so delicious because magically, they contained the essence of Maria herself.
Mary Poppins had nothing on Maria, she was wonderful whether she was teaching art, math, or Skills for Adolescents. To her students, Maria was the personification of joy, and it showed in her daily lessons. We have the cookie recipe because she used it to teach fractions. My son painstakingly copied the instructions during class. It was honestly the only schoolwork that he was excited to bring home.
As I stirred the batter, I metaphorically patted myself on the back. I pictured Phoebe’s smile, the excitement of her friends, the ripple of “Do you know what Phoebe’s mom did today?” I basked in the warmth of my imagination. Turning the oven dial to preheat, I left the room to start the laundry and returned to … smoke.
Now, we weren’t talking about wispy tendrils that tickled nostrils and made one think, “Hmmm, what’s burning?” No, we were talking about billowing clouds pouring out the door of what should have been an empty oven.
Of course, the only option was to investigate. As I flung open the oven door, the clouds became a smoky tempest that quickly filled the room. My storm cloud was punctuated, not by thunder, but by a chorus of fire alarms. Windows open, me furiously waving a towel under the alarms only marginally improved things.
As the smoke dissipated, I thought, “The oven was cleaned just days ago — a sparkling masterpiece.” But wait, after that, I bumped my hand while removing a buffalo chicken wing dip, and a tsunami of spicy, cheesy deliciousness had coated the oven walls and floor. That was the source of the smoke. In the short-lived end-of-summer heat wave, I had avoided the oven and forgotten to clean up the mess. There would be no baking today.
Placing the dough in the fridge, I was a bit discouraged as I got ready for work. My false dream of emulating Maria became a wispy memory. Estimating that the oven temperature was now cool enough, I sprayed on the cleaner. Once again, I had misjudged the situation, and now the smokey house was filled with caustic fumes.
I did the only thing that could be done. I walked out, went to Early Dawn Confections, and bought a treat for Phoebe. It was a surprise that she appreciated, but she’ll never remember it like she would have the cookies.
Later, when the smoke cleared and I was cleaning the oven again, I realized I had forgotten an essential lesson from Skills for Adolescents and Maria herself: Be true to yourself. Don’t try to be someone you’re not.
I’ll never be Maria — I can’t pull off fancy high tops and colorful glasses. Nor can I bake surprise cookies and sprinkle joy in the workplace. But at least I can laugh and turn a disaster into a story, because that’s one area where I’ve had a lot of experience.