Read an Excerpt
A Wilderness of Sweets
A wilderness of sweets . . . Wild above rule or art; enormous bliss. -John Milton, from Paradise Lost
I live on Garden Place in Brooklyn Heights, New York. A sleepy idyll, forgotten in the crazy speed and riot of New York City, it rests outside of time and outside of the cacophony. Only one block in length, the street is made up of single-family town houses and brownstones. Someone usually has to die for a house to go on sale here. Tree branches overhang the street, flowering pink puffballs of cherry blossom in springtime. They create canopies over the children, who are permitted to play ball in the street without supervision. On warm evenings, they gather for capture the flag, skateboarding, and manhunt, screaming "Car!" and racing to get out of the way of the occasional interruption. Everyone on the block dutifully shovels the snow within hours of a blizzard, puts out the trash only on designated garbage days, and responsibly accepts FedEx packages for the neighbors. People's window boxes change seasonally and predictably: mums in fall, evergreens in winter, daffodils in spring, geraniums in summer. If a baby wails late at night, a family goes on vacation, or a child gets into Harvard, the neighbors are the first to know. The street whispers safety, stability, understated affluence. There should be no failures on Garden Place or bankruptcies or terrors or tragedies. We like to play dress-up at nightmare only. Every Halloween, the block becomes the center of such a maelstrom. It takes off its apron and goes all dark and wild-but only for the night. Unlike people in other parts of the neighborhood, we wait to begin decorating our houses late that afternoon, as if to emphasize that misrule and mayhem, evil and chaos, only occur for one night here and will be exorcised by morning.
In a flurry of activity, we make over the street with only a few hours to spare. The ornamentation is not elaborate; most of the decorations were purchased a decade before and still retain a bit of dust from having been hauled out of the basement. Glow-in-the-dark skeletons hang in effigy out of second-story windows, clumsily carved pumpkins line the stoops, and cobwebs festoon the gates and trees. The homemade, somewhat tattered props suit our block: they shroud it, offering just the right sprinkling of decay and spook to transform the carefully maintained prettiness of our street.
At five o'clock sharp, street traffic is prohibited, and we officially open our doors. Lugging baskets filled with candy outside, every family on the block settles on the front stairs, adults with cocktails, children with macaroni and cheese. My family-my husband, Eric, and two children, Benjamin, thirteen, and Lilly, ten-always invites a crew of extended family and friends to join us. My only rule is that everyone who comes over that night should wear a costume. My love for my family rises exponentially every year as I see them struggle to comply with this rule. My usually elegant brother-in-law Nick permits us to swathe him in purple velvet swashbuckler attire. My mother-in-law, Maria, unrecognizably silly, giggles in a clown costume, while my refined sister Jeanne gets funky in seventies rainbow-colored Afro and platform shoes, and my brother- in-law David raps in a blue polyester tuxedo and bling. My children's costumes, long discussed, carefully conceived, have evolved in response to their growing maturity: Tinker Bell transformed into a teenage rock star; a dalmatian devolved into Dracula. I tend to like wearing small touches only, usually accessories that somehow hint at my mood that year: a black pointy witch's hat, crown, Mardi Gras mask, fairy wings.
The crowds begin to pour onto our block. People from all over Brooklyn gravitate to Garden Place, and it becomes one big street party, more and more raucous the later it gets. Our block plays the role of sentinel that evening. We are polite, even generous overseers of the madness, but always above the fray. The crowds of trick-or- treaters press, forming lines at the bottom of our stairs. We sit midway up our stoop, just high enough to make it difficult to reach us. In control, we casually toss candy from above into the up- stretched candy bags. "One piece per trick-or-treater only," we remind the younger helpers on our stairs, "or we'll run out!" Minutes later, we holler, "Friends always get extra candy, though," bending the rules for the familiar.
The evening will eventually teeter on the brink of sourness, as make- believe chaos gives way to potential threat. Dark descends and unruly teenagers wearing gas masks or burglar panty hose replace the toddlers dressed as princesses and firemen. A teenager leaps over a fence into the neighbors' yard to kick in a pumpkin and grab fistfuls of candy. Our block is momentarily shaken but reminds itself that this is only a night of pretend. All we have to do is stand up, brush the candy wrappers off of our costumes, and go inside, firmly closing the door to such nonsense. Danger, indeed-not on Garden Place!
When my family first moved onto the block, a neighbor told me how much candy to buy. I thought she was exaggerating-she wasn't. In those three hours, we give away more than three thousand pieces of candy. I won't pretend that I go to Costco or Walmart to buy cheap hard candy in bulk or go online to buy some healthy alternative to candy. My children and I instead go to the grocery store, and they get to pick out whatever kind of candy they want-usually bag upon bag of the most deliciously disgusting candy one can buy: Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Milky Ways, and 3 Musketeers bars.
Later in the afternoon, we sit in the middle of our living room, ripping the bags open, the chemical fumes of processed chocolate wafting around us. The kids love to wrap their arms around and then dump the piles of candy into the baskets.
"We always have the best candy, don't you think, Mommy?" Lilly asked me wistfully three years ago. Seven at the time, all pinky-glowing skin and downy dimples, she sat on the floor up to her elbows in Hershey's Kisses. I agreed with her. We did have the best candy. And, for some reason, that gave me immeasurable pleasure. Not because I was in competition with my neighbors, but because it somehow symbolized all of the particular sweetnesses of this period. And nothing made me feel safer than raising my children in this tiny enclave of Brooklyn. The neighborhood sang a tranquil lullaby that rocked any anxieties to sleep. Perhaps it is human nature not to remember that the simple line "rock-a-bye baby" is followed inexorably by "the cradle will fall." And even though so many of our nursery rhymes and lullabies describe this fall-when the bough breaks, when London Bridge fell down, when Humpty Dumpty took a great fall, when Jack fell down the hill-I had no sense of foreboding that I, too, would come tumbling after.
Our lives were simple, simply "enormous bliss." These words were written by John Milton to describe Adam and Eve's life in Eden before the fall from grace. The poem Paradise Lost has acted as a touchstone for me for years. It is Milton's masterpiece, an extended retelling of the story of Genesis-Adam and Eve's lives in the Garden of Eden, their temptation, fall from grace, and eventual punishment. In contrast to the story as narrated in the Bible, Milton lingered in Eden, that "wilderness of sweets," lavishly expanding the description of Adam and Eve's lives before the fall for thousands of lines of poetry, and I finally understand why: it was just too lovely there for him to leave.
And too lovely in my own paradise for me ever to want to leave. I cherished home as much for my children and husband as for myself. Our lovely house, part Edith Wharton age of elegance, part mold and sagging disarray, allows for privacy and a sense of community. We live vertically: a parlor and dining floor for everyone, the second floor for Eric and me, the third floor for the children, and an overgrown garden of ivy and peonies for our dog. If I peek out of my front door, I am surrounded by intimate friends and well-known acquaintances. I never have to worry about forgetting some seemingly innocuous but critical detail in the children's lives-a chorus rehearsal or parents' night at their school. I can count on my network of girlfriends to remind me. This intricate web of support, even in the years before I truly needed and relied on it, was one of the sweetnesses of my life that I most savored.
My marriage with Eric, buoyed by children and community, offers the central haven. Eric and I have been together for twenty-two years. We first met in college at Brown when I was twenty years old, only a year after the car accident. Together, we shared an ability to sidestep danger that seemed to set the pattern for our lives: hints of trouble transformed into fortuitous events.
Fortune trumped fate even at our first meeting, which took place during a hurricane, but one named Gloria, that managed to veer back into the ocean before doing any real damage and gloriously permitted us to meet. I was alone in the apartment that
I shared with my friend Audrey, the top floor of a four-story apartment building filled with students. I had looked out of the window periodically during the day as the storm built. Students, taking advantage of the gale, were roller-skating, biking, and gliding on homemade rigs with sails. Storekeepers busily taped up their windows to protect against the potential force of the wind. I didn't think much of the storm; I had a paper due.
That evening, the storm grew wilder. My electricity went out. I hadn't bothered following the advice of local weathermen and had no candles or matches in the apartment readily available. Scrambling in the kitchen, trying to light a half-used candle with the stove, I heard a crash. Two of the windows in my living room had shattered. Taping up the windows had also seemed an unnecessary precaution. Regretting my earlier nonchalance, I raced out of the apartment and began knocking on doors.
After trying three floors of apartments without success, I finally found someone who was at home on the first floor. The young Eric, blond, thin, patrician, answered the door. He was holding a croquet mallet in his hand and waved me in. Candles lined the walls, illuminating an elaborate game of croquet and a bottle of champagne chilling in a bucket. There was no furniture in the room except for a plastic lawn table beneath an open sun umbrella and six chairs, remnants of a garage sale that for fifty dollars had allowed him to decorate his first apartment. I stayed that night until the storm was over, playing croquet, drinking champagne, watching card tricks, playing poker, staring into Eric's changeable blue-green eyes. I liked his calm. I liked his cool. I was smitten.
He was deciding. It took several weeks of awkward attempts at connection-an unexpected shortage of eggs, lost keys, could I borrow his phone-before he asked me out on our first date. Or was it a date? He wondered if I was hungry and wanted to get an ice cream with him.
We always joked in later years that he would tell me when he actually started liking me only on our wedding day. I would just have to wait until then for the mystery to be revealed. We knew for years that we would get married. My mother, so sure of this event, started planning the wedding a year before we actually got engaged. Thanksgiving 1990, she called me two days before we planned to come home for the holiday and informed me that we couldn't come. When asked why not, she admitted that it would be too embarrassing; everyone in St. Louis thought that we were engaged.
A college romance that could have ended in a broken heart, made worse by the public embarrassment of maternal expectation gone amok, instead ended in a marzipan rose of a wedding: pink rose centerpieces, rosebud boutonnieres, my dress bordered by satin roses. We married in my parents' backyard at sunset; it started to rain, but only after we had sat down to dinner under a tent. The downpour became just another symbol of our good luck. No one felt a drop. Eric's toast after dinner was a simple declarative-he had fallen in love with me at first sight and would love me until the day he died.
We howled with laughter later that night back in our hotel room, as he tried to get me out of the dress (an impossibility, really, with the two hundred tiny buttons down the back), while admitting that he had completely lied in the toast. He had started liking me about a week into my harassing him; he did consider the ice cream a real date.
The innocence of this first love left an indelible impression on our marriage, colored it magic, as if we managed to see everything in our lives, including the birth and raising of our children, through rose- tinted glasses. When I found out in my first pregnancy that I was having a boy, I was initially nervous. I was from a family of girls- what would I do with a boy? I began having anxiety dreams. A thick- necked hulk of a son would look at me, take a beer can, smash it on his forehead, and ask, "Yo, Ma! Wanna brewski?" Eric teases me that I made him read every line of the mother-to-be's bible, What to Expect When You're Expecting. We knew every small symptom, discomfort, and side effect of pregnancy intimately. We had complained about them together, each with a hand pressed to my belly, waiting for the next cascade of volcanic eruptions as our son moved or hiccuped. We felt ready. We were prepared. We had, however, not bothered to read that portion of the chapter on labor and delivery devoted to home birthing in case of a problem. As Eric pointed out, "Why bother reading it? What kinds of idiots don't make it to the hospital in time?"
So determined to experience the birth naturally, I stayed home with Eric for twenty-one hours as we took walks, warm showers, and listened to the Grateful Dead. When I was nearing pass-out, we finally decided that it might be a good idea to get to the hospital. We had miscalculated. We hadn't anticipated pouring rain, my not fitting into the backseat (Eric finally broke the front seat so that I could), traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, no parking, a busy delivery room. By the time a doctor saw me, I was past the point of needing to push; the baby was "in distress." Distress gave way to miracle; Benjamin was born thirteen minutes later.
And that was thirteen years ago. Even the number 13 loses its cachet as unlucky in the context of our lives. The young man, Benjamin, captured at this moment, is another alchemy, dross turned into golden boy, mind all father, body all mother. His character comes from Eric: ebullient, enthusiastic, generous. He has what my family refers to as a "pure soul." If I am annoyed with him, he'll lean over to tell me that I'm the best mom in the world and then give me one of his goofiest, kindest grins.