INCLUDING AN EXCLUSIVE CONVERSATION BETWEEN MERYL STREEP AND ANNA QUINDLEN
“[Quindlen] serves up generous portions of her wise, commonsensical, irresistibly quotable take on life. . . . What Nora Ephron does for body image and Anne Lamott for spiritual neuroses, Quindlen achieves on the home front.”—NPR
In this irresistible memoir, Anna Quindlen writes about a woman’s life, from childhood memories to manic motherhood to middle age, using the events of her life to illuminate ours. Considering—and celebrating—everything from marriage, girlfriends, our mothers, parenting, faith, loss, to all the stuff in our closets, and more, Quindlen says for us here what we may wish we could have said ourselves. As she did in her beloved New York Times columns, and in A Short Guide to a Happy Life, Quindlen uses her past, present, and future to explore what matters most to women at different ages. Quindlen talks about
Marriage: “A safety net of small white lies can be the bedrock of a successful marriage. You wouldn’t believe how cheaply I can do a kitchen renovation.”
Girlfriends: “Ask any woman how she makes it through the day, and she may mention her calendar, her to-do lists, her babysitter. But if you push her on how she really makes it through her day, she will mention her girlfriends. ”
Our bodies: “I’ve finally recognized my body for what it is: a personality-delivery system, designed expressly to carry my character from place to place, now and in the years to come.”
Parenting: “Being a parent is not transactional. We do not get what we give. It is the ultimate pay-it-forward endeavor: We are good parents not so they will be loving enough to stay with us but so they will be strong enough to leave us.”
Candid, funny, and moving, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake is filled with the sharp insights and revealing observations that have long confirmed Quindlen’s status as America’s laureate of real life.
“Classic Quindlen, at times witty, at times wise, and always of her time.”—The Miami Herald
“[A] pithy, get-real memoir.”—Booklist
Look for special features inside. Join the Random House Reader’s Circle for author chats and more.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.34(w) x 7.86(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Anna Quindlen is a novelist and journalist whose work has appeared on fiction, nonfiction, and self-help bestseller lists. Her book A Short Guide to a Happy Life has sold more than a million copies. While a columnist at The New York Times she won the Pulitzer Prize and published two collections, Living Out Loud and Thinking Out Loud. Her Newsweek columns were collected in Loud and Clear. She is the author of six novels: Object Lessons, One True Thing, Black and Blue, Blessings, Rise and Shine, and Every Last One.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:July 8, 1952
Place of Birth:Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Education:B.A., Barnard College, 1974
Read an Excerpt
Time is at once the most valuable and the most perishable of all our possessions.
colonial member of Congress
I have a lot of stuff. I bet you do, too. Sofas, settees, bureaus, bookshelves. Dishes, bowls, pottery, glass, candlesticks, serving trays, paperweights. Beds, chests, trunks, tables. Windsor chairs, club chairs, ladder- back chairs, folding chairs, wicker chairs. Lots and lots of chairs.
I have needlepoint pillows everywhere: camels, chickens, cats, houses, barns, libraries, roses, daisies, pansies. I needlepoint while I watch television. I have a vision of my children, after I’m gone, looking around and saying, “What are we going to do with all these pillows?” I don’t mind. My best friend, Janet, has more pillows than I do, and more platters, too. Once I bought some plates and knew instantly that she would love them. “Where did you get those?” she asked, and I lied to her and then bought some for her birthday.
“Did she need more plates?” asked my husband, whose idea of need is different from my own.
In the city I have lots of stuff on the walls. Modern art, traditional art, landscapes, photographic prints. Eclectic. In the country I have samplers. THE BLESSING OF THE HOME IS CONTENTMENT. THIS IS OUR HOUSE / THE DOOR OPENS WIDE / AND WELCOMES YOU / TO ALL INSIDE. I have a large piece of framed embroidery that shows a woman with bobbed hair and an apron holding a tray with a tea service. A GOOD HOUSEWIFE MAKES A GOOD HOME, this one says. Lots of people who come to our house, knowing my politics, think it’s ironic.
It’s not ironic.
I didn’t have all this stuff when I was young and single. None of us did. It was a big deal to have blinds and coffee mugs. Many of the guys I knew didn’t; they’d tack a sheet over the bedroom window, drink from Styrofoam. My first apartment was pretty typical; I had a small uncomfortable sleeper sofa, a bentwood rocker, a coffee table that was actually a trunk—didn’t everyone in 1976?—and a set of bookshelves. I was proud of those bookshelves. Many of my friends still used plastic egg crates, or plywood and cinder blocks.
In the bedroom I had a chest of drawers and a desk that was too low for an adult, at which I would hunch over my old manual Smith Corona typewriter, my knees contorted beneath. I had swapped the twin bed of my girlhood for a double bed, which children nowadays, raised on queen-size beds from seventh grade, the first generation of middle-class kids who trade down when they arrive in college dorms, can scarcely imagine. I was proud of that double bed. Many of my friends had futons.
That was more or less it. My stuff then would all fit in the back of one U-Haul, and not the big one, either. None of us used movers when we changed apartments, just called around and got a group together for pizza and beer and haulage. A lot of stuff wound up on the sidewalk for the sanitation truck.
But then we got married and we got carafes, chafing dishes, and china. We bought matching love seats for the living room in the row house that had once been a rooming house. (“Your grandfather worked hard all his life so his grandchildren wouldn’t have to live in a place like this,” my father said, sitting on the stoop, but he still lent us money for the renovation.) I trawled junk shops for oak furniture too old to be new but too young to be antique. I had a brief flirtation with Fiesta ware and Roseville pottery, never met a big old bowl or platter I couldn’t love. When we were in Sicily for his sister’s twentieth birthday and I halted, transfixed, before a window display of Italian pottery, our older son said, deadpan, “Mom, why don’t you get one of those so you can put it on a little stand on a shelf somewhere?” I’d never really thought they’d noticed, much less passed judgment.
And that’s not even counting the stuff in my closet. One day I peered inside and realized it looked like it belonged to someone with multiple personality disorder. The bohemian look, the sharp suits, the frilly dresses. Those days are behind me, and I finally know who and how I’m dressing. I’m dressing a person who has eighteen pairs of black pants and eleven pairs of black pumps. Of course, that number is illusory, since it includes the black pants I never felt looked great but purchased on sale, the pair that never seem to be the right length, and the two pairs that fit funny. Not too big or too small, just funny. Naturally there are two pairs of the shoes that I wear all the time, because they’re comfortable, and one pair that I wear on occasion because they are great-looking and my toes don’t go entirely numb for at least three hours.
I prefer not to dwell on the purses and the white T-shirts. You know, fashion magazines always say you can never have too many white T-shirts.
Yes, you can.
It wasn’t always like this, was it? At some point in America, desire and need became untethered in our lives, and shopping became a competitive sport. I can’t recall my mother spending much time spending, although of course she predated that black hole of consumption, the shopping website. It was generally agreed in our family that my grandmother Quindlen was a world-class shopper, and there was a much-repeated, often-embellished story about one of my aunts arriving early enough at a big sale to score a spot at the front of the line and still finding my grandmother already inside the store when she’d breached the doors. But there was always an object to the hunt: a Hitchcock chair, a pair of Naturalizer pumps. Sometimes I feel as though credit cards have helped us concentrate on quantity, not quality; the other day a financial adviser on TV said that if people were using cash for purchases, they tended to be much more abstemious. Plastic is magical, as though the bill will never come due.
I have too much plastic, too, in my wallet.
What do we notice when we drive down the highways of our adolescence and measure what’s changed? We now have the big-box stores, the home emporiums, the fast-food places, certainly, but the weirdest addition is the thousands of storage facilities that loom, bunkerlike, windowless. When we were kids, storage was the basement and attic, a broken chair, an army trunk. Today we rent facilities for the stuff we’re not currently using, probably will never use again.
Statisticians say our houses are almost twice as large, on average, as they were forty years ago. So much stuff, rotating rooms of it: cribs, big-boy beds, changing tables, desks, new linens, new window treatments, new rugs. When my kids got their own places, they went shopping in the junk shops in the top and bottom stories of our own homes. My husband says that when you go to their apartments it’s like a walk down Memory Lane, that little table we never really found a place for, the coffee mugs that take both of us right back to the era when there was scarcely time for coffee because someone always needed a glass of milk or a story read. “Take more!” I kept saying, but they demurred, not wanting to seem greedy. The odd frying pan, the chipped bowls. Quin cleans, Christopher cooks. Chris called one night and asked how to drain spaghetti if you don’t have one of those things with the holes in it. Next time he came over I gave him one of my four colanders. Or maybe it’s five. I like the old enameled ones.
The nicest thing you can say to me about my home is that it’s homey, and people say it all the time. I like it. And at a certain point, I can’t say when, I realized I didn’t really give a damn about any of it. If there were a fire, what would I save? We all used to say it was the photo albums, but with digital photography we all have our photographs on our computers, on Facebook, in emails to our families and friends. My cookbooks are well thumbed, but I know the best recipes by heart now, and the bad recipes I’ve either discarded or adapted.
I can’t even say I would reach for the wedding album; it seems so long ago, and so many of our friends didn’t come into our lives until afterward. There’s a porcelain bird I gave my mother the Christmas before she died, which she owned for less than a month, that I’ve wrapped carefully in tissue and taken with me from the small apartment to the bigger apartment to the brownstone to the nicer brownstone. There are the letters my kids write each year to Santa Claus, even now that they no longer watch me seal them in envelopes and address them to S. Claus, North Pole, 99705 (which is really the zip code of North Pole, Alaska, not the real North Pole), even now that my daughter has learned to write to Santa online and to insert a web link so you can click on the letter to Santa and go directly to the dress she wants from Saks in the correct size and color. There’s the mink coat my husband gave me when our first child was born, which I haven’t worn for years because our kids are bothered by fur but which I treasure because it made me feel prosperous, elegant, and wifelike for perhaps the first time.
If there were a fire I’d probably just grab a few old pictures and the Labradors. I’d be wearing the watch and the rings my husband gave me for the big birthdays. I haven’t removed my wedding ring since the day he put it on me and the priest blessed it. I’d miss the rest, but I wouldn’t mourn it. Except for the Christmas ornaments, I guess. My entire family is pretty attached to the Christmas ornaments.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Life in the Fifties ix
Part I The Laboratory of Life 1
Next of Kin 16
Part II The Wisdom of Why 39
Near Miss 56
Mirror, Mirror 65
Part III The Element of Surprise 85
The Little Stories We Tell Ourselves 89
Part IV The Be-All and End-All 137
Step Aside 151
To Be Continued 172
Reading Group Guide
1. In the opening lines of the book, Anna Quindlen says about the arc of her life: “First I was who I was. Then I didn’t know who I was. Then I invented someone, and became her.” Looking back over your own life, do you identify with Quindlen’s experience? Do you think you’ve “invented” yourself as you’ve grown older, or become who you always were? And how would you differentiate between the two?
2. Anna Quindlen loves everything about books—from the musty smell of old bookstores, to the excuse reading provides to be alone. Books, she writes, “make us feel as though we’re connected, as though the thoughts and feelings we believe are singular and sometimes nutty are shared by others, that we are all more alike than different.” What do you most love about books? Be specific: Is it the entertainment, the escape, the sense of connection? Something else entirely?
3. Anna writes hilariously about the small white lies—the cost of a kitchen renovation, for example—that can keep a marriage healthy. Do you agree? If so, fess up: Which of your innocent fibs do you think has spared your relationship the most grief?
4. Anna tells her children that “the single most important decision they will make…[is] who they will marry.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
5. Anna calls girlfriends “the joists that hold up the house of our existence,” and believes that they become more and more important to us as we grow older. Have you found this to be true? If so, why do you think that’s the case? What do you think close girlfriends offer that a spouse cannot?
6. The difference between male friendships and female friendships, Anna writes, is that “all male phone conversations were designed to make plans,” while phone calls between girlfriends “were intended to deconstruct the world.” What other differences between male and female friendships does Anna illuminate in the chapter “Girlfriends”? What other differences and/or similarities do you think exist between male friendships and female friendships?
7. In the chapter “Older”, Anna writes: “Perhaps if we think of life as a job, most of us finally feel that after fifty we’ve gotten good at it.” Do you think you’ve gotten good at life? What aspects do you think you could improve? And better yet, which have you nailed?
8. “One of the amazing, and frightening things about growing older,” Anna writes, is that you become aware of “how many times it could have gone a different way, the mistakes that you averted, not because you were wise, perhaps, but because you were lucky.” Can you think of an example in your own life, of when you might have gone another way? How might things have been different? Are you grateful you ended up on the path you’re on?
9. Anna writes about our attitude toward aging and our looks: “Women were once permitted a mourning period for their youthful faces; it was called middle age. Now we don’t even have that. Instead we have the science of embalming disguised as grooming.” How does she think that our society’s love of youth, and youthful looks, affect the way women lead their lives? Do you agree?
10. At her age, Anna writes, she’s stopped trying to figure out why she does what she does. “I fear heights, love liver and onions, prefer big dogs over small ones, work best between the hours of ten and two. Who knows why? Who cares?” What are some of the quirks you’ve stopped fighting, the eccentricities you’ve come to embrace in yourself? In your friends, your family?
11. “Those little stories we tell ourselves,” Anna writes, “make us what we are, and, too often, what we’re not. … I can’t cook. I’m not smart. I’m a bad driver. I’m no jock.” Anna recounts her own story of overcoming one of these “little stories,” and doing something she once thought impossible: a headstand. Do you have “little stories you tell yourself” about who you are, and what you can do? Are there times when you, or a friend or family member, have overcome one of these “mythic” obstacles and done something you thought impossible?
12. Anna calls her body a “personality-delivery system.” She doesn’t require a “hood ornament”—what she really needs “are four tires and an engine.” Do you find this notion comforting? Or do you feel appearance is more important than that? Discuss.
13. Anna draws some meaningful distinctions between parenting young children and parenting young adults. As she puts it, “It is one thing to tell a ten-year-old she cannot watch an R-rated movie; it is another to watch her, at age 30, preparing to marry a man you are not convinced will make her happy.” What do you think are some of the biggest challenges in parenting young and older children? Some of the greatest joys? What has parenting taught you about yourself?
14. The “alchemy of parenthood” is watching “so much scut work”—dinners, sports, school, doctors’ offices—manifest itself in “unique and remarkable human beings.” Why do you think it’s so difficult to see the end product on the horizon—the “Sistine Chapel,” as Anna writes—during the day-to-day routines? Or, do you think there are moments within the daily routines when parents can catch glimpses of the larger thing they are helping to build?
15. In the beginning of Part I, Anna’s daughter asks her what message she would give to her 22-year-old self. Anna has two answers: first, that her younger self should “stop listening to anyone who wanted to smack her down,” and second, that the bad news was that “she knew nothing, really, about anything that mattered. Nothing at all.” Did this advice ring true to you, too? If you were to give a message to your younger self, what would you say?
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Anna Quindlen
Anna Quindlen whose memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake was published by Random House last week is a woman of many accomplishments. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist. Beloved novelist. Sought-after public speaker. The only author to ever have books on The New York Times fiction, nonfiction, and self-help bestseller lists.
She's also my mother, which she'd tell you is her greatest accomplishment (along with being the mother of my younger siblings, Chris and Maria). I thought, since her new book is filled with reflections on motherhood and family, who better to ask the right questions than someone who's been around for much of the journey her memoir describes?
So I asked if I could interview her about the book and the stories behind it, and she said yes (of course). But as we sat down to talk, she was the one with the first question: "Isn't this so weird for you? I mean, did you ever imagine that someday we'd be sitting here at the dining room table, talking about my life?" In truth, the experience was a little surreal and nerve- wracking. We've had plenty of conversations about her work before, but this was different; I felt the pressure any interviewer feels, to ask the right questions to get the interviewee talking. But it turned out to be so much fun that we both quickly forgot about the unusual occasion and the tape recorder between us. Quindlen Krovatin
The Barnes & Noble Review: I thought we'd start with the title because I know you had a lot of difficulty arriving at a title for this book. I was hoping you could talk about the different titles you went through prior to Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.
Anna Quindlen: I'm not sure that any one title had traction for more than an hour when I first started writing this memoir. The problem is that the book is about so many different things. About motherhood, about friendship, about how we grow older, about how we care for ourselves and our families while we grow older. There wasn't one title that covered the waterfront. And what I realized at a certain point was that I wanted a title that communicated, for lack of a better word, the joyfulness of the book. The exuberance. I was walking across town to have dinner with my friend, the mystery writer Linda Fairstein, and Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake just popped into my head. Full bore. I immediately e-mailed it to my agent. She loved it. She forwarded it to my editor. She loved it. We all felt that it really captured something about the book. It captured the age aspect, but also the joyfulness. And that was the duality that we really wanted to get front and center.
BNR: But I know at one point you'd been thinking of calling it Later. Something that communicated the period of time in your life that you'd arrived at.
AQ: Right. And at one point there was some sense that we would call it Gray because of what was going on with my hair. But none of those titles seemed to cover all of the book. I mean, the book isn't just about the later years of my life. It's about how the earlier years have informed those later years. I remember at a certain point my agent seized on something in the book and said, "Why don't we call it Is 9:30 Too Early to Go to Bed?" [Laughs]
AQ: The answer, of course, being "No!" [Laughs] But that was just before I came up with Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, and we were set.
BNR: Hadn't there been talk about using another line from the book, I'm Too Old to Die Young Now?
AQ: Actually, when I first wrote the proposal for the book, I called it Too Old to Die Young Now, which is what I said to your sister when she was worried about something happening to me. And I really do think that in some ways it's the quote that set me working on this. A tangible, spoken sense that I've crossed a line on the continuum of life. But, while I still think that's a pretty good title, there was a sense that having the word "die" in the title didn't necessarily work.
BNR: But even earlier, when you were first imagining the book, I remember you talking about it as Mistakes Were Made: A Memoir of Motherhood. When did?or how did you decide to move beyond motherhood to a more multi-faceted view of your life?
AQ: It was a combination of speaking that sentence to Maria I'm too old to die young now and then once I'd done the research that showed that in the year I was born, 1952, average life expectancy was 68. Every time I say that, even to people who pride themselves on being well informed, there's an audible gasp. Are you sure about that? Did you double-check that? The answer is, I am absolutely sure. I triple-checked. But the idea that that was how long you got to live then, and that you get to live twelve years on average longer now, made me think about the differences in the lives of people my age from those of the generations that came before. And that seemed to me to be broader and deeper than motherhood, although clearly that's a pivotal part of this book. It seemed to me to cry out for an explanation and an exploration of what we're doing with this time and how our lives are defined by the fact that we're going to live longer than any generation previously in history.
BNR: You may even live forever.
AQ: Not forever. Please, no.
BNR: Back to the title Mistakes Were Made. If you reflect on your time as a mother, what mistakes were you thinking of when you conceived of that title?
AQ: I can't even begin to count all of the stupid, ham-handed things that I did. I mean, there was the time when your first Easter came around, and I put soaps and washcloths folded in the shape of bunnies in a basket because I didn't want you to have chocolate.
BNR: Were you worried about my teeth?
AQ: It was a purist kind of thing. There you go. Purism often got in my way. I banned you all from watching The Simpsons for a number of years, which was clearly an error in judgment. There was the time your sister came running up to me and said she'd gotten a 98 on her test, and my response was, "Which one did you get wrong?" There was the time I ordered the food at the McDonald's drive-thru window and then drove through without it. And there were serious times when you all got older when I responded in stereotypical ways to situations. I think that's the biggest danger in being a mother: The impulse to massage your kids into some kind of homogenized, universally accepted form, which, if you're smart, you know intuitively will result in nothing much down the road. But in the moment it somehow seems easier than individuating, than giving them their head, than getting out of their way.
BNR: I forget which author we were talking about, but it was an author who said that all of the books she writes are really about one theme.
AQ: Amy Bloom.
BNR: Right. Of course. I actually forget what the theme was.
AQ: I think she said love.
BNR: And you said that yours was motherhood. I think that's absolutely true. I was going back through that box you assembled for each of us of the first editions of all of your books, and I was struck by how it's always motherhood troubled by violence, or illness, or even just circumstance like in Blessings.
AQ: I actually think my theme is a combination of motherhood and loss, and clearly anybody who knows anything about my personal history knows where that comes from. My mother died when I was 19. In novel after novel, that emerges as a theme, most dramatically in Every Last One. It's actually not a theme of the novel I'm working on now.
BNR: Is the protagonist a mother?
AQ: She is. But it's not as important a part of her character as it is for most of the women I've written about in the past.
BNR: Because I was thinking about how even in Rise and Shine, which is one of your more lighthearted novels, Meghan Fitzmaurice's relationship with her son, Leo, is fraught.
AQ: It's not so true in my first novel, Object Lessons, which is more of a young person's novel. But then once you get to One True Thing, it clearly takes hold, this dual theme of motherhood and loss. I think it was something I had to explore until I felt like I'd explored it to its fullest. And if you look at my novels, Every Last One, the most recent one, is about as far as I could go in exploring that, which is why the new one doesn't need to be about motherhood as much.
BNR: That makes a lot of sense. How do you think having your Mom die when you were as young as you were affected how you approached being a mother?
AQ: I think it made me bound and determined to be there as much as possible. It had a lot to do with why I quit my job at The New York Times when I did, when you and Christopher were small. Which turned out to be an opportunity in disguise because that's when I started to write my column "Life in the 30s." And it's why I quit that column when Maria was born and took a year off with the three of you before I started the Op-Ed page column ["Public and Private"]. I just felt like life was short and I needed to be there. And I was haunted by the fact that my sister, your Aunt Theresa, was nine when our mother died, and she literally remembers nothing about her. And so I would look at you three, who were so central to my life, and think, I'm not even written on their DNA yet. I've got to be there as much as possible. I think it made me a very engaged and attentive mother.
BNR: Did your Mom's style of being a mother, her approach to motherhood, inform how you raised us? Did you try to emulate her?
AQ: I did, but that was an interesting challenge. In terms of our characters and what was going on in our lives, my Mother and I were vastly different. Which was something that I struggled with because I loved her so much, and the idea of being different from her made me feel a little less in her eyes when I was younger. She was not a particularly educated woman. She wasn't intellectual. She was just really good at making all five of us feel like we'd hung the moon. And that was the thing that I tried to emulate. That sense of each of your kids at various times thinking that they're the favorite.
AQ: Not that there was no favorite. But that they were the favorite. I think I tried to be as patient as I could. On sort of a cursory level, there were things I clearly tried to emulate. Having what, for my time, is considered a large family. Cooking constantly. The laughter. As I've written before, making my mother laugh was the be-all and end-all of my existence. You guys have cracked me up so much over the years that I feel like that's a pay-it-forward kind of thing.
BNR: When we were growing up, she was an almost beatific figure, smiling out of black-and-white photos. Obviously, I never knew her, but she felt like a powerful force in our lives.
AQ: But that's actually an unfortunate thing that we do to the dead. We turn them into plaster saint versions of themselves. We almost take away their individuality in our quest to make them perfect. So instead you get Saint Prudence of Spaghetti and Meatballs. [Laughs]
BNR: [Laughs] That's so funny because the other day you had those old pictures out, and I don't think I'd ever seen a picture of Grandma Prudence old before. With glasses. Because the pictures around the house are of her at her wedding. Or her holding you when you're an infant. So seeing her as an older woman was very strange.
AQ: Well, that's one of the interesting things about our attitudes towards aging because my mother was 41 when she died. And at the time I was both hugely bereaved but also conscious of the fact that she had lived a rich, full life. And only when I got older did I realize that she had died incredibly young. Now that I'm almost 60, I just feel like it's tragic. I say in the book that ever since I was 19 I felt, at some level, like I was living for two. That I had to embrace every day of life because I knew that my mother would have killed to have it. And so I think my attitude about aging has been different from some of my friends because I knew the alternative.
BNR: And now that you're beyond the age that she died, who do you turn to as a model for motherhood.
AQ: Honestly, the people who teach you how to be a good mother are your children. And one of the biggest challenges of being a good mother is to listen to them. The trick is, you can't listen to their words. You have to read between the lines of how they're behaving, what they're saying, what they're doing.
BNR: One thing I remembered in my reading of the book was that when we were growing up you would bake these incredible cakes for our birthdays. And I wanted to talk a little about the most challenging of those cakes.
BNR: Was it from year one that it was important to you to make such a big deal out of our birthdays, or did that come about later.
AQ: Actually, the cakes were much more baroque when you were babies.
BNR: Like scalloped edges or?
AQ: Not the decoration. More the baking. Cakes with hazelnut mocha frosting. Very, very complex cakes. Totally unnecessary.
BNR: And lost on the individuals eating them.
AQ: Although there always was that moment, because you know I was never a junk food mother, there was always that moment when one of you would dig into your cake, put a fistful in your mouth, and give me a look like, you've been holding out on me.
AQ: It was kind of magical. But I think the birthday parties were emblematic of something else. My birthday is July 8th, which meant that I didn't have much of a birthday celebration. If you can't take a box of cupcakes to school, it's almost like your birthday doesn't exist. And the irony is, my birthday cakes were almost always presented at a restaurant down the Shore where we used to spend the summers, and they always had a sparkler in them because it was right after July 4th, which is why the sparkler on the cover of the book is really apropos. So at some point I decided that you guys would have wonderful birthdays. And as I say in the book, I took it to the limit, far past the point where the people involved were enjoying it. There were those parties with the hayrides and the clowns. There was the party I threw for Maria where I took her and her friends to the beauty salon. And the cakes only became cakes again, and not art projects, when you guys finally said, "That's enough."
BNR: Which was harder to decorate, the Jurassic Park cake or the Ghostbusters cake?
AQ: [Laughs] Definitely the Ghostbusters cake. Because I had to get Slimer in there in addition to the logo with that ghost in the red circle.
BNR: But who first asked not to have an elaborate cake?
AQ: You did. I remember one year I asked what you wanted on your cake. And I would always ask with trepidation because Maria would say something like, I want Belle dancing with the Beast in a ballroom with Lumiere holding a candelabra, and my heart would sink. But I asked you what you wanted on your cake, and you said you didn't want anything, and that felt like the beginning of maturity.
BNR: How tough is that as a mother, those kind of moments? Is it bittersweet or a feeling of relief or?
AQ: It's hard. Less hard when you have more than one child. Knowing that Christopher was still going to ask for vampires on his cake was some solace. Also, if you don't get mired in the moment, there's this incredible kick you get when you realize that your kid is becoming an adult. That they have really interesting opinions about books you've both read. That they have interesting insights into human behavior, even your own behavior, that hadn't occurred to you before. Unless you get too invested in power and control, that notion that your son or daughter is becoming an adult is thrilling.
BNR: Now Mother's Day is coming up soon...
AQ: What day is Mother's Day?
AQ: You have no idea!
BNR: No, no. I do. I think I do. May 12th?
AQ: May 13th. I actually have to fly to Traverse City, Michigan that day to do a gig for this book tour. And I'm trying to get them to change the travel itinerary so we can at least have brunch that morning.
BNR: Because it's one of the definitive "Public and Private" columns, right? "The Days of Gilded Rigatoni." When you were away for Mother's Day.
BNR: Now, just a little background, you were on book tour?
AQ: I was on book tour, and it didn't occur to me until the schedule was locked in that I would be spending Mother's Day in a hotel room in Seattle.
BNR: And it was upsetting for you.
AQ: Very upsetting. No mother should be eating a room service breakfast on Mother's Day.
BNR: Well, at least you got to eat all of the breakfast.
AQ: I got to eat all of the breakfast, and I got a column out of it. But I would have preferred to spend it with you guys. Even if that meant you ate all of the bacon before I even picked up my fork.
May 4, 2012
Quindlen Krovatin is an editor at The Barnes & Noble Review. He previously worked as a reporter in the Beijing Bureau of Newsweek Magazine.