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Letters to Japan

December 7, 2011

Grimm. I hardly know more than a few of those old world cautionary tales which seem so riddled with tips for a nightmare rich sleep. I happened across one called, The Story About the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear WasThe ‘youth’ gets haunted at midnight by his Father dressed as a ghost. Not knowing the ghost is his Father he assaults the haunter and is then kicked out of his home for doing so. The next stop on the boys’ quest for fear leads to a cozy night of sleeping under gallows during an evening of 6 or 7 hangings.

Now in Grimm’s, The Golden Goose, at least there’s cake. Children are sent off into the woods, well stocked with cake & wine except for ‘Dummling.’ Clearly the un-favorite, Dummling gets cake made from water & ash and to drink his medieval capri sun is cheap ale. This cake business turns dark when a little grey man with an axe, hacks away at the siblings who won’t share their goodies. Of course Dummling is clearly not dumb and is willing to share his miserable lunch bag.  No axe hacking for him. 

Now the scariest book that my children have had read to them at bedtime has been, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. And at the end (spoiler alert) when the bear follows them home and knocks on the door, our children always looked a bit spooked. Walter the Farting Dog is another nighttime treat and comes with a stuffed farting Walter. The pages of, You’re all my Favorites, are spent with bear parents convincing each little bear that it is in fact a favorite . Poor Dummling. With the book came these three adorable little sibling bears, stitched together with a homemade sort of look. The tan one is my favorite.

At my Grandmother’s house there was this strange little green  ‘doll’ of sorts which she kept in her kitchen. It was this forest green, boiled wool that was sewn in a misshapen cone with a round yellow face. The face had a scary black lipstick smile, rosy cheeks, black eyes with long eyelashes and mean eyebrows. No bigger than a child’s hand, it looked down over the breakfast table from a little wooden shelf. It was an egg warmer. Where to begin.

Margaret had smooth pore-less white skin and still mostly black, long hair pinned up in a bun. She had a throaty phlegmy sounding German accent which clicked once in a while when her dentures slid. Her house was a strange mix of smells. Simmering red cabbage made a pungent, vinegary smell and these little steaks she would cook on her Farberware grill with garlic cloves pressed into them (they were delicious) added a savory air. There was also this faint scent of brown soap (which I think had lye in it) and  her face cream, Oil of Olay. The pink face cream was her one indulgence, that and a red lipstick which did double duty on her cheeks. She kept a stack of Cadbury bars in the pantry which she would buy on sale, being on their last remaining days of shelf life at the drugstore. 

Whenever my sister & I would sleep over, at bedtime she had us say prayers.

“Now I lay me down to sleep……if I should die before I wake?”

After the seeds of souls and death had been planted, and with hands folded we would each get one piece of chocolate placed in our mouths. The chocolate had to get directly into our mouth so there’d be no melty chocolate fingers and no chocolate smudges in the bed. Now my children, well let’s just say our house has all the smears and smudges that their hands can make and sometimes I wish it was only from chocolate.

They lived in Toms River, Margaret and Fritz, and after our death prayer, and expired Cadbury square, there was silent, still, restless, ‘I’m a kid away from home’ sleep. We were either there because our parents were patching things up or because things had fallen apart. Pine trees and sand all were useless at slowing down the wind which had an eerie, gritty, whistly sound all night. Our only other companion in the room was ‘Donna,’ a large doll with  1940’s styled wavy brown hair, brown eyes, and her most recent outfit made from the scraps of the pants and blouse Margaret made for herself. And if there was a lot of left over, silky, slippery polyester print, Donna would have a matching scarf, purse & maybe a pillow too. That wind hissed all night while Donna sat watching us, sharp, whispery sounds that were nothing like home.

Our own old house creaks and pops on any given windy day or night, and on certain places on the floor when you walk. Shortly after the birth of our baby girl, her big sister sat wide-eyed, nervous and scared in her bed at night. Afraid of hurricanes, tornadoes and tsunamis, my now 2nd grader felt panicky and unsafe. She told me she was worried about the noisy wind that night, and maybe a tornado could take away our baby and our dogs. This was around the time that her class had just written letters to children in Japan right after the earthquake. It was a kind, empathic project reaching out to students just like themselves that were going through horrible tragedies.

We keep the news off around our children and only share current events like celebrating our first Black President, or to indoctrinate our values by simplifying for them that “All George Bush Jr. cares about is money, not people.” So when my 2nd grader shared with me, the particulars of a teacher in Japan who had escaped a collapsing building and returned later on her bike with help for those trapped inside, only to get swept away and drowned by floodwaters I knew our cozy home had been breached. She told me this with a sadness and disappointment in her new discovery of what can happen in this world. Her 8 year old sense of things seemed to be asking if I knew it was like this. Unfamiliar with tragedy and war and cancer and children’s Hospitals until now, she is becoming aware. We are not Amish. We simply wanted our children to keep their sensitivity and not become numb to gratuitous, repetitious violence, and objectified Disney Channel pop tarts. My tragedy censoring days seem to be waning and now I have to be confident and sturdy in being with my children, answering their questions and talking thoughtfully about this world we live in.

Maybe the Grimm Brothers knew what they were doing by scaring the innocence out of children and calibrating them to a certain level of fear and horror. I’ve always pointed out to my little souls that when they are scared of the bear knocking on the door, that on the next page the whole family is nestled together hiding under the covers, cozy and safe. I hope I’m right.

Black Forest Cupcakes with Chocolate Ganache & Cream Cheese Frosting

Cupcakes adapted from The Food Network Cupcake Challenge

  • 3/4 cup boiling water
  • 3/4 cup cocoa
  • 6 oz butter
  • 2 c sugar
  • 3/4 tsp sea salt
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 1/2 c cake flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 c buttermilk
  • 1/4 c dried cherries, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Whisk together boiling water and cocoa. Set aside. With a mixer, cream together the butter, sugar, salt and vanilla. Add the eggs and continue beating until light and fluffy. Sift  the flour, baking soda & powder together and add alternating with the buttermilk. Add  the set aside cocoa and water mixture . Blend until combined. Fill cupcake pans about 2/3 full. Bake for 20-25 minutes. Makes about 36

  • Ganache:
  • 8 oz chocolate chopped
  • 3/4 c heavy cream
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tbsp butter

Place chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Bring cream and sugar just to a boil in a small saucepan & add to chocolate. Wisk together & add butter, blending until melted.

  • frosting:
  • 4 oz softened butter
  • 4 oz softened cream cheese
  • 2  1/4 c powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • pinch sea salt
  • 1tbsp cream

Beat together butter and cream cheese. Add powdered sugar & pinch of salt, beating to a good consistency. Continue beating and add vanilla and cream.

Cool cupcakes completely before decorating. Dip tops of cooled cupcakes in the warm ganache and let set. Fill a pastry bag with the frosting. Using a small tip, pierce the center of the cupcake top and pipe frosting into the cupcake without overfilling (or it will break apart). Switch to a decorative tip & swirl top of cupcake with frosting. Sprinkle with finely chopped dried cherries.

Great snack for a bear hunt.



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