Thursday, January 20, 2011


There is a venerable old custom in Vermont, and that is the making of "Sugar on Snow". Quite simply, on a night when the snow is fresh and deep and you can be assured of accessing a clean pan full, you heat maple syrup up on the stove until it is a bit thick. When it reaches a consistency where it will keep its shape if drizzled on something really cold, well you drizzle it in lines and squiggles over your pan of fresh, tightly packed snow. Then you pick it up and eat it like candy. Often this would be a community event, something to have a get-together around (long before the advent of big-screen TV's). I have been to one such social where they also served the traditional accompaniments: doughnuts and dill pickles. The dill pickles were eaten at intervals between the sweet things, to keep one from being overwhelmed. I first experienced "sugar on snow" at my grandmother's. Her tenant Blake prepared it for us one night, and it was wonderful! I will never forget the delightful taste and the contentment I felt that night.

You may recall that I explained in an earlier post that I spent part of a winter in Vermont with my cousins, while my grandmother and mother went to work to help my uncles launch their new restaurant. By this time my grandmother was 74 years old, but nevertheless, I remember her in the restaurant kitchen every night mixing a huge bowl of green salad, by hand, with her homemade vinaigrette. The same way I do most nights.

Anyways, my cousin Marcie and I would sometimes go and hang out at Grandma's after school when no one was there. Since the door was unlocked, we could just walk in and relax, thereby avoiding going straight home to her little brothers and all the noise. Now, sometime before I was born my grandfather, a master craftsman, gardener and all-around stern, silent guy, had remodeled the huge house and made two apartments upstairs and two downstairs, one of which my grandmother occupied.

At this time the upstairs apartment in the front of the house was home to the aforementioned Blake, a state agricultural inspector of some sort, and his mail order bride, Marisa, a native of the "Eternal City", but who herself was no Roman holiday, that's for sure. She was more like a Roman candle, a spitfire, as my mother called her. Marisa was a short little woman with short brown hair, and a shorter temper.  She drove a little Fiat with a license plate that read "Roma".

Blake was Marisa's polar opposite. He was large and gentle, patient and kind, and of old Vermont stock. He was slow of movement and speech, somewhat oafish. Marisa was not. She was a smart dresser, and in fact was an accomplished seamstress. She was quick, horrid and torrid of speech, mean as an alley-cat, and with a hair-trigger temper. Naturally, Blake was her target.

What ever possessed him to "send away for a foreign wife" (or so it was rumored he did), we didn't know. I guess he wasn't having much luck domestically. He was a man of means, though, a "gentleman farmer", as my mother called him (have you noticed that mother always had a hook to hang everything or anyone on?), and indeed I remember one summer day accompanying him and Marisa as he drove around the state visiting his farms and talking with his tenants. Which explains what the attraction must have been for Marisa. Also, she probably needed to land someone who actually didn't know her at all. At least that is how my child-mind perceived it, and I think that's probably about right.

Poor Blake. It must have been like sending away for an ant farm, and opening it up to discover a box full of fire ants.

To say that Marisa was excitable was an understatement. I also have a vivid memory of her at the 1965 New York World's Fair. A whole contingent had come down from Rutland to accompany us to the fair. But somehow I ended up with Blake, Marisa and Charlie, their son (who also had issues) high above the fair on the Swiss cable car ride. Marisa was afraid of heights apparently. We had all been a little nervous, to be sure, but somehow the experience of Miss Roma herself squatting on the floor of the little car, screaming and screeching like the tortured damned strained even Blake's last good nerve. I just remember him sitting quite still, trying to look relaxed as he clenched the sides of the car, white knuckled, while Marisa tried to pull Charlie down on the floor with her. This made the car jerk and sway. Charlie was crying, Blake just kept saying like he always did, "Aw now, Marisa, ah heh, heh, ah heh, heh.." and I was whispering the Act of Contrition, hoping it was perfect enough to land me in heaven immediately after my imminent death.

Apparently my religious fervor had faded by the next year because we decided to play some pranks on Marisa. Cruelly, we didn't spare poor Blake either, whom I guess had to suffer just because we thought he was the biggest dummy to have hooked up with Miss Crazy and brought her into our lives at all.

So we would call them up and say ridiculous things on the phone. I don't even remember what we said but it didn't matter because it made Marisa cranky. Easy enough. But the really fun thing was "The Knock".

In my grandmother's bedroom there was a long, almost walk-in type closet. On the other side of the one wall was the entry hall for the stairs to Blake and Marisa's apartment, and also there was a door on the opposite side of the hall to the other downstairs apartment.. That apartment belonged to old lady Smith, and wait till I tell you sometime about her granddaughter!

So if you knocked on the closet wall on your left, it would sound to the occupants above like someone was knocking on their door. Whoever answered the door upstairs would be bewildered to find no one there. Except if it was Marisa answering the door, the situation would be like waving a red scarf in front of a certain bovine beast on a Sunday night in Madrid.

One day, we came back to Grandma's in a serious snowstorm. By the way, though the snow then was just as cold, thick and deep as it ever is today, oddly it never struck terror into anybody, nor sent folks scrambling to the store to empty it out, nor made the national news like our modern snowstorms do.

So we arrived amidst thickly falling snow, probably poured ourselves a glass of ginger ale or had some orange sherbet, which were two of Grandma's staples, and proceeded to listen to the tirade building upstairs.

What else could we do? We wanted to participate, maybe add a diversion, so we went into the closet and knocked. The shouting stopped as they opened the door. No one there. After a moment, the shouting started again, answered by poor Blake's feeble attempts to calm her down. Which is like pouring water on a cat. So we knocked again, and they opened the door again. By this time we were on the floor convulsing in laughter. I think we might have had one more go around before older and wiser cousin Marcie said "Shush", and that we needed to stop before we were discovered.

I'll never forget what I saw when I came back into the living room and looked out the windows, which were right below their porch upstairs. Down with the late afternoon snow something else began to drift. Blake's clothes! His shirts, his ties, his pajamas, his underwear came silently floating to earth with the cold, chastening snow. Down the stairs ran Blake, and out to the front yard where he chased around wildly, begging her to stop while trying to retrieve his garments.

It was pitiful.   Even as a child, I had the revelation standing there, that what was happening was the expression of a tortured soul lashing out at the cosmos, that cosmos being a middle-aged country gentleman for this particular soul.  To say that Marisa was evil does not quite fit in my estimation, for she certainly loved her husband and their child, and felt much affection for my grandmother.  And she was always kind to me.

A couple of years before that, my mother had taken sick in the night on one of our weekend trips up there.  It must have been a kidney stone because she sat up  screaming in excruciating abdominal pain, which woke the entire house.  My grandmother called the doctor, who charmingly enough got out of his warm bed, dressed and ran over to the house.  Grandma of course didn't stop there but proceeded to call all six of the "boys" and their wives.  The neighbors (more old Italians) and tenants were either called or took it upon themselves to investigate when all the lights went on and cars began to pull up.  I'm sure everyone was yelling, too.  All I know is that within minutes the house was filled with people.  I remember running from room to room, freaking out.  I was crying and desperately negotiating deals with the Almighty.

At one point in all of this, Marisa started following me around, grabbing me up in an embrace and trying in her broken English to comfort me as well as she could.  Of course it didn't make me feel any better, but I was aware of her trying. 

I don't know what the doctor did for my mother but she must have passed the stone or whatever because by dawn she was feeling better.  A follow-up to the doctor the next day and we were on our way.  I just remember, and will forever, the terror of that night, me promising the Lord that I would never disrespect my mom again if only He would save her, and Marisa.  She was the only one who saw and could feel my anguish and tried to console me.

I imagine that today Marisa would be diagnosed as bi-polar.  But if there is any truth to Thoreau's famous saying that "most men lead lives of quiet desperation,"  as certainly did poor Blake, perhaps we can also say that some men and some women lead lives of noisy desperation.  Extroverted in temperament, they look at their predicament in life, the unrealized dreams, the closed off paths, the extreme discomfort of having to play the cards that circumstance and their own hands have dealt them, and they give full vent to their frustration.

Much to the horror and discomfort of everyone else.  And also to the sometimes amusement of other poor sinners known as children.

I don't think we ever pranked them again.  And the ironic thing is, they stayed married for decades more, till one day poor old Blake added one more piece of property to his collection, to wit, he bought the farm. The big one.

And to be sure, no widow ever cried longer, and certainly no LOUDER, than did Marisa.


  1. Anonymous6:43 PM

    Hello...I just found your blog from a comment someone make on Lydia's Home Living blog.

    From the very first entry I read here, I was "hooked", and have sat here and read all the way back through to your first post.

    Thank you for the uplift and encouragement I've received. You have a way with words, which draws one in.

    I've bookmarked your blog, and
    I'm looking forward to reading more of your writing. :)


  2. Thank you so much for your kind words, Becky. I'm overwhelmed, and in fact I just might start that novel tonight!


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