This morning I made palmiers for the fourth time. I seem to be getting the knack. They’re the easiest of pastries, a child could make them. I guess that’s why our French teacher taught us when we were in Form One at South Intermediate. It was a gentle path into the language. Songs, verbs, some words, no text books. A taster, if you will, as opposed to an academic meal. It was fun cooking in the classroom, even if it was just rolling out pastry, spreading it with jam, folding them up so that they look like pastry hearts. That’s what I remember them as, ‘French pastry hearts’.
When I googled that term looking for simple things to make with my young daughter I came up with ‘palmiers or elephant ears’. Maybe we knew them as palmiers at the time but I had forgotten the word. I would never forget a name like elephant ears.
When I made them for the first time since my childhood, I had hoped my daughter would share the magic and wonder of that chaotic day in French class. But she was very uncertain, as were the kids at the late-afternoon soiree where I took those palmiers. They picked them up, looked at them, asked their parents what they were, put them back. I said they were elephant ears hoping to undercut their neo-phobia but the kids (six-year olds and under) were rather distrusting. It wasn’t until everything else was gone that the foreign pastries were attempted and devoured.
My daughter, despite a highly evolved sweet-tooth, failed to join the brave ones. I couldn’t understand it, but persevered making two more batches which I ate alone while my daughter refused them, even when I cut down the options in her lunch-box. It wasn’t until there were only two left of the third batch that I managed to get her to try one. After she ate it, she hunted me down, gave me a big hug on the toilet and said they were ‘delicious’.
I made palmiers this morning not to taunt children with my nostalgia (although that may happen), but because there is a funeral at my daughter’s school and we’ve been asked to bring a plate.
My daughter is very excited about going. She thinks funerals are great fun. Her mother had to quell her excited cheering when I said that I could take her. Over the phone I heard her tell her mother that she had been to three, so this would be her fourth. At five, she remembers more funerals than Christmases.
Catering for a funeral is hard. You never really know how many hungry people will show up. It is disheartening throwing out food when you over-cater, like you have over-estimated how much people care.
We learned that lesson with the first funeral. For, the next one, four months later, we got the numbers right but people who talked too long in the sun missed out to those who had loaded up their plates, maybe noticing there was less to be had.
Both those funerals were for my parents. Four months apart. I remember so much but ate no food. I drank wine, delicious wine, slowly, continuously, happy to see people gathered, to feel relief descending, glad of beautiful weather. There was so much to do it was great that my daughter (who was 3 and then 4) was happy to run around with the other kids, fill her plate with whatever she wanted, leaving me to talk to people, to be both amongst it and absent.
Then, a few months after that, an old friend suddenly died. It was a shock and I had to go, taking my daughter with me up to Auckland as her mother was overseas. My daughter was excited. She wore the bright floral dress she wore at her grandparents’ funerals. But this was a different flavour. Dad was not going to be standing up the front of everyone talking into the microphone, welcoming them, pointing to the toilets, making calming jokes.
At the end of the service she insisted on viewing the body. This hadn’t happened with her grandparents although she had seen plenty of photos (it wasn’t deliberate, but a consequence of geography: they were cremated by the time of each service). Quite randomly, I had been given a guitar pick while working in a school hall the day before. I carried it up there in my pocket just as I used to when I played guitar. When we saw Stephen lying there in his suit, I lifted her up and she dropped the grey Jim Dunlop .73mm into his coffin.
It was 25 years since we had played in halls and pubs around the country. He looked so much older.
It was harder than looking at the bodies of my parents.
At the after-match, my girl resorted to form filling her plate in a room full of strangers, checking in with me now and then. There were no other small children but she knew the drill, was happy just to be, squeezing through the press of mourners. What she ate, I do not know. Probably any sweet treats she could recognize.
I made palmiers this morning because of the number four: a random thing to grasp onto. I did not really know the girl who died the other night, but she was in the class next to my daughter, another new entrant. She always gave me a friendly smile.
It tears at me to think of her parents and family. A funeral for a child just seems to be something that should not be.
But in two hours I will go with my daughter and sit in the hall with those from the school and community. To her, a funeral is like Christmas without presents. A party without a cake. That thought used to concern me. Shouldn’t I be providing weddings and christenings, celebrations of life?
Parents always fret, no matter what.
If there’s something that I’ve learned to adore in this run of funerals, it’s the joy of life. That it is to be cherished, every which way: that its noise belongs everywhere, in all corners of the room.
The kids have been encouraged to wear bright colours, and I shall, too. We will remember Lucy, even those who did not know her.
I may cry and my daughter will hug me. She will have a lot of fun.