"Lane cake." She set the container in front of me. "It took forever. I know why it is so special that Miss Maudie makes it, and it is so good. I brought you a piece." It was beautiful, a silver white cake with a cooked white frosting and boozy, rich coconutty filling. I ate it all before the first break of the school day.
Each winter, my freshman classes read To Kill a Mockingbird. My freshmen read Of Mice and Men too, but with that book, I feel as if my brain will drip out of my ears every time I have to teach it again. On the other hand, To Kill a Mockingbird always feels new and meaningful. This year, as I led my students to the textbook room to pick up the books, we encountered a junior who was out running errands for his teacher. He asked my kids what book we were going to pick up. When my students told him we were on our way to get To Kill a Mockingbird, he sighed and said "Oh, you are going to fall in love with that book." Seriously, he—not an AP or honors kid, otherwise I would know him—told the kids that they were going to fall in love with a book. And at the end of the To Kill a Mockingbird unit this year, one of my students stuck around after class. Once everyone was gone, he said to me, "Remember how that guy told us we were going to fall in love with this book? Well, I did."
Man, I live for these moments.Miss Maudie's most famous line in To Kill a Mockingbird is to tell Scout and Jem that it is a sin to kill mockingbirds because "they don't do anything but sing their hearts out for us." Metaphorically, Miss Maudie may be right, but literally, she's flat out wrong. Mockingbirds are assholes. If you have an outdoor pet you know this; mockingbirds are the birds that harass your cat or dog every time the poor animal accidentally looks in the birds' direction. I've seen mockingbirds doubleteam a cat, pecking around it's face until the cat found cover under a car. If I'm out working in the garden and I get too close to a mockingbird's nest, even though I mean no ill intention, one of these birds will come swooping at my face, flapping and threatening until I give it enough room. And as for singing their hearts out? A friend commented recently on the annoying bird imitating a car alarm that she thought she had left behind in her old apartment. Yup, that car alarm bird you hear? The one that goes "eeeeeaaw eeeeeaaw eeeeeaaw, wooooot wooooot wooooot, waha waha waha" and so on is a mockingbird. So much for singing.
No creature, mockingbird or otherwise, is completely innocent.
Of course, I know what Miss Maudie was trying to say; in the novel, she is one of the many "mockingbirds." As much as I love Scout and Jem and Dill and Boo, and oh my, hero-extraordinaire, Atticus, it is Miss Maudie who lives most vibrantly in my head. In the 1930's in a very small Southern town, she's a self-sufficient widowed woman who rejects most of the town's tradition of prejudice, and who works hard every day in her garden, wearing men's overalls. She's sharp tongued, but she treats all sort of people—children, even people with whom she is angry—as equal to her, and though she is a woman of deep faith, rejects unthinking "religiosity." She's not perfect. Though she rejects many of the strictures of her town, she is a product of her era and geography, and doesn't always put up a big enough fight against the -isms that surround her. Scout and Jem, the novel's main characters, look up to Miss Maudie, galvanized by her strengths, limited by her weaknesses.
Now that school has just ended, I spend entire days outside. The other morning, I rolled out of bed, put on shorts, a sportsbra, and my high school gym shirt (the best sweat-in shirt ever—I don't know what it is made out of, but it stays so much cooler any other shirt I've ever owned, and it has lasted me 20 years). In the heat, I dug out the weedy sod, laid down hardware cloth to keep the gophers out, and built a two foot wall of broken concrete. I filled the new sweet potato bed with a combination of garden soil, coconut coir, and partly composted leaves. By the end of the day, I knew I had worked hard and my body had that same relaxed, heavy-muscle feeling that happens after too many glasses of wine. Even after I was finished, I had a hard time making myself go inside, and instead, found more chores, there are always chores, to do outside until the sun set. Harper Lee writes, "Miss Maudie hated her house: time spent indoors was time wasted." I will not waste time.
It is hard for me not to see myself in Miss Maudie, my strengths and weaknesses. When I was in high school, a friend once told me the image that he had of me in my future. He imagined that I'd live in a small town and ride a bike everywhere with a basket full of flowers on the front. I'd know all the neighborhood kids' names and share my flowers with them. It's a cheesy image, I know, and he was teasing me, but in some ways, I hope it isn't too far off. But I don't want to give my neighborhood kids flowers, I want to give them words and sentences and logic and argument. Meanwhile, as I aim to do all of these things, I know I fail at many others, and like Miss Maudie, cannot always see the changes I should be making, the changes my students need me to make.
Despite her weaknesses, Miss Maudie teaches that scuppernongs are for sharing, that words have power, that homegrown and homemade is meaningful, and that, even when the world seems terrifying and so wrong, things are changing for the better. I hope to accomplish the same.
What a fascinating school year it was.
Meyer Lemon Ice Cream
I may not be making Lane cakes for all the people in my life who deserve them, but I will make ice cream as often as I can. And since my tree is still spitting out lemons, now super-ripe and fattened as blimpy grapefruits, I can make this perfectly balanced lemon ice cream. It's silky, just the right amount of tangy and sweet, and rich enough so that a little scoop is very satisfying.
You will need:
2 fat Meyer lemons
1 cup heavy cream
4 egg yolks, beaten smooth
1 cup sugar
pinch of salt
1 cup cold whole milk
To make the ice cream:
Wash the lemons well, and remove the yellow zest with a fine grater. Juice the lemons; you will need one half cup, and you'll likely end up with more. In a large saucepan, stir together the lemon zest, one half cup of the juice, the cream, the egg yolks, the sugar, and the pink of salt. Stir the ingredients until they're combined, the place them on medium-low heat. Stir constantly until the mixture thickens a little and is just about to simmer. Remove the mixture from the heat.Pour the mixture through a fine sieve to remove the grated peel, ensuring a silken smooth ice cream. Pour the mixture into a lidded container, and place the container into the refrigerator to chill for at least four hours, but preferably longer.
After the mixture has chilled, add the remaining cup of cold milk and stir to combine thoroughly. To finish the ice cream, follow the directions your ice cream maker provides.
Serve this to a mockingbird you know, someone a little bit of an asshole, a little bit of an innocent. We're all mockingbirds, after all.