by Maria Lagalante Schulz
Now that the temperature is starting to soar, it’s bringing me back to all of those lazy summer days of my childhood. Summer vacation stretched out like an endless magic carpet filled with the possibility of barbecues, laying on the beach, all-day bike rides, and Chocolate or Cherry Bonnets and Flying Saucers from Carvel.
The days stretched before me in endlessly entertaining ways. Maybe today, my friend Nadine would call and invite me to her house for a swim, followed by dinner cooked by her mom Mary (one of the best cooks I knew), and maybe even a sleepover. Or maybe Perette would call with a similar offer, and we’d be munching on freshly baked pies bought from the local pie store. Perette had a pool too, and when we weren’t almost accidentally drowning her little sister Janice, we had a great time.
Marianne might want to go bike riding or for a walk down Bell Boulevard to window shop. Or maybe Maureen would be free for a movie. Maybe my brother Jude would even have an outdoor gig with his band, New York’s Unemployed, and I would get to stand up front since I was with the band.
There are many things that remind me of Summer, but nothing takes me back quite like Summer Reading Lists.
My daughters just got theirs, and there are all sorts of interesting books to choose from. The one that immediately caught my eye on my 8th grader’s list was Forever by Judy Blume.
Remember Forever? This was the guilty pleasure that you had to sneak into school, hiding it in your desk and giggling over the outrageous passages. Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume was filled with prepubescent angst and was almost required reading for young girls when I was a kid. But no one—not your parents, and certainly NOT your teachers—ever recommended that you read Forever.
My teachers recommended fun books like: That Was Then, This Is Now; Old Yeller; Flowers for Algernon; A Separate Peace; and Death Be Not Proud. These were the kind of books that made you feel like sticking your head in the oven, even on the hottest days.
So why should this addition to my daughter’s reading list be so shocking to me? Well, maybe because when I was in school, reading the “wrong” book was grounds for an immediate trial (and possible execution) at the hands of whichever nun caught you reading it. I know this is true, because although I never got caught with Forever, I did get caught with something just as bad.
It was Free Reading as usual in the last two weeks of school. I had run out of books to bring with me from my own private collection and didn’t know what to read next. All this free time was killing me.
I knew I had to choose wisely, because you never knew what might set my homeroom teacher off. Let’s call her Sister Felicity.
Sister Felicity was the kind of legendary nun who could strike fear into your heart with nothing more than a raised eyebrow. She was like a Cocker Spaniel who could be calm and harmless-looking one minute, and then so completely taken over by the Avalanche of Rage Syndrome that you could end up mauled.
I had developed a system for dealing with Sister Felicity. Whenever possible, I tried to avoid making eye contact with her, because my brother Tony (who worked with monkeys) said that some primates become enraged and challenged when you did this. I figured nothing else really worked, so why not try this.
I also tried feverishly to complete all of my math homework because it caused her to give in to a blinding hot spasm of rage when you didn’t do it all. The one time I left an example out, Sister was on me like white on rice.
“Where’s example 49?” Sister said.
“I didn’t know how to do it. I wanted to ask you about this. Can you help me?”
“Get into the closet.”
I shook my head. “Excuse me, Sister? What?”
She pulled me by the collar and walked me to the closet. “Get in.”
Lucky me, there was a chair in there. I sat down and she shut the door.
I realized this was not going to help me learn my math homework, but resistance was futile. If I complained, she would probably hit me until I crumpled like a Rock ‘em, Sock ‘em Robot. So, I sat there for a while and was delighted when my friend Debbie was also banished to the closet for not doing every math problem. We had a lot of fun in there!
Since that day, I never went to school without every problem completed, even if it was wrong. I volunteered to buy her tissues so she would have enough to do her other favorite thing, blowing her nose and throwing the tissues on the ground so one of us could pick it up and throw it out for her.
I even started baking chocolate fudge cakes to share with her and the class, since I realized that cake was pretty much the only way to put a smile on Sister Felicity’s face. This knowledge was gained completely by accident, since I could never make it from breakfast time (about 7:30) until lunch time (11:45) without eating a snack.
I would sneak food in and I got caught on more than one occasion because I was chewing and swallowing while we were saying the Blessing Before Meals. Sister Felicity finally screamed at me, “You had better bring in enough for the entire class next time I catch you.” So, the next time she caught me, I had a cake with me. This actually made Sister laugh, and resulted in lots more cakes for my class.
I soon discovered that candy (specifically Reese’s Pieces and Sugar Babies) worked with Mrs. Greene, my Science and Social Studies teacher. Nothing worked with Mrs. French, my Language Arts and Literature teacher.
I knew that Sister Felicity hated my brother Chris and most of my older brothers, but I thought that Sister Felicity liked me. Then again, you could never tell for sure. It was like having a member of the Manson Family as your homeroom teacher. You never knew when a homicidal rage was just around the corner.
With these thoughts in the back of my mind, I went downstairs to my brother’s bedrooms to see if they had any books I could borrow that would be suitable for Free Reading Time.
Jude’s shelves were filled with Beowulf, Grendel and other Middle-English horror shows that were as hard to decipher as if I’d just picked up a handbook of Samurai tales told strictly in Japanese. He also had lots of Star Trek books and was a big fan of Doc Savage. But I couldn’t find any stories that I thought I’d enjoy, and besides, if I took one of Jude’s Doc Savage books and lost it, I’d have to become a part of the Witness Protection Program and relocate forever.
Louie’s shelves seemed much more promising. I’d already read Jaws and didn’t think Sister Felicity would help me if I passed out, so I skipped it. I read the book jackets on a couple of others and finally settled on one that had something to do with love. The cover was black, with the title in bright orange flames. It looked harmless enough.
When Free Reading period started, I pulled out my book. The forward was a snooze fest and it took me ages to get through it. It was filled with lots of legalese and I had to keep looking words up in my dictionary because I had no idea what the writer was talking about. When I finally got to Part One, I thought the main character’s name was weird, and I didn’t really understand—or care—what he was trying to say. I was about to give up when I was shocked to feel talons in the back of my neck.
“Hey,” I said, as I was dragged from my seat and towards the hall, and my book was ripped from my hands. (The movie title Drag Me To Hell reminds me of this moment in time).
I knew I was in big trouble, but I didn’t know why. Sister Felicity dug her nails into my neck as she banged on Mrs. Greene’s and Mrs. French’s doors and they came out into the hall. I was being brought before The Star Chamber known as my three eighth grade teachers.
“Look at what she brought in for Free Reading!” Sister Felicity shrieked.
Suddenly, Mrs. Greene and Mrs. French were tsk tsking, yelling at me, and shaking their heads in utter dismay.
“Really Maria,” said Mrs. French in her most condescending tone.
“Maria!” Mrs. Greene said.
“What?” I replied, as Sister Felicity gave me one more shake for good measure, like a dog shaking the life out of a rat in it’s mouth.
“Why on earth are you reading Lolita?”
This made the Three Furies start screaming in unison, and I felt like I was starring in my own opera. Mrs. French was shaking her head and singing the refrain “Maria I thought you had more sense/surely you knew we would be mad/when will you kids ever learn?” Mrs. Greene was red-faced and furious and singing the counterpoint: “I thought you came from a good family/where have we all gone wrong/what will become of you/you will die in the gutter;” and Sister Felicity seemed to be sharpening her nails so she could draw blood while she shouted above them all: “Maria, I expect this from Chris, but not from you/You make us cakes! You buy my tissues!/Why, why, why?”
In the middle of all of this, I had a vision of where I might be headed, and it wasn’t pretty. I had recently seen the movie Joan of Arc, and I imagined myself dragged outside to the school parking lot and burned at the stake for my transgressions. The fact that they could burn Lolita at the same time would just be gravy to them. An execution and a book burning—what a productive day!
Even if I managed to get out of this alive, there was the real possibility that they would keep Louie’s book, and this would result in a fate far worse when my brother found out. Of course the most terrifying scenario of all would be THE PHONE CALL HOME, when if God was out to get me, my father would answer the phone and then I would meet a fate similar to Luca Brasi, who went swimming with the fishes in The Godfather.
“I wasn’t even going to finish it,” I said above the din. “I don’t understand it.”
The three of them stopped screaming/singing. Beautiful, blessed silence filled the tiny hallway. By the grace of almighty God, I had somehow said the right thing. The Catholic Church says it takes three miracles to be considered for Sainthood; I considered this one my first.
“Here’s your book,” Sister Felicity said, as she tossed it to me. “You put this away and sit with your head on the desk. No more Free Reading for you today.”
As I lay there with my head on the desk, I contemplated what I had learned today. First, the closet wasn’t really all that bad after all. Second, Sister Felicity really needed to file her nails. Third, Free Reading wasn’t really free. And Fourth, I was going to finish Lolita if it was the last thing I ever did. It had to be good, or the Star Chamber wouldn’t have made such a fuss about it.
When the bell rang and I headed home, I decided to bake a cake for Sister Felicity. It was my only path to forgiveness and redemption.
Besides, I was hungry.
Here’s a great Chocolate Fudge and Golden Layer Cake Recipe that’s for the folks who love to cook from scratch.
For those of you who are comfortable with boxed cakes, I suggest Betty Crocker’s Super Moist Golden Fudge Cake and her Double Fudge icing. Some eggs, some oil, and you’re in business.
And of course, for those of us who don’t want to light the oven because it’s just too hot, Entenmann’s Golden Fudge Cake always hits the spot!
So, did you ever have a required Summer Reading List? Got a great chocolate cake recipe that you want to share? Leave your comments below and join the other Hungry Lifers.