By the time I was fourteen years old, I’d already had your usual, garden-variety sort of spiritual experience. We’ll skip over the details of that for now, because that’s not really why I called you here today. After all, it wasn’t the fear of God that taught me how to make meringues.
It was the fear of forever.
I’d been lying in bed plagued by insomnia for several months of midnights while I wrestled with the idea of eternity. I must have only turned fourteen the summer before, and my memories of frost-shrouded windows and frozen full moons tell me this was sometime near the bone-joint of winter. This is when such things usually happen, yes?
Well, this is when it happened to me.
I’d found out about the idea of eternity early on, of course. Never really knowing the first time I’d heard the word, or learned in some superficial way its definition, it just remained one of those comfortably far-off notions that might have to be dealt with eventually by adults, undoubtedly by the aged, but surely could be put off for consideration by a carefree child for many years to come.
But such carefree sang-froid cannot last. And I don’t recall how the realization came to me — whether stealthy, by inches, or with the bang of a screen door — that eternity, if it’s a thing at all, has surely, most certainly already begun.
After all, if eternity is the unending ribbon of time, forever spooling out before and behind us, then you (mere child though you may be) are already caught up in its coils. Already bound up in its chains.
Already done for, you see.
And suddenly the thing that seemed like a ponderable thought becomes unbearable to you, and you lie awake at night during the summer of your fourteenth year, fretting endlessly over the fact that you are already on the train to forever. And that there’s no chance, not even a small chance, of ever getting off.
I don’t know why, but for some reason this realization terrified me. So much so that I couldn’t sleep at night. So much so that I agonized over it.
So much so that I eventually got out of bed, wandered downstairs, and started making meringues.
Yeah so when I was fourteen years old I started baking, secretly, at night. It helped with the insomnia. And it helped that the only cookbook I had access to was my Great Aunt Eva’s old 1898 Fannie Farmer Cookbook. That only made it all the more therapeutic.
Because Fannie Farmer didn’t use blenders. Fannie Farmer had never heard of a bread attachment. Fannie Farmer told you to count your whisk strokes. Fannie Farmer suggested ways to test the heat of the flame in your woodfired oven.
Fannie Farmer told you when to put another log on the fire, and she knew when to open the flue and let the embers cool to ash.
At some point in the shadows of the winter of my fourteenth year, I stopped writhing anxiously between the cedar-scented sheets of my narrow bed and started thumbing intently through the pages of a mildewed old cookbook under the glow of a dusty old lightbulb, searching for recipes that fell within my skill set. Recipes that matched the meager ingredients in our cupboard. Recipes that could be completed with a minimum of noise so as not to awaken my mother and brothers and alert them to my weirdness, and that could be accomplished within the ever-diminishing time between the milky blue darkness of one in the morning and the rude, invasive, unwelcome dawn.
I nearly always chose meringues.
For one thing, we pretty much always had eggs on hand. After all, all it really takes is some eggs and some sugar. Cream of tartar is nice to have around, but isn’t really necessary to completing the task at hand.
Here’s how it goes:
You take the eggs out of the fridge and run them around in your palm for a few minutes, enjoying the cool smoothness of them in your hand. Then you carry them over to the white porcelain sink, nestle them gently in the folds of a dishcloth, and perform the sacred mysteries of separating the yolk from the whites, head bowed. Eyelids lowered. Reverent. Subdued.
Then take a large silver whisk from the jar of battered utensils behind the paper towels and heft it in your hand, testing the strength of your wrist and preparing your mind for the long road ahead. Clutch the bowl hard against your ribs, curled tightly in the crook of your arm.
Now is when you begin to count strokes.
Walk slowly, meditatively, across the kitchen floor, over the place you will lie across in two years with your dying dog, over the burn your brother will make with the dropped pan next spring, over the spot you will stand in when you open your college acceptance letter.
Be sure, while you wander, to note the regular geometry of the wallpaper. Yellow then green then brown. Yellow. Then green. Then brown.
Count two hundred strokes, at least.
Now slowly, slowly, teaspoon by teaspoon, drop in the white sugar. Whisk again. Whisk some more. Whisk for an amount of time disproportionate to the relative volumes of teaspoon and bowl. Then count twenty strokes more, and add another.
Watch as the crystals sink slowly into the stiff peaks, like new snow drifting gently into old. Feel your mind grow increasingly blank, itself covered in dense, mufflinf drifts of snow. Whisk some more.
When all of the sugar has been added and your wrist is sore, tuck the bowl into the fridge between the milk and the leftover chicken and get down on your hands and knees. Scrabble around in the cupboard by the sink for a while looking for parchment paper. Yes, you’re the only one who ever uses it, so it probably isn’t there, but you persist in hope. Find, inevitably, the scrap end of a roll, yellowing in a genteel fashion behind the sink pipes. Pull it out flat and lay it down across the baking sheet that’s been warped since before you were born.
Now drop, in soothingly regimental rows, your little white knobs of whimsy, your slender, spun skeins of sleeplessness, your softly yielding puffs of smoke. Your meringues, or your promises of meringues. Perfect. Pat. Complete.
And now you wait. Because Fanny Farmer or not, meringues take a very long time to cook. You must set your oven low, even unto the lowest possible degree, and your baking sheet must lie on the center rack, your over door open, your clock ticking loud on the wall.
Now there is nothing to do but sit down at the kitchen table and wait. A good fifty minutes, maybe more. It is a good time to read. A good time to pad out into the back hallway, past the darkened pantry and basement stairs to the closed door of the library which you learned to pick when you were six. Locked because that’s where the good books are, the ones with the deliciously scented leather covers, the pages’ edges dipped in gold. Ribbons in spines. Penciled names on frontispieces. Tissues on title pages. Like parchment paper. Like cedar-scented sheets. Like snow.
I think that it was while meringues baked slowly in the oven in the cool of the night that I first read Jane Eyre. I know that I didn’t worry any more about eternity once I’d met Jane, once I’d walked the halls of Thornfield, smelling smoke. Once Rochester’s blinded eyes had searched, anguished, for mine.
After that, I just stopped trying to sleep at night. I had my meringues. And God — or insomnia — had introduced me to Jane Eyre. Forever could take care of itself, for a while.
Image by kjgarbutt