By Terri Elders
Every problem has a gift for you in its hands.
My sequined purple princess costume remained in its tissue paper wrappings on the top shelf of my bedroom closet, as I perched in my pink flannel pajamas on the window seat, peering out the bay window at the neighborhood witches, ghosts, and cowboys scurrying by.
On October 31, 1944, we didn't expect any knocks at our front door, festooned not with the jack-o'-lantern cutout I had made in my first-grade classroom the week before, but with a stark black-and-white quarantine sign that shouted, "Contagious Disease, Chicken Pox!"
Daddy had taken my unaffected older sister and little brother to Grandma's house for a party earlier that evening, leaving Mama and me home alone. I had finished reading all the stories in the newest edition of Children's Activities, tired of cutting out paper dolls from the old Sears catalog, and longed to be outside. Mama had promised me a special treat, but I couldn't imagine what could replace the thrill of joining the troops of children wandering door-to-door in the autumn twilight with their rapidly filling pillowcases. No Hershey bars, candied apples, or popcorn balls for me this year. I don't care, I told myself, because though the itching had ceased, I had yet to regain my appetite anyway.
I heard Mama turn on the radio in the kitchen, and then heard her call to me, "Time to get dressed!"
Glancing down at my pajamas, I wondered what she could mean, but scooted off my seat and trudged to the kitchen. On the back of one of the chrome dinette chairs hung Mama's fur chubby, a kind of short jacket that represented the essence of elegance to me those days. I used to love to watch Mama get dressed for special evenings, in her chiffon dresses always topped by the chubby.
"Put it on," she said, pointing to the jacket. "We are going to play tea party, and I am going to be the hostess, while you will be my guest." She draped a string of pearls around my neck, as I shrugged into the jacket. I noticed that the table had been set with her best Blue Willow cups and saucers, and that an empty platter had been placed next to the toaster.
Though I could not venture all the way out, Mama opened the door a crack so I could at least knock on the outside, right below the Quarantine sign. "Oh, Miss Terri, it's so good of you to call this evening. It's tea time," she announced. "And even though you are my guest, I'm going to ask you to make the meal, since you have such a special touch with cinnamon toast."
I'd seen the bakery truck make its delivery earlier, and had wondered what had been left on our doorstep. Now Mama opened the breadbox and pulled out a loaf of sliced raisin bread. She placed the sugar bowl, the butter dish, and the red tin of cinnamon on the counter, and lifted the chubby from my shoulders. Then she opened her Searchlight Recipe Book to page forty-four, handed me the yellow plastic measuring spoon set, and said, "Let's see how you do reading that recipe."
I was the best reader in my class, so I stumbled only on "substitute" and "proportion" as I read aloud the instructions.
"Cinnamon Toast: Spread freshly toasted bread with butter or butter substitute. Spread generously with sugar and cinnamon which have been blended in the proportion of one teaspoon cinnamon to a half of cup sugar."
While I watched the raisin bread brown in our two-sided toaster, Mama put her tea kettle on to boil, and told me a story about the birds on the Blue Willow china. She said that an angry Chinese father had been trying to catch his daughter who was running away with a boyfriend. Before he could catch them, they had been transformed into birds and flew away together. I rubbed my finger across the birds on the saucer. "When you grow up, your father won't chase away your boyfriends," she said with a little laugh. "And now that you're learning to cook, it won't be too much longer before you are grown up for every day, not just for Halloween." I smiled. It was true. I was learning to cook.
Though I hadn't been hungry all day long, the smell of the cinnamon sugar seemed to reawaken my appetite, and I ate my entire slice and half of Mama's, and even managed a swallow or two of my milk tea. When my sister returned later that evening with the candied apples that Grandma had sent, I accepted one, but insisted I wasn't really hungry, since I had cooked and eaten a meal earlier.
Mama's prediction came true, too, as I became engaged just a dozen years later. And at my wedding shower in 1955, she presented me with a black leatherette bound Searchlight Recipe Book. I turn the yellowed pages today to page forty-four, and again recall the delicious aroma of cinnamon toast as I remember the year that trick or treat became tea for two.