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The Story of Ella’s Lunch Launch
PEOPLE ASK what my mother was like, I tell them the story of her lunch
launch, because in that story so many of her best attributes show to good
advantage—particularly her enthusiasm—and also because the lunch launch—Ella’s
Lunch Launch—was a success, her only successful entrepreneurial venture,
coming after a long string of failures that struck bottom with Ella’s Lacy
Licks, an enterprise that was for a while known as Ella’s Ribbons of Dee-Lite.
Throughout my childhood and adolescence my mother
dreamed of going into business for herself. This desire first began
to manifest itself when I was very young, too young to understand that
there was a motive for her yearning beyond wanting to make some money,
but by the time I was thirteen or so I did understand. I understood
that she wanted recognition more than she wanted money. She wanted
to make people—in particular, my father—see that she could accomplish something,
build a business from nothing and become a woman who was defined by a business
rather than a woman who was defined by a husband who ran a garage, a son
who salivated at the sight of a girl in a tight skirt, and a suburban tract
house with a partially finished attic. She wanted to make the world—or
at least my father—think of her as Ella Piper Leroy, hairdresser, for example,
rather than Ella Piper Leroy, housewife.
My mother had many schemes for businesses and many
dreams about their success, and many of her schemes and dreams got as far
as the dinner table. While my father and I ate, she would smoke and
talk, nervously, laying out a plan for her audience of two, full of enthusiasm,
until, in most cases, a moment came when her face fell, and she finished
her proposal with her eyes down, as if the scheme were there on the tablecloth
in front of her, falling apart before her eyes, shattering like the fragile
ribbon candy that, at Christmastime, she liked to put out in dishes decorated
with images of evergreen trees.
Sometimes, though, a scheme survived the dinner-table
test. Some survived because they were the sturdy, boring sort of undertaking
that my mother never would have enjoyed pursuing, like a window-washing
service, and others because she put them back together out of the broken
bits and held them together with the force of her determination, as she
did with her plan to make ribbon candy, package it, and ship it far and
wide as Ella’s Ribbons of Dee-lite.
I think it was obvious to all of us, even to her, that ribbon candy must
be made in a factory by machines especially designed to extrude sugar syrup
in a continuous ribbon, fold it back upon itself uniformly, and snip it
off in lengths that fit into boxes. I know it was obvious to me,
because I was a watcher of industrial documentary films, which were in
those days purveyed to youngsters via television on Saturday mornings,
as entertainment. I knew, to name the first examples that come to
mind, how Coffee-Toffee soda bottles were molded, filled, and packaged;
how the glass for the bottles was made; how the caps for the bottles were
cut from sheets of metal and printed and fluted and lined with a thin disk
of cork; and how Coffee-Toffee soda itself was made, though the films stopped
short of initiating me and the other early risers into the mysteries of
the secret process that gave the soda its inimitable flavor; and I knew
that all of these processes required intricate machines with precision
parts that were polished to gleaming brightness and operated with uncannily
accurate timing in a handsome industrial dance.
Looking at her, smiling, tossing out ideas for a
name for her ribbon candy, I felt the weight of her inevitable disappointment.
I was certain that she was going to find out that she couldn’t make ribbon
candy, but she certainly wasn’t going to find it out from me. Because
I understood very well from personal experience the heavy emptiness that
filled one’s heart when the words “you can’t” were spoken, I rejected after
only the briefest consideration the thought that I might tell my mother
that she was up against something that she probably could not accomplish
without the aid of intricate machines. I would not play the dark
angel of defeat. She wasn’t going to hear a discouraging word from
my father, either. He had given up trying to dissuade her from her
schemes because he couldn’t stand the aftermath. He had learned to
let her fail rather than telling her that she would fail because the gloom
that settled over the house when she merely failed on her own was a lighter
and briefer gloom than the gloom that followed his telling her that she
couldn’t do what she yearned to do, and so instead of saying “You can’t
make ribbon candy,” he just shrugged and said, “Why not give it a try?”
you are about to begin your reading of Inflating a Dog here, I urge
you to read the preliminaries first, because
they are integral parts of the work. —Mark Dorset)
SHE DID. I came home from school one afternoon to find the kitchen
glazed with sugar. Threads of crystallized sugar crackled when I
pushed the back door open, and they webbed the room, running along the
walls, across the countertops and the stove and the sink, across the faces
of the white metal cabinets. My mother had spun a sugar cocoon like
one of the sugar eggs that were sold at Easter.
(These eggs were molded in two halves, a top and
a bottom, the joint cemented and concealed by a decorative squiggle of
colored sugar paste, but before the halves were joined a tiny scene was
constructed inside, made of images printed on stiff paper, cut and mounted
with candy syrup that held them in place to make a diorama, sacred or profane,
the buyer’s choice. I don’t know how all that was done; if there
was an early-morning documentary on the process, I missed it.)
My mother seemed not to be aware that I was in the
kitchen. She was drizzling hot syrup from a can in which she had
punched tiny holes, waving the can over a strip of aluminum foil that she
had rolled out onto the floor, making intricately layered swirls and squiggles
along the foil. When the sugar crystallized, she would have an edible
While I watched, something came over her, something
that I might, at the time, have called sudden inspiration—or a fit.
(Now, I think I would call it the untrammeled expression
of her true self and her aspirations for that self, a girl who lived within
my mother and still expected that someday she would actually become the
woman she hoped she would become.)
She began swinging the can beyond the limits of
the foil so that the swirls of syrup looped onto the floor. This seemed
like an inspired idea to me. The completed candy, when trimmed around
the edge of the foil, would seem to have no edge but the edge that had
been imposed on it by the knife, would seem to have been cut from a candy
composition without limits. I liked the artifice of it, and I admired
her style. Her swings grew wider and wider, though, and began to
go far beyond the foil. As she swung the can in wider arcs, she began
to swing herself, to dance with the can, swinging and swaying with it.
I was smiling. I realized that my mother was
doing something a little mad, and, judging from the spun sugar around the
room, had been doing something mad for a while, but I thought it was, as
my friends and I, my group, my little local tribe, said at that time, “inflated.”
In fact, if I had had to define what we meant by “inflated,” I could have
done worse than to describe a suburban housewife flinging sugar syrup around
her kitchen, turning it into a sugar egg with a little window in the door
through which an interested observer could have witnessed the curious diorama
of a suburban housewife flinging strands of sugar around her kitchen while
her teenage son, bemused but proud, looked on and thought her inflated,
blown up like a madman’s dog. It was, for us, a term of praise.
She whirled herself around, and the can swung in
my direction. I said, a little tentatively, in awe of her advanced
degree of inflation, “Hi, Mom.”
She stopped swinging the can, and the syrup ran
in a dozen streams straight down onto the floor. She noticed me for
the first time since I’d cracked my way into the kitchen. I was amazed—and
a little hurt—to think that she could have been unaware of me for so long,
that she had been too wrapped up in what she was doing to pay attention
The expression “wrapped up in something” was common
at the time, a time when I and many of the people I knew, perhaps most
of the people I knew, still expected that we would be able to shape the
future to our liking, long before we had begun to think of ourselves as
sailing sinking ships, a time when we were often lost in dreams of our
individual futures (mine, for example, were full of complaisant girls who
competed for my company, and my father’s were, I think, awash in beer).
Recalling my mother now, involved in her sugar work to the exclusion of
everything else, I really understand what we meant by being “wrapped up
in something.” I had seen it in her expression. It was the
expression of a person who has slipped out of context and into something
more comfortable: full attention to a single idea. The eyes of such
a person seem unfocused, because it is the mind’s eye that’s doing the
seeing. My mother’s occupation had become her insulation, like a
coat that she might have wrapped around her on a winter’s day and pulled
tight at the neck to warm the self that was wrapped within, to protect
it from the inhospitable conditions that lay without, to protect her ambitious
inner self from the icy reception that she received outside her wrap.
“Oh! Peter!” she said. “I didn’t notice
you there. I guess I got all wrapped up in what I was doing.
I just—” She looked around the room, beaming. “I’ve been so
busy here,” she said, “making candy. Not ribbon candy—that didn’t
turn out too well. Lace candy—Lacy Licks, that’s what I’m going to
call it. Ella’s Lacy Licks. See it all?”
She swung the can to indicate everything that she
had accomplished, and the syrup followed, but when she turned toward me
again, her expression had changed. The smile was gone. She
stopped turning and stood there looking at me for a moment, as if she thought
that I might want to say something to her, and when it became clear that
I had nothing to say, she said, “I’ve made a mess,” and let the can slip
from her hand.
FATHER WOULD BE HOME in two or three hours. I think that I felt the
pressure of that deadline more than my mother did, because she knew that
his attitude toward her would be little changed by the fact that his kitchen
was inside a sugar egg. Both my mother and I had made messes before,
but mine still made my father angry, while he had stopped being angry about
my mother’s messes long ago. He had a much more effective way of
showing his annoyance with her now: disdain. I could predict what
he would do when he came home. He would give the kitchen the
once-over, deliver his opinion with a dismissive snort, refrain from saying
“I told you so,” crack the sugar lace around the refrigerator door, open
it, get a can of beer, and retire to the living room to watch television.
My mother would drop another notch in her own estimation.
Disdain, contempt, dismissal—they all hurt much
more than a display of anger. I’m excluding violence from this calculation.
I never saw my father strike my mother, and I honestly think he never did,
but he battered her by belittling her, and I had reached an age when I
knew how she felt because I felt battered when he belittled me. I
was also at an age when I wanted to fight back. I was growing, and
all my juices were flowing, and I had developed a competitive tongue.
I’d begun to give back as good as I got, and I had begun to turn back on
him the same abusive trio he turned on my mother and me: disdain, contempt,
“We’ve got to get this cleaned up,” I said to her,
almost in a whisper, as if he might be somewhere nearby, listening.
“I’ll do it,” she said, dispirited. She looked
around the room, and I could see what she felt from the way her shoulders
drooped, and I winced at the thought of the load of contempt my father
would be bringing home in a couple of hours.
“We’ll both do it,” I said, and then, as if we were
in a movie, one of the Western movies I watched at the Babbington Theater,
in a one-room cabin on the plains, where a pioneer woman was going into
labor, I added, “We’re going to need lots of hot water!”
We fell into a frenzy of cleaning. We worked
without pausing, and we worked without talking. Now and then we exchanged
a glance. I think each of us was checking to see whether the other
was tiring. Each time our glances met, we grinned and winked.
We had become conspirators, and we were enjoying ourselves.
The closer six o’clock drew, the likelier it became
that my father would pull into the driveway, and the thought that he would
surprise us still at our work was beginning to send us into a panic.
My mother stopped working for a moment, stood up, and said to me, tentatively,
“I’ve got an idea.”
“Great,” I said. “We need an idea. What
She told me, and it struck me as such a good idea
that we put it into effect immediately. We carried my father’s favorite
chair out onto the front lawn. We carried the table that stood beside
it out there, too, and placed it beside the chair. We carried the
television set out and put it in place in front of the chair. I ran
the long extension cord that he used for his electric drill through a cellar
window and plugged the set into it. We carried a few more pieces
of furniture out, and two small rugs, and by the time he came driving up,
the effect was quite convincing. I know that it was, because when
my father got out of the car and walked across the lawn, he said, “Spring
“Right!” said my mother. “Peter’s helping
me, but we didn’t get started until he got home from school, so we’re not
quite finished. You don’t mind sitting out here, do you? It’s
a nice night.”
I came out the front door with six cans of beer
in a bucket full of ice and set the bucket on the lawn beside my father’s
chair. I handed him an opener. He sat in the chair and opened
a can. I turned the television on.
“We won’t be much longer,” said my mother, and she
and I went back inside to finish our work.
At the door, I paused for a moment and stole a look
at him. He was sitting there in his chair in precisely the attitude
he assumed every night when the chair was in its accustomed place in our
living room, watching television as he always did, but his chair was not
in its accustomed place, and neither was he, and that alteration of the
ordinary arrangement of things had a wonderful consequence: he looked ridiculous.
Just then, Mr. Morton came by, walking his chickens
as he did every evening. Raising chickens in the back yard was at
that time and in that part of Babbington a popular hobby among adult males,
and Mr. Morton had a flock of champion birds. When he reached the
end of our front walk, he stood there and worked his jaw without speaking.
My father squirmed in his chair. I like to think that he was experiencing
the unsettling feeling that he looked ridiculous in the eyes of the chicken
champion of Babbington Heights.
Finally, Mr. Morton spoke. “Sitting out on
the lawn, Bert?” he asked.
My father snapped his head in Mr. Morton’s direction
and said, “Spring cleaning.”
“Uh-huh,” said Mr. Morton. He looked up at
me for a moment. I shrugged and rotated my forefinger beside my head.
Mr. Morton nodded, gave a shake to the leashes on his chickens, and he
and his little flock went on their way.
THE CANDY-MAKING FAILURE, my mother tried nothing else; she didn’t even
talk about trying anything else. She had been defeated. She
was finished. One day when I came home from school, she was sitting
at the dining-room table, looking straight ahead, weeping. There
was something so bleak and hopeless about the way she was just sitting
there, with no obvious provocation for her weeping, no sad letter in front
of her, no bandage on her finger, that I stopped inside the door, dumbstruck,
immobilized, unable to go to her and ask her what was wrong, certainly
unable to offer her any comfort, unable even to tiptoe through the kitchen
and into the living room and leave her in private.
Grieving, I have decided since then, was what she
was doing, grieving for the loss of someone who had never existed: that
Ella Piper Leroy whom she had hoped to become, a woman whose potential
existence had depended on the possibility of success, on hope.
If hope is like a breeze that lifts and lofts and
carries us on when we hardly have the will to carry on otherwise (and it
is), then the candy-making failure had taken the wind out of my mother’s
sails. She had lost hope, and having lost hope she had lost someone
she had hoped to know someday, someone she had hoped would make her proud,
as a mother hopes that a child will make her proud: she had lost Ella Piper
Leroy, tycoon, child of her own ambition.
When I saw her crying at the dining-room table,
she was, I think, grieving over the death of that hoped-for self.
In her own mind’s eye, she could no longer imagine a future for herself
that was different from and better than the present in which she found
herself, so she had no future at all, and that was the end of her.
I didn’t recognize that at the time. I was
too full of myself. I was embarrassed by the sight of her, weeping
there. I suppose that she was embarrassed too, because she made a
stab at pulling herself together, forced a smile in my direction, and shrugged.
I returned her false smile with one of my own and went upstairs and into
my own cares and my own hopes and my own ambitions for my own little self.
YEARS LATER, I had attained some small success. I was about thirty-four.
I had taken over the authorship of a series of books for boys—the Larry
Peters adventure series—and I was being paid fairly well for the tales
I was churning out. With some of the spoils I bought a classic car,
a powerful Kramler V-12, gleaming white, redolent inside of rich leather
and leaking brake fluid. My parents had retired to a small house
near but not on a small lake in a small town nowhere in New Hampshire.
When Albertine and I and the boys arrived in the Kramler, my mother was
delighted by the sight of it.
A few days after we had returned home, a gift from
my mother arrived in the mail: a pair of driving gloves. The gift
card read, “To my son with a very special car.” She had read the
Kramler correctly; she understood what it had been designed and built to
say, and she understood why I had bought it: to say that I was a success,
and she thought of me as a successful person—which, I think, for her meant
someone who had succeeded in defining himself. At the time I thought
it ridiculous that she assumed that I had defined myself as the driver
of a powerful Kramler, that she thought I was someone who might want to
define himself in that way, but, more than that, I felt sorry for her because
I saw from her gift to me that she would have liked to have been someone
who had earned herself a powerful Kramler. Mark my words: I didn’t
say that she would have liked to own a Kramler; I said that she would have
liked to have been someone who had earned herself a Kramler. She
would have liked to have made herself into such a person. She would
have liked to have made herself into someone, someone she thought of as
SHE DIED, I visited my mother in an intensive-care ward. She was
fettered by wires and tubes, bloated with accumulated fluids, barely able
to speak. She was dying of lung cancer brought on by regret, by the
tens of thousands of cigarettes she had smoked while she sat in the dark,
sipping mediocre wine and mourning the loss of her hope, mourning the spunky
self who had chased so many harmless follies, the young and ambitious Ella
Piper Leroy who had died years before.
If things had gone as they ought to have gone, we
should have been able to talk about her success. There should have
been one business that finally succeeded, and we should have been able
to reminisce about the crazy things that had happened while she was running
it. We should have had some laughs. She should have been able
to sigh and smile and shake her head in wonder at all that she had done,
and she should have been able to say, “It was quite a ride.”
Instead, she had almost nothing to say, and I had
almost nothing to say to her—unless I talked about myself. I retreated
into that, but when I realized what I was doing I caught myself and we
fell again into silence.
I held her hand, and when the silence between us
became embarrassing, I squeezed it and said that I would see her again
the next day. I didn’t. She died in the night, as Ella Piper
IT BE? Must it be as it was when the way it was was wrong?
No. Not while I’m around. Time has made me see that I might
have helped her. Maybe all she needed was a sidekick. All the
cowboys I lionized as a little boy had sidekicks, descendants of Sancho
Panza who carried the luggage of comic relief. I should have learned
from them the lesson that even the boldest of us needs a little help from
a friend, needs somebody on his side, even if it’s a bumbling simpleton
who lards the earth when he walks. I could have been that comical
sidekick, and if I had been, who’s to say that with me taking pratfalls
by her side she might not have made a success of something?
That’s why, when people ask me about my mother,
I don’t tell them about Ella’s Lacy Licks or any of her other failures;
I tell them about Ella’s Lunch Launch. I tell them how she bought
a clam boat that was slowly sinking from the day she stepped aboard it;
how, together, we repainted it in tropical colors, fitted it out with a
rudimentary kitchen, rigged a canopy over the deck and flew pennants from
a dozen poles; how we plied the bay selling chowder and sandwiches to vacationers
and baymen; and how I kept the boat afloat all summer without ever letting
her know that it was sinking. I tell them about the mishaps and merriment;
I tell them how my mother became known (not far and wide, but near and
narrow, which was enough) as “Ella, who runs Ella’s Lunch Launch”; and
I tell them how the lunch launch, in the fall, when I was back in school
and unable to keep it pumped dry, sank.
At the end of the story, my mother and I stand on
a bulkhead at the edge of Bolotomy Bay looking down at the sunken boat,
reminiscing about the crazy things that happened while she ran it, with
me at her side as first mate, sous chef, bus boy, and sidekick. When
we have run out of stories, my mother puts her arm across my shoulders
and gives me a squeeze. She sighs and smiles, shakes her head and
says, “It was quite a ride,” and I agree.
New York City
December 24, 2000