Just Dessert: Pear Helene

October 22, 2010

When I lived in North Dakota and then briefly in Kansas, I only had one or two friends. My sister collected friends like marbles, but I could only manage one or two. When we moved to the Rocky Mountains, I expected more of the same. And more of the same I got. Except.

The one or two friends I made in my new neighborhood? They actually weren’t very nice to me. One of them, a big-boned blonde named Sandra, was downright vicious. She flushed my mittens down the school commode, practiced random and frequent lunch table ostracism and informed Kevin G., the most popular boy in the 4th grade, that I was “gay for Karen.”*

I was not, in fact, gay for Karen, but Karen did the most amazing thing when confronted with that information. She looked Kevin G. square in the eye (a feat I never could manage) and said, “That’s stupid.” And then she looked Sandra square in the eye (ditto) and said, “You’re just mean.”

I thought she’d be struck down by lightning then and there.

That day, Karen was the only one brave enough to sit with me at the lunch table.  She unwrapped her sandwich (salami on a buttered Kaiser roll) and said, “You have to quit crying so easily. That’s why Sandy always picks on you. She knows that you’ll always cry.” I looked down at my own sandwich (Mama’s bitchin’ tuna fish),  speechless. Could it really be that simple?

Well, no it wasn’t that simple, because I’m a weeper. My family calls me “the human watering pot,” and it’s true. A tree falls in the woods and Dana cries. I never did get more accomplished at stoicism, but I did have a new friend in Karen, and for that I was grateful.

Karen invited me over for dinner that week, and I discovered that her family was, well…interesting. Different. For one thing, her parents had funny accents (German). And they ate funny food (German). And all of them had really big wrists and feet and teeth (German).**

Karen’s parents immigrated from Germany, and although my father was of German descent, he was a watered-down, American sort of German. A German who, unlike Karen’s mother, had never experienced the brutality of war.

Karen’s mother, Renate, wasn’t emotional about her past. She told stories of her childhood matter-of-factly, almost disconnected from the whole experience. But there was evidence, all around that house, that the experience had stuck with her. Furnishings were spare–the home was almost stark in it’s simplicity. Each family member owned one good pair of shoes and one pair of sneakers. Closets held few items of clothing. The only condiments in the refrigerator were butter, mayonnaise, ketchup and jam. And, as Renate stated, “No soup. Ever.”

As a girl in war-torn Germany, Renate was sent out to scrounge around town for a potato, a cabbage, a turnip–any kind of root vegetable that she could find. Often, the few ones she did find were on the verge of going bad; she still brought them home. And the family ate them. In soup. Thin, watery, tasteless wartime soup. For years, Renate ate soup and grew to hate it. Soup meant hardship and hunger and having to wear shoes several sizes too small until they actually fell apart. The minute Renate’s feet landed on American soil, soup was off the menu.

Another thing I found bizarre about Karen’s house was the complete lack of sweets. At my house, Mama often offered dessert and we had a candy jar in the family room and, to Karen’s delight, several varieties of sugary cereal in the pantry. I thought Karen’s eyeballs were going to fall out of her skull the first time she visited my house. “You can eat this?” she asked, gesturing at the candy bowl. “Like, whenever?” And then she promptly ate three bowls of Crunch Berries. The only cereal at Karen’s house was shredded wheat–the big, biscuit, straw-textured kind.

Sweets were special things at Karen’s house, and I only got to eat them a handful of times. One time, Renate announced, to much delight, that there was a special treat for us to enjoy. At dinner’s end, she went to the cupboard and with a flourish, produced a package of dried pineapple slices. I was perplexed at the allure of that “dessert” but politely gnawed on my slice.

Karen’s father, Joe, was less stern than Renate, but reserved. He did have a bit of a sweet tooth, though, which proved problematic. I remember this dessert vividly, because Joe prepared it on the sly and tried to eat it, standing up in the kitchen, as quietly as possible to avoid detection. Alas, he did not escape unnoticed and Renate gave him a loud and thorough scolding. “That’s the second time this week!” she harrumphed, and Joe tried to look chagrined, but at the last minute, he gave us a saucy little wink.

Sometimes, a man just needs dessert.

Pear Helene

serves one sly, sweet-toothed German

One ripe pear, cored and sliced

Two scoops of vanilla ice cream

Several healthy drizzles of chocolate sauce

A sprinkle of nuts, if desired

Scoop ice cream into a bowl as quietly as possible. Top with pears and chocolate sauce. Eat quickly, with ears open.

* This was not the end of the “gay” thing. Two years later, Sandra brought that little rumor back to the table. Luckily, I was in the presence of Julie N. (who had just moved to the neighborhood) and she gave Sandy a good tongue-lashing. Thank you, Karen H. and Julie N., for championing a girl too weak to do it herself. It meant more than you know.

** Yeah, I know that’s a stereotype. I’m sure there are tons of small-wristed Germans walking around.  Forgive me.
I’m also over at From the Monkey Bars today; I’d love it if you’d swing on by!

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

claire October 24, 2010 at 8:12 pm

i love friends that will go to bat for you! such a good post… the pear helene dessert had my mouth watering!


SuziCate October 26, 2010 at 7:00 am

I was much like you as a child…too weak and watery to stand up for myself! But now I see emotions just mean we are caring people, and I’ll take a caring person as a friend anyday over a mean one!


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