Annie D. Stutley
Nov 30, 2022
They say that a watched pot never boils. That’s a lie. It does boil, but do you know what doesn’t?
A Tale of Three Christmases and Unexceptional Personal Limits....
I have two settings for Christmas. The first begins in November when I think of every holiday task I will complete early so the season is stress-free. The second is in the third week of December when I realize that I haven’t accomplished anything I planned. And nowhere is my holiday frenzy more frantic than on the eve of my children’s last day of school before winter break when I realize that I have procrastinated buying their teachers’ gifts.
Of course it begins innocently enough. It always does.
Years ago, when my kids were little, teacher gifts were something I could put off. They each had one teacher. I could run to the nearest gift store and buy three exceptional baskets of goodies. But now my kids are older with a whopping 20 teachers, coaches, and instructors. Sometime around Thanksgiving I remind myself to plan ahead for affordable yet heartwarming care packages that properly say, “Thank you for fostering my kid, who I know is sometimes a complete jackass.” Yet, I end up doing what I’ve done for years now. I make a mad dash to the grocery store the day before and determine that the best way to compensate for my ineptitude is to overcompensate. Thus, I choose a most complicated dessert that will wow my neglected teachers. And I will, of course, prepare it all myself.
It sounds completely logical in the moment.
One year, though, I actually conceded that one cannot make a dozen yule logs in one night. That year, my kids had only 12 teachers combined. So, I bought a case of wine and funny labels like “It’s 3:30 somewhere” and placed each clever label over the vineyard’s label. Simple! Except that you can’t drop your kid off at school with a backpack full of wine—not even in New Orleans.
So, guess who unloaded a case of wine at the elementary school? This gal. Only our school doesn’t have a parking lot. Our school is in a highly trafficked neighborhood where there is rarely off-street parking. I found a spot three blocks away, only to get as far as two steps when I realized my scrawny arms cannot carry a case of wine down three blocks, through a security gate, and up a set of stairs. So I retreated. I took two thirds of the wine out of the box and carried four bottles at a time, deciding on three trips—one for each kid's teachers.
To date, I don’t know why I thought it wise to bring the wine directly to the teachers and why I didn’t just leave them in the office. And I wish I had because guess whose Mom busted into fifth grade math class with wine? Yep, you guessed it. By the time I was on my third trip, I was sweating and my middle child (Middle Man) completely ignored me when I tiptoed in the dark into his reading classroom where they were watching Charlotte’s Web. As I sheepishly handed his teacher a heartfelt bottle of booze, a droplet of my sweat splattered and smudged the clever label.
As God was my witness, I swore I’d never do the wine thing again. So, what did I do the next year? Homemade marshmallows. Lord to Heaven! That was a Christmas catastrophe.
Marshmallows have five ingredients, and the biggest time consumption is waiting for them to set—two factors that led me to think my choice wise. However, waiting to begin at 8 o’clock at night to make marshmallows for 15 teachers means you’ll be staring at trays, waiting for them to set, well past midnight. It was close to one in the morning when I finally sliced the last pan of marshmallows and laid them in green tissue paper in red Chinese cartons. I was exhausted, maybe a little buzzed from the rosé I chugged that last hour but satisfied with my superpowers. Seriously, which other kid was gonna stroll into homeroom with homemade marshmallows? Not even Sheryl's kids. (See "That Time You Ousted Sheryl" for clarification.)
But the following morning I realized just how not-Sheryl I am. Taking a final look at my supreme exceptionality, I peeked inside one of the cartons and resting contentedly were my perfectly, poufy marshmallows. But perfectly green! In my complete Annie-ness, I didn’t remember that I live in New Orleans where our humidity is a legitimate reason to avoid moisturizer altogether and also where one should never put a food item made entirely of sugar onto anything soluble, namely green tissue paper.
Frantically, I pulled all the marshmallows out—all 90 of them—for inspection. Most of the green was on the edges. For a split second, I considered leaving them alone. Maybe it would look intentional. Only it didn’t because the green bled down like green veins, and also, knowing my luck, some teacher had a freak dye allergy. I simply can’t be the parent to poison the science teacher. So I trimmed them.
“It’ll appear intentional,” I said, as Middle Man looked despondently into the now heap of white powdered globs.
“Sure. We’ll go with that,” he said dryly.
That was the year my kids took irregular polygon-shaped marshmallows to school for their teachers’ holiday gifts and the year that, as God was my witness, I swore to never make marshmallows again.
So, 2019 was to be my comeback. No sweaty wine. Nothing poisonous.
That was the plan until I hadn’t bought a single ingredient for making gifts and was exhausted from a week of nursing Middle Man’s flu. I stumbled into the supermarket in the same yoga pants I’d worn for three days and spotted a display of packaged divinity. Right then is precisely when I should have realized the limitations put on me that week. It is also precisely why I’m pretty sure I don’t have a conscience at all because when I studied the mushy rounds of confection I said, “I can make that. Easy!”
Silly Annie. Divinity is for grown-ups.
Like marshmallow, divinity only has five ingredients, but with a nougat consistency. Divinity is also as far from a divine experience to make as the devil is from divinity. In fact, divinity is the devil.
It was while I was laying out the ingredients when Mama trotted over to the kitchen to see what I was doing. Mama lives with us now, and there are moments when it is very convenient to have someone wise in your presence. That is, if you are the type of person to listen to wisdom.
“You know, divinity is really finicky about humidity,” she said as I looked over the recipe.
I ignored her.
I lit a fire and poured the sugar, water, salt, and Karo syrup into the saucepan and waited. And waited. And continued to wait as the sugar liquid took half of my lifetime to reach 260 degrees. When it finally did, I slowly poured it into the mixing bowl of stiff egg whites and again waited and waited and waited for what seemed the remainder of my life for the magic to happen.
But it did—to Mama’s and my complete astonishment.
“Haha!” I proudly chuckled as I spooned poufy clumps of winter white onto a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. “Humidity be damned!”
They held their shape. It was on to batch two of four.
It was during batch two that I realized I forgot to put my kids to bed. It was also during batch two that the dog made a river of pee in the dining room. And it was in the middle of batch two that as I stared at bubbling sugar determined to never hit 260 degrees that I called off the fourth batch. Middle Man was too sick for school. His presents could wait.
But again, the divinity kept its shape.
“I am so good at this!” I said to no one in particular, a tiny prideful note sent out into a world determined on making me feel inept.
By the time I started batch three, Middle Man was in a Tamiflu and broth coma on the couch and the other two kids were asleep upstairs. The river of pee had been cleaned. I even remembered to move the damn Elf on the Shelf. It was 10:30.
Again, I prepared the sugar to boil. And in the quiet of my holiday home, I stared at the pot.
They say that a watched pot never boils. That’s a lie. It does boil, but do you know what doesn’t happen? A sugar boil doesn’t hit 260 degrees without taking a piece of your soul with it. Studying that damn pot, feeling time and my alertness fade away, I contemplated all the choices that led me to making divinity at 11 p.m. on a Wednesday. Why must I push myself to rally behind some ideal that I should be exceptional? Who cares? I could have bought the divinity. I could have made boxed brownies. I could have filled tins with the teachers’ favorite store-bought candies and be in bed right now. Instead, as the sugar boil defied me, I questioned my very existence. Why do I even bother trying for any life exceptional? No one really cares if I do or don’t do anything well.
Boiled sugar not reaching 260 degrees makes a person think such damaging thoughts, especially when they are tired and a little buzzed from chugging rosé the last hour. So, too, will a divinity mixture that still hasn’t formed into the right consistency after seven minutes of mixing on high speed! The grinding motor of the mixer shook me from my self-loathing. Why wasn’t this batch doing what the others did? I stopped the machine and tested a clump. It fell back on itself.
“Crap!” I yelled at no one in particular.
Again I mixed and mixed until it looked right and then spooned it out, only to see each clump puddle after just seconds.
I could have made a fourth batch. I could have muscled up and finished strong. But I didn’t. And you know why? Because New Orleans is insanely humid, and I should have listened to my mother. But mostly because though I may strive to be exceptional, there is nothing exceptional about my limits. It was time I learned that.
I was short by five teachers. Two didn’t need a present before the next afternoon. Another we’d see again before Christmas. So, I scanned the house for replacements and found twelve of two dozen gourmet cookies that had been delivered the day before. They were worth giving away for the sake of my sanity. I filled the remaining tins with the re-gifted cookies, planned to buy the other gifts in the morning, and as God was my witness, swore to never make divinity again.
I know enough to know that I can’t pull off procrastination without mishap. I can’t pull off a lot of things without a little drama. But I’m so much more than my ineptitude. I’m kind. I’m a good listener. I’m relatable. I’m a doting mother, a great wife, sister, daughter, and friend.
Screw divinity. I’m badass without it.
I shut the lights off downstairs at midnight—an hour earlier than the marshmallow affair of 2018. But as I was cleaning up beforehand, I stuck the puddled divinity from batch three in a hot oven. Maybe I could make divinity cookies a thing? After the last bowl was clean and the good divinity packed, I shut off the oven, left the door ajar, and went to bed.
Yet, I forgot about those “cookies” in my oven until the following night when I preheated the oven to 450 degrees to cook a roast. I was seasoning said roast, grateful that divinity and a need to be exceptional was a thing of the past, when from his couch confinement, Middle Man said, “What’s that smell?”
I sniffed the air. It smelled like burnt sugar. That’s odd, I thought. Then I remembered my experiment. I threw open the oven and went temporarily blind as billowing smoke rushed into my kitchen and overwhelmed my first floor. Alarms went off, dogs barked, and my flu child gagged.
Divinity struck again! Those damn leftover globs melted straight through my silicone cookie sheet onto the oven floor.
Some of us aren’t meant to meddle with the Divine.
Starting with me.
2020 Update: Today was the last day of in-person school for Middle Man. He went with four pre-packaged coffee cakes to give to his four teachers. The cakes were baked in a kitchen far away from mine and by the hands of a professional. Last night I watched a cheesy Hallmark Christmas movie and sipped rose', all without turning on my mixer once.
Annie D. Stutley lives and writes in New Orleans, La. She edits several small publications and contributes to various print and online magazines. Her blog, "That Time You," was ranked in the Top 100 Blogs by FeedSpot. To read more of her work, go to herwebsite, or follow her at@anniedstutley orAnnie D. Stutley-writeron Facebook.