The gift baked into a streusel coffeecake

Every Saturday for nearly 50 years, my grandmother greeted the dawn in exactly the same way. After tying a cobbler's apron snugly around her waist to protect a carefully ironed housedress, she would assemble the ingredients for her favorite coffeecake -- a low, coarsely textured loaf with thick streusel topping. ``Assembled'' is the correct verb here, rather than ``measured out,'' for she followed no exact recipe. In the best grandmotherly tradition she dealt in mounds of flour, pinches of salt, slabs of butter. Cooking and baking were a matter of texture, consistency, appearance, and taste.

By the time the late-morning sun slanted through her kitchen window, several fragrant loaves would be cooling on a table. The rest of the day still stretched ahead for cleaning, gardening, or visiting with friends.

Only twice, according to family scorekeepers, did the routine vary. The first time was an August weekend in 1939, when her eldest son -- my father -- married my mother in an out-of-state ceremony. The second was a November Saturday 26 years later, when she traveled to the same Illinois city for the wedding of her eldest granddaughter. ``A good cause, both times,'' she once said with a smile, as if only something as important (and infrequent) as a family wedding would be sufficient reason to change her Saturday pattern.

To those of us whose busy lives make housework a catch-as-catch-can proposition, this slavish devotion to routine seems the stuff of nursery rhymes, not real lives. (``This is the day we wash our clothes, wash our clothes, wash our clothes. . . .'') As I begin a load of laundry at 8 p.m. after a long day at work, I can no more imagine a wash-on-Monday, iron-on-Tuesday, mend-on-Wednesday schedule than my grandmother could have fathomed arriving at an office by 8 every morning.

Yet she was not alone in her attitudes. For all its placid, slow-paced exterior, life in the tiny Wisconsin town where she lived for eight decades followed a clock-watching schedule as rigid as that of any fast-track city dweller. It was a world regulated by the daily demands of dairy cows and laying hens. Seasons revolved around the proper time to plant corn, thresh wheat, pick raspberries and beans. Little wonder, perhaps, that domestic activities assumed an equally intractable form.

Once a month, when her three sons and their families were planning a Sunday visit, her oven yielded a double batch. One coffeecake would be passed around the large oak dining table for supper. The others, tightly wrapped in foil, remained in the kitchen, awaiting our departure. Then, as aunts and uncles and cousins exchanged goodbyes and final hugs, the master baker would hand each family one of her prized loaves. Monday breakfast couldn't come soon enough.

Eventually the large Victorian house became too big for one woman alone, and my grandmother moved to a retirement home. There, with no kitchen to call her own, Saturdays assumed a shapeless form, and coffeecake became only a pleasant memory for all of us.

Feeling the loss, I became determined to continue the tradition. Would she, I asked carefully during one of her visits to my parents' home, be willing to pass along her Saturday skills to me?

The request first surprised her, then embarrassed her, and finally flattered her. Yes, of course she would teach me.

And so that midweek afternoon became a Saturday morning for her as she guided me through the lengthy process. Sitting at our kitchen table, hands carefully folded in her apronless lap, she relaxed her self-conscious manner as teacher. While I sifted and stirred and shaped, we talked -- more conversation than our separate lives had ever before allowed. And as I struggled with her vague measurements, the wrong size pans, and streusel that didn't resemble hers, we also laughed. Laughter had become a scarce commodity in her life by then, and the very act seemed to take her by surprise. She became, briefly, unburdened -- a woman back in her domestic element, doing what she knew and loved best.

I made her coffeecake only twice after that. Errands and car pools take precedence over yeast dough on a working mother's Saturday mornings, and I became a reluctant convert to the debatable wonders of convenience foods.

Whatever culinary skills I pass along to my teen-age daughter, Grandma's Coffeecake will not be one of them. Now Sara Lee and Betty Crocker have become surrogate grandmothers to a whole nation of working women. For all our children know, coffeecake has always come from frozen-food cases and packaged mixes (``just add eggs and milk''), with ersatz streusel sealed in foil packets.

Sometimes, as I slide a tray of frozen croissants into the oven for a weekend breakfast (``bake 9-11 minutes at 325 degrees''), I think about the 2,500 Saturdays my grandmother spent in her simple kitchen. And I wonder:

Do I admire the self-imposed discipline that impelled her to rise early to dissolve yeast and knead dough, or do I wish she could have been more flexible?

Do I find her willingness to stick with one favorite recipe all those decades remarkable, or merely unimaginative?

Finally, do I envy the ordered simplicity of her rural life, or do I give secret thanks, despite frequent protests about fatigue and overwork, that my suburban life is so complex?

The answer, most days, is all of the above. In my grandmother's obedience to routine there was a serenity, a comforting certainty that I can only dream about and occasionally long for. In my harried shuttling between work and home there is a sense of energy and adventure that she probably would have found incomprehensible. Somewhere there must be a satisfying middle ground between the extremes of our two lives, but for now it eludes me.

My own future grandchildren will have to remember me for other accomplishments. As part of a generation of women who seem to specialize in broadening their horizons and scattering their skills, I hope I can still pass along some of the values my grandmother bequeathed to me -- the virtue of constancy, the importance of doing even routine tasks with love. But, for better and for worse, the legacy will be less simple, sweet, and pungent than hot streusel cake on a Saturday morning.

Marilyn Gardner is the Monitor's Home & Family editor.

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