Father Gilsdorf, this is the only essay I’ve ever turned in late and the only time it really mattered. It took me a long time to figure the assignment out but I think I get it now. Thank you for everything.
Father Gilsdorf was legendary long before I was old enough to sit in his class. At 79 years old, he ran 3 miles every morning rain or shine, published books of poetry, and opened every September with an infamous yet riveting lecture comparing ancient Greeks worshipping Dionysus to modern day high schoolers worshipping the god of bud.
Every ten days he assigned a piece of classic literature and an accompanying essay on the topic. Every two weeks, like clockwork, I’d breakdown at 2am in a fit of feverish writer’s block the night before our papers came due. Father Gilsdorf claimed to give only a few A grades every year.
I loved that class. I poured everything into those papers and practically memorized the comments that came back in perfect red script on our graded essays. One day in May I stopped by after school to pick up our latest essay and he asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up.
I told him gravely that I thought I might want to be a writer and his reaction will stay with me for the rest of my life.
He laughed– not unkindly but in that way adults sometimes laugh at kids when they’ve said something unintentionally funny.
Writing isn’t a job, he said. Writing is something you do because you can’t help it, but it’s not a job. You need to go out and find a real job and then make time after work to write.
I walked out of the classroom stunned. I don’t remember a single thing he said to me after that for the rest of the school year. In my tightly clenched fist I held an A+ essay that felt suddenly, mockingly, irrelevant. If sitting around all day writing essays wasn’t a valid option for future employment, I had no clue what I was supposed to do with my life. I must have still been in a daze when we rounded up everyone’s college plans for the school newspaper later that week. Instead of journalism or creative writing as I had intended, I put down pre-med.
I never took a single pre-med class in college, but, with Father Gilsdorf’s words still ringing in my head, I never took a single writing or composition class either.
In the last decade, I’ve thought back on that moment countless times. Sometimes, reading critically-acclaimed novels by writers my age, I’ve resented Father Gilsdorf’s advice. Sometimes, reading about the death of print and newspapers going out of business, I’ve felt grateful for it.
Then, last Tuesday, as I put away my computer for the night, Father Gilsdorf’s words flew inexplicably into my head once again and I realized, startled, that his advice had turned out to be one of the best things that could have ever happened to me.
In telling me I couldn’t be a writer when I “grew up,” Father Gilsdorf had given me his blessing to go do everything else instead, to travel the world, become a mother and take any job I’ve ever wanted. He never told me to give up writing, but, ten years later, he is the reason that I have a life full of characters and situations and experiences worth writing about.
It was Tuesday night in Italy, Tuesday midday in America, as I turned this new insight over and over in my head, feeling renewed and grateful for the upteenth time for every comment, every bit of guidance I ever received from Father Gilsdorf. I realized that, all these years later, I’m doing exactly what Father Gilsdorf had intended: writing because I can’t help it, late at night, after I’ve taken care of the people and obligations and challenges that feed my fiction now with a depth I wouldn’t have been able to muster up before.
Sleepily I wondered whether Father Gilsdorf was still teaching, what he was up to. I don’t pray, but I murmured something to the universe that night. “Thank you Father Gilsdorf,” I thought to myself as I put away my computer and crawled into bed that night. I get it now.
The next morning I woke up to a flurry of eulogies on Facebook. During the night, Father Gilsdorf had passed away.
It’s officially fall here, we cross a piazza shrouded in mist every morning on our way to preschool, a castle dark and moody looms in the distance.
The foliage here is not the brilliant riot of red and orange we used to revel in back home, but between the gloomy skies and piles of chestnuts and apples overflowing their bins at our neighborhood Monday market, everything feels wonderfully fall-ish to me.
Yesterday we had a few new friends over to bake mini apple hand pies and read one of my favorite books for the fall. I’m not usually one for tutorials and kid crafts, Lord knows I leave as many of those things up to Will’s preschool teachers as I can; but since our set up yesterday worked so well for even the 16-month-olds among us (no mess, when does that EVER happen?), I thought I’d share briefly how we do.
Were I more experienced with this Pinterest-y sort of thing, I probably would have taken step-by-step photos of the process but since it only occurred to me after the fact that this might have been the most successful kids’ activity I’ve pulled off yet, we’re going to have to rely on the strength of my prose here.
I made a couple batches of pie dough a few days before everyone came over (loads of European butter, a touch of whole wheat flour for some nutty flavor, all done in a food processor for minimal effort).
On the day of, I rolled out the dough about 5mm thick and stamped out disks with a coffee mug then I put them back in the fridge between layers of floured wax paper until everyone arrived. I broke down three fuji apples into a finer dice than you’d use for a full-sized pie (maybe 1 or 2cm pieces?) and tossed them with a few tablespoons each of lemon juice and flour as well as about a teaspoon of Vietnamese cinnamon and about 1/3 cup demerara sugar and a tiny pinch of sea salt. If you have the time, let this mix macerate and then drain and simmer the resulting liquid for an addicting sauce to top your pies with. If no time, just leave the apple pieces in their juices in the fridge until everyone arrives.
(Also to note: if I was doing this anywhere else in the world I’d be using whatever tasteless butter, sugar and cinnamon possible to find on the local market, but since we are here in Italy…)
When the kids are ready, put out:
your tray of pre-stamped dough discs,
a small bowl with either 1 egg (beaten lightly) or water in it to “glue” your pies (egg gives more sheen, water is a nice alternative for kids inclined to taste-test the raw egg wash),
your bowl of diced apples
a baking sheet lined with parchment paper
Let the kids brush one dough disc with egg or water and then spoon a tablespoon or 2 of the dice apple mixture on top. Cover with a second dough disk and let the kids pinch or crimp the edges together with either their hands or a fork. Brush the top with egg wash and poke a few holes to let the steam escape. Bake at 350F/175C for about 30 minutes or until the tops brown lightly.
Devour while reading The Apple Pie That Papa Baked with adorable children in your lap or, you know, at the kitchen table with the other adults while the kids run wildly around the house ignoring the finished pies and pretending to be airplanes instead.
Afterwards hopefully the kids will look like this:
And you will get to sit down and relax with something like this:
P.S. I’m slowly getting used to European playdate hours. Whereas in Delhi and, I believe, America, everyone hung out from about 3-5 here it’s more like 4:30-7pm. Culture shock…