So, I wanted to help. I really did. When the PTO email appeared in my inbox, looking for last-minute volunteers for the Election Day bake sale, I thought it was the least I could do to support my son's school. That afternoon, Nicholas and I stopped at the store for ingredients. I imagined the fun we'd have baking. He could lick the bowl while I popped the cookies and brownies into the oven, à la Mary Poppins, no doubt singing while we cooked.
Mind you, I had no pretenses about baking from scratch. Why would I when we had our friend Betty Crocker to help? I figured that was OK. After all, what mom has time to cook authentic homemade treats for the school bake sale?
When we got home, I unpacked the groceries, hit the pre-heat button on the oven, and flipped on some music. I pulled up a chair to the counter in anticipation of Nicholas's helping me crack the eggs, mix the ingredients. As it turned out, he was more interested in coloring Halloween pictures with his dad. No problem. I couldn't expect everything to match my ideal vision of how things would go for our first bake sale. So long as the school had treats tomorrow, I figured I was doing my fair share. I washed my hands and dug in.
When the brownies came out of the oven looking slightly deflated, my energy for starting in on the cookies began to wane. It was getting late. It seemed a better plan to get up early in the morning and start fresh. And true to my promise, I woke at six to begin baking, the sweet scent of cookies wafting through the house. My husband floated down the stairs, wondering what had come over me. He snuck a cookie on his way out the door, and we laughed over how I'd found my "baking thumb."
The cookies cooling on the wire rack looked passable, if not exactly the divine, sumptuous treats I'd imagined. Still, they needed a little something. So, I wrapped them in Saran Wrap with little yellow bows. The brownies had already been placed on decorative plates last night, but I tied some bows around them, too.
When Nicholas woke up, he wondered what all the fuss was about, apparently forgetting our run to the store last night and my plans to bond with him while baking. "Whose birthday is it?" he asked, a slightly bemused look on his face.
"It's your school bake sale!" I reminded him triumphantly. "Remember? We're bringing treats so your school can make money and buy more school supplies."
"Oh. Cool," he said and asked if I'd remembered to pack him a lunch.
"Of course," I replied, as enthusiastic as I'd ever been about packing his lunch. Here it was only 7:30 and I'd already managed to pack his lunch, a snack, and a bake a batch of cookies. I'll admit it -- I was feeling a bit like Supermom. When he asked what was for breakfast, I was stumped. In my morning hustle, I'd completely forgotten about breakfast. "How about a ham and cheese sandwich?" I asked, undeterred, eyeing the deli meat for his lunch still sitting on the counter.
"Sure," he said. He seemed happy about getting lunch for breakfast. I made a note to myself to remember this handy trick for future busy mornings.
At last, we were ready to go: Nicholas with his backpack full of lunch and snacks, and I, with my pretty pink basket filled with baked goods. I dropped Nicholas at the school door, then headed to the gym, where the bake sale was being held. When a few moms carrying enormous white boxes on their shoulders passed me, I started to get a little nervous. But I was still feeling proud, as if I'd done my part, my first time contributing as a kindergarten mom. I thought to myself how nice it was that parents came together to support the school in this fashion. I'd be sure to volunteer early next time. It must be such a hassle, I thought, for the PTO to have to plead for last-minute baking volunteers.
When I walked up the sidewalk past the candidates who were shaking hands, hoping to get parents' votes today, it didn't even seem strange that one candidate complimented my pretty pink basket instead of the baked goods inside of it. I thought, "How nice! She likes my basket. Maybe I'll vote for her." I swung through the doors, ready to unload my bountiful gifts.
And then it hit me: that brief, startling moment of self-awareness when you realize that what you thought was so great is really just average, perhaps even slightly below average.
There, laid out on an enormous table, was a spread so grand and delectable, I stopped in my tracks. There were enormous cookies, individually wrapped (I'd wrapped four dainty cookies in one package), Blondies, each as big as a piece of toast, miniature breads of all varieties, muffins and cupcakes sporting whimsical toppings. But what really caught my eye was a box of colorfully wrapped treats that included brownies and some kind of pretzel stick coated with little candies at the end to resemble cotton candy. They were beautiful, delicate. Food as art.
I looked down at my brownies and cookies, which suddenly appeared lopsided. The happy yellow ribbons I'd wrapped around them now seemed ridiculous, evidence of a mom who'd been up too early and had tried to mask her futile attempts at baking in dressy bows. I was tempted to leave them in a corner of the table and duck out, sight unseen. But there wasn't a big enough crowd gathered yet to pull off such subterfuge. So, I did what any mother would do and handed them over, explaining under my breath that "my 5-year-old helped me bake them." It was a lie, but who else would believe that a mother herself had baked such sad-looking treats?
When I called my husband later to commiserate, he told me it was all right, that it was better to find out early that perhaps bake sales weren't my calling. We laughed about how the PTO wouldn't be sending another e-mail requesting my help -- or if they did, it would be to bring paper plates instead of baked goods.
"You just need to find your strengths," he counseled, trying to help.
"Find my strengths?" I asked, getting my hackles up. I was a mom, a writer, doing the juggling act that every mother does each and every day. Wasn't it a little late to be talking about finding my strengths?
He must have sensed my alarm because he quickly added, "Yeah, you know. Like helping out at the book fair or the school dance instead."
"Oh," I said. I supposed he was right. There were other ways I could help our son's school. Things that might be a better fit.
In a moment of weakness, I asked, "You don't suppose my brownies will be the only ones left at the end of the day, do you?"
He waited a beat, then said, "Honey, if they are, I'll buy them when I stop in after work to vote."
And at that moment, I fell in love with my husband all over again. He just better eat those brownies before he gets home.