It was 1957, I was ten and lived on, quite possibly the best street in all of the state of Illinois. Actually it is an avenue, Clarista Avenue. I lived in a small white frame house with my Mother, Father and my younger, by five years, brother. I always had pets. I had dogs, birds, turtles, lizards and even pigeons but this story is not about them. It is not about my family or pets, although they too would make a great story or two. No, it is about the house and the couple who lived next door to us as I was growing up.
As you face our house from the dead-end street, the people I will be introducing you to, are on your left. It was a red brick house trimmed in off-white with a screened-in sun porch at the back of the house and this was made out of wood and painted the same off-white. The garage, not attached, is made of wood not brick and is the same color as the trim. The yard is pristine and has a red brick barbecue pit that the man of the house built himself. Farther down and behind the garage is a huge bell atop a wooden pole, you guessed it, painted the same beige tint, the pole not the bell. Two wooden Adirondack chairs adorn the porch and two more sit near the brick pit and are the same shade. Is it boring you ask, all this pale trim? No, it seems to compliment the red brick and it is a good thing that it goes well together because the hue never changes the whole 21 years that I live next door to them. It is scraped and repainted every three to five years. It is so clean and well kept that it is like a painting. A painting by that famous artist whose work adorned the cover of so many Saturday Evening Post magazines. I loved this house. I loved the people who lived there and I loved that they took such good care of my favorite home.
Mr. and Mrs. Phelps had no children and although I never learned of their ages, they seemed older when I was a youngster and never appeared to age. They seem to be the same age at my wedding so many years later. I once asked my Mother how old they were and she said that she had no idea and warned me against asking them myself. Years later when I attend their funerals, I purposely ignore the dates of birth and death on their tombstones as I will always remember them as they were when I lived next door. Age is just a number, people say and their number will always be locked in my childhood from two to twenty-one.
Entering their home, the sweet whiff of baking always penetrated your nostrils and would wake your sense of smell. Mrs. P. was a great baker and her talents came in a variety of desserts. I spent many a Saturday as her assistant fantasizing that we had a baking show as she put together an assortment of cookies, bars, donuts and three tiered cakes decorated with strawberries or blueberries.
My favorite room besides the kitchen was a guest bedroom where two "Ginny Lynn" twin beds stood with lace bed spreads and lace covered foot stools. I took many a nap here on Saturday and would wake to the aroma of homemade deep fried donuts or almond cookies wafting from the kitchen.
Years later working downtown St. Louis at my first office job, I was picked to bring cookies to the Christmas party. I was not the sole supplier of goodies others were bringing desserts also. But my Mother and I did not share Mrs. P's love of baking or her talent. I could do chocolate chip with or without nuts and my specialty was to add coconut to the mixture. That was the extent of my dessert making. I told Mrs. Phelps and she volunteered to help. She called my Father and over the phone gave him a grocery list of some of the ingredients she would need. I was scheduled to go caroling that night and she insisted that I go and to pick up the cookies the next morning before work. The last thing she asked me that evening was about how many people would be at this party and I told her about 200 and reiterated that I was not the only one bringing cookies.
The next morning I knocked on her door and she called out to me to get my Dad. I did and he and I walked onto the landing and up the two steps into her kitchen. I am sure that the aroma Dad and I enjoyed that morning is how heaven will smell. There on her table were two large white bakery boxes filled with cookies Each box had two layers in between sheets of wax paper. These boxes were as big and square as her table. Thirty delicacies across and ten down is 300, times the second layer is 600 and that times two boxes is 1200 cookies. This, she explained came out to only six cookies per person. There were my chocolate chip with nuts and coconut, of course, but there were also rum balls, sugar cookies in shapes of Christmas trees decorated with red sprinkles and red hots to simulate ornaments. There were star shaped and wreaths with green ribbons made of icing that were too pretty to eat. Oh, then the chocolate, the chocolates were down right sinful. The fudge melted in your mouth and there was three different flavors. People at work were still talking about the sweet morsels in February. I think they wanted me to ask her to make more for Valentine's Day. Dad had offered to pay her but Mrs. P. refused, saying that she had done it for me. I ran over that evening and told her what a big hit her desserts were that everyone thought I had paid a fortune for them from a bakery. She was so pleased when I said that my co-workers wanted a picture of her and I together. I suggested in front of her oven where she had baked the little masterpieces. Mr. Phelps took the picture. When I left that place of employment years later, I took the picture down from the bulletin board in the break room where new employees were told of the fabulous "Cookie Lady".