I was probably in 7th grade the last time I saw Mrs. Schaeffer. Once a week I would come over to her house to help with chores and offer bits of excitement from my adolescent life.
I can remember one day, towards the end of the summer, strange squealing sounds were coming from upstairs. I peeked into each room, once belonging to her children but now home to collections of teddy bears and books, and found that a bat had gotten in through an open window. We spent hours trying to chase it out of the house, often spooking ourselves more than the animal.
Mrs. Schaeffer had this grand piano in her living room lined with cards from Christmas and birthdays. I would sit on the hard wooden bench and pretend I was Beethoven, if Beethoven would have played “Chopsticks.” She enjoyed filling the house with noise, and I was happy to provide it.
Sometimes I would be asked to dust the “back room,” as I had grown accustomed to calling it. As soon as I stepped through the paint-chipped set of French doors, the temperature dropped and my lungs filled with the smell of vintage corduroy and old potpourri. The windowsills were lined with conch shells and chunks of coral whose orange color had long faded. Landscape paintings hung above the couches next to jars of mismatched buttons collecting dust. I would sit for a handful of minutes listening to the sound of the ocean from the shell, or wipe a line of dust off a painting with my finger.
After my chores were finished, I followed Mrs. Schaeffer into the kitchen for a sweet. I knew her well, or as well as one can know their 83-year-old neighbor, and Mrs. Schaeffer was by no means a baker. There was one pot in the whole kitchen, one tea kettle resting on the small electric stove. But that didn’t matter. I knew what she meant.
I climbed on top of a chair and handed down a tin can of crème-filled Pirouette wafers from the top shelf. The lid echoed as she took it off and offered me a delicate cookie. I took a bite. There was a taste of comfort in our post-cleaning ritual. I took another bite. The chocolate hazelnut filling was rolled up in the flakey dough like a cigar. I parted my lips and breathed out a sweet sigh of content.
For as long as she lived I don’t think Mrs. Schaeffer was ever part of the “food is fuel” club, and I don’t think she ever wanted to be. To her, comfort food was anything eaten with good company and good intentions. There was nothing homemade about it.
Now well in my college years, I still think about Mrs. Schaeffer and the ease of our relationship. Every now and then I’ll buy some Pirouette wafers, sneaking one out before hiding them safely on the top shelf in my kitchen. I take a bite, and breathe out a sweet sigh of memories.