Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake

A Memoir of a Woman's Life

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“[Quindlen] serves up generous portions of her wise, commonsensical, irresistibly quotable take on life. . . . What Nora Ephron does for body image and Anne Lamott for spiritual neuroses, Quindlen achieves on the home front.”—NPR
In this irresistible memoir, Anna Quindlen writes about a woman’s life, from childhood memories to manic motherhood to middle age, using the events of her life to illuminate ours. Considering—and celebrating—everything from marriage, girlfriends, our mothers, parenting, faith, loss, to all the stuff in our closets, and more, Quindlen says for us here what we may wish we could have said ourselves. As she did in her beloved New York Times columns, and in A Short Guide to a Happy Life, Quindlen uses her past, present, and future to explore what matters most to women at different ages. Quindlen talks about
Marriage: “A safety net of small white lies can be the bedrock of a successful marriage. You wouldn’t believe how cheaply I can do a kitchen renovation.”
Girlfriends: “Ask any woman how she makes it through the day, and she may mention her calendar, her to-do lists, her babysitter. But if you push her on how she really makes it through her day, she will mention her girlfriends. ”
Our bodies: “I’ve finally recognized my body for what it is: a personality-delivery system, designed expressly to carry my character from place to place, now and in the years to come.”
Parenting: “Being a parent is not transactional. We do not get what we give. It is the ultimate pay-it-forward endeavor: We are good parents not so they will be loving enough to stay with us but so they will be strong enough to leave us.”
Candid, funny, and moving, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake is filled with the sharp insights and revealing observations that have long confirmed Quindlen’s status as America’s laureate of real life.
“Classic Quindlen, at times witty, at times wise, and always of her time.”—The Miami Herald
“[A] pithy, get-real memoir.”—Booklist
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Under the Cover

An excerpt from Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake

Time is at once the most valuable and the most perishable of all our possessions.
colonial member of Congress
I have a lot of stuff. I bet you do, too. Sofas, settees, bureaus, bookshelves. Dishes, bowls, pottery, glass, candlesticks, serving trays, paperweights. Beds, chests, trunks, tables. Windsor chairs, club chairs, ladder- back chairs, folding chairs, wicker chairs. Lots and lots of chairs.
I have needlepoint pillows everywhere: camels, chickens, cats, houses, barns, libraries, roses, daisies, pansies. I needlepoint while I watch television. I have a vision of my children, after I’m gone, looking around and saying, “What are we going to do with all these pillows?” I don’t mind. My best friend, Janet, has more pillows than I do, and more platters, too. Once I bought some plates and knew instantly that she would love them. “Where did you get those?” she asked, and I lied to her and then bought some for her birthday.
“Did she need more plates?” asked my husband, whose idea of need is different from my own.
In the city I have lots of stuff on the walls. Modern art, traditional art, landscapes, photographic prints. Eclectic. In the country I have samplers. THE BLESSING OF THE HOME IS CONTENTMENT. THIS IS OUR HOUSE / THE DOOR OPENS WIDE / AND WELCOMES YOU / TO ALL INSIDE. I have a large piece of framed embroidery that shows a woman with bobbed hair and an apron holding a tray with a tea service. A GOOD HOUSEWIFE MAKES A GOOD HOME, this one says. Lots of people who come to our house, knowing my politics, think it’s ironic.
It’s not ironic.
I didn’t have all this stuff when I was young and single. None of us did. It was a big deal to have blinds and coffee mugs. Many of the guys I knew didn’t; they’d tack a sheet over the bedroom window, drink from Styrofoam. My first apartment was pretty typical; I had a small uncomfortable sleeper sofa, a bentwood rocker, a coffee table that was actually a trunk—didn’t everyone in 1976?—and a set of bookshelves. I was proud of those bookshelves. Many of my friends still used plastic egg crates, or plywood and cinder blocks.
In the bedroom I had a chest of drawers and a desk that was too low for an adult, at which I would hunch over my old manual Smith Corona typewriter, my knees contorted beneath. I had swapped the twin bed of my girlhood for a double bed, which children nowadays, raised on queen-size beds from seventh grade, the first generation of middle-class kids who trade down when they arrive in college dorms, can scarcely imagine. I was proud of that double bed. Many of my friends had futons.
That was more or less it. My stuff then would all fit in the back of one U-Haul, and not the big one, either. None of us used movers when we changed apartments, just called around and got a group together for pizza and beer and haulage. A lot of stuff wound up on the sidewalk for the sanitation truck.
But then we got married and we got carafes, chafing dishes, and china. We bought matching love seats for the living room in the row house that had once been a rooming house. (“Your grandfather worked hard all his life so his grandchildren wouldn’t have to live in a place like this,” my father said, sitting on the stoop, but he still lent us money for the renovation.) I trawled junk shops for oak furniture too old to be new but too young to be antique. I had a brief flirtation with Fiesta ware and Roseville pottery, never met a big old bowl or platter I couldn’t love. When we were in Sicily for his sister’s twentieth birthday and I halted, transfixed, before a window display of Italian pottery, our older son said, deadpan, “Mom, why don’t you get one of those so you can put it on a little stand on a shelf somewhere?” I’d never really thought they’d noticed, much less passed judgment.
And that’s not even counting the stuff in my closet. One day I peered inside and realized it looked like it belonged to someone with multiple personality disorder. The bohemian look, the sharp suits, the frilly dresses. Those days are behind me, and I finally know who and how I’m dressing. I’m dressing a person who has eighteen pairs of black pants and eleven pairs of black pumps. Of course, that number is illusory, since it includes the black pants I never felt looked great but purchased on sale, the pair that never seem to be the right length, and the two pairs that fit funny. Not too big or too small, just funny. Naturally there are two pairs of the shoes that I wear all the time, because they’re comfortable, and one pair that I wear on occasion because they are great-looking and my toes don’t go entirely numb for at least three hours.
I prefer not to dwell on the purses and the white T-shirts. You know, fashion magazines always say you can never have too many white T-shirts.
Yes, you can.
It wasn’t always like this, was it? At some point in America, desire and need became untethered in our lives, and shopping became a competitive sport. I can’t recall my mother spending much time spending, although of course she predated that black hole of consumption, the shopping website. It was generally agreed in our family that my grandmother Quindlen was a world-class shopper, and there was a much-repeated, often-embellished story about one of my aunts arriving early enough at a big sale to score a spot at the front of the line and still finding my grandmother already inside the store when she’d breached the doors. But there was always an object to the hunt: a Hitchcock chair, a pair of Naturalizer pumps. Sometimes I feel as though credit cards have helped us concentrate on quantity, not quality; the other day a financial adviser on TV said that if people were using cash for purchases, they tended to be much more abstemious. Plastic is magical, as though the bill will never come due.
I have too much plastic, too, in my wallet.
What do we notice when we drive down the highways of our adolescence and measure what’s changed? We now have the big-box stores, the home emporiums, the fast-food places, certainly, but the weirdest addition is the thousands of storage facilities that loom, bunkerlike, windowless. When we were kids, storage was the basement and attic, a broken chair, an army trunk. Today we rent facilities for the stuff we’re not currently using, probably will never use again.
Statisticians say our houses are almost twice as large, on average, as they were forty years ago. So much stuff, rotating rooms of it: cribs, big-boy beds, changing tables, desks, new linens, new window treatments, new rugs. When my kids got their own places, they went shopping in the junk shops in the top and bottom stories of our own homes. My husband says that when you go to their apartments it’s like a walk down Memory Lane, that little table we never really found a place for, the coffee mugs that take both of us right back to the era when there was scarcely time for coffee because someone always needed a glass of milk or a story read. “Take more!” I kept saying, but they demurred, not wanting to seem greedy. The odd frying pan, the chipped bowls. Quin cleans, Christopher cooks. Chris called one night and asked how to drain spaghetti if you don’t have one of those things with the holes in it. Next time he came over I gave him one of my four colanders. Or maybe it’s five. I like the old enameled ones.
The nicest thing you can say to me about my home is that it’s homey, and people say it all the time. I like it. And at a certain point, I can’t say when, I realized I didn’t really give a damn about any of it. If there were a fire, what would I save? We all used to say it was the photo albums, but with digital photography we all have our photographs on our computers, on Facebook, in emails to our families and friends. My cookbooks are well thumbed, but I know the best recipes by heart now, and the bad recipes I’ve either discarded or adapted.
I can’t even say I would reach for the wedding album; it seems so long ago, and so many of our friends didn’t come into our lives until afterward. There’s a porcelain bird I gave my mother the Christmas before she died, which she owned for less than a month, that I’ve wrapped carefully in tissue and taken with me from the small apartment to the bigger apartment to the brownstone to the nicer brownstone. There are the letters my kids write each year to Santa Claus, even now that they no longer watch me seal them in envelopes and address them to S. Claus, North Pole, 99705 (which is really the zip code of North Pole, Alaska, not the real North Pole), even now that my daughter has learned to write to Santa online and to insert a web link so you can click on the letter to Santa and go directly to the dress she wants from Saks in the correct size and color. There’s the mink coat my husband gave me when our first child was born, which I haven’t worn for years because our kids are bothered by fur but which I treasure because it made me feel prosperous, elegant, and wifelike for perhaps the first time.
If there were a fire I’d probably just grab a few old pictures and the Labradors. I’d be wearing the watch and the rings my husband gave me for the big birthdays. I haven’t removed my wedding ring since the day he put it on me and the priest blessed it. I’d miss the rest, but I wouldn’t mourn it. Except for the Christmas ornaments, I guess. My entire family is pretty attached to the Christmas ornaments.

- About the author -

Anna Quindlen is a novelist and journalist whose work has appeared on fiction, nonfiction, and self-help bestseller lists. She is the author of many novels: Object Lessons, One True Thing, Black and Blue, Blessings, Rise and Shine, Every Last One, Still Life with Bread Crumbs, and Miller’s Valley. Her memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, published in 2012, was a #1 New York Times bestseller. Her book A Short Guide to a Happy Life has sold more than a million copies. While a columnist at The New York Times she won the Pulitzer Prize and published two collections, Living Out Loud and Thinking Out Loud. Her Newsweek columns were collected in Loud and Clear.

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Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake

A Memoir of a Woman's Life


Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake

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