The ingredients themselves were not extraordinary. Easily found at the time at the Eagles on JFK. Flour. Sugar. Pumpkin. Cinnamon. Eggs. Vanilla. Oil. Baking soda and powder. Cream cheese frosting. A simple recipe still found today in Dubuque County homes nicely typed in a 4-H cookbook, a church cookbook, or the Little Cloud Girl Scout Council’s cookbook. A girl scout, in fact, could easily make this recipe with minimal supervision. Yet there was something about the way Mollie made her pumpkin bars that made them memorable.
First, they inspired kind lies. A friend had to tell her husband that his pumpkin bars were better. But they weren’t, she told me. Mollie’s pumpkin bars were moist and fluffy and there was just something about that cream cheese frosting. Her familiarity with the recipe was instinctual having mixed it together so many times. The measurements were probably never exact, but each set of bars turned out deliciously the same. I think of her hands sifting and stirring and scraping the batter into the cake pan. They were eaten on ordinary days. They were eaten on special occasions. And, one time, we tried to eat them on the saddest day, her final gift to us, but we couldn’t.
Years after Mollie had baked her last batch of pumpkin bars, a second memorable moment occurred when a long-time friend and coworker of hers stopped at a garage sale we were having. Actually, it was the kind of garage sale where you try to sell a lifetime’s worth of your parents’ belongings. As adult children, we already had houses full of silverware and dishes and couches and bookcases and refrigerators. We didn’t need their stuff too. We picked out things that were sentimental to us and the rest was for sale. Mollie’s friend picked through the odds and ends. She left with a few things that were unremarkable. She had been a good friend to Mollie and it had been good to see her. She missed her, she said. We nodded.
When she returned a few hours later, we were surprised. Something was on her mind, she said. She disappeared into the basement where we had even more sale items after running out of room in the garage. She came back with a cake pan. The cake pan. The cake pan that I was asked to cover carefully with tin foil using toothpicks to tent the foil over the cream cheese frosting before it was eased into the backseat of the yellow Olds. The cake pan that carried every batch of Mollie’s pumpkin bars to work on Kerper Boulevard and out to Key West and over to East Dubuque and up to Guttenberg. Her friend was thrilled to have it. Her joy and her love for Mollie touched us.
As far as we know, there was never any secret ingredient. Oh, sure, a pinch of love as people sometimes say. Whatever it was, our small circle of friends and family still talk about Mollie’s pumpkin bars. Legendary, I tell you.