July 9, 2013 at 7:56 AM ET
Having conquered the kitchen and published over twenty-six New York Times bestselling cookbooks, Sandra Lee embarks on a new chapter with her first foray into fiction. Read an excerpt of her debut novel, "The Recipe Box."
As soon as she heard the ring, Grace knew there would be no answer. Every mother recognized that ring—the one where you could just sense your child wasn’t going to pick up.
“Hi, it’s Em, leave a message . . .”
Grace had hoped to reach Emma. She was hours late, but she still smiled at the sound of her daughter’s voice as she raced through LAX, cell in one hand, wheelie handle in the other, veering past a food stand, around a woman pushing a stroller, and almost sideswiping a man in a motorized wheelchair. “Oh my God, I am so sorry . . .” Good grief, she was running down babies and seniors. Grace, get a grip!
“Honey, it’s mom. I’m really sorry, Em. The plane was late, there was weather out of Green Bay, I missed my connection in Chicago and . . .” What was the difference? Grace thought. Emma would only care that her mother wasn’t there again when she got home. “I’m going straight to the set, so don’t worry if you don’t see my suitcase when you get home. Just start your homework. I’ll bring sushi for dinner, OK? I love you.” Grace picked up her bag and raced down the escalator steps, breaking into a run as she dragged it to the parking lot. It was a perfect spring day in Los Angeles. Sunshine and bright blue sky a world apart from the foggy dawn darkness of New London, Wisconsin, where she’d started her day ten hours ago.
Grace’s phone rang. Great, Emma was calling back. “Sweetie?”
“Don’t sweetie me! We still have six scenes to cover today. Where is my trusty assistant? Are you back in LA?”
With the time difference it was only lunchtime in LA, so Grace still had a half day of work ahead of her. “Ken, I feel terrible, you were wonderful to have Emma stay with you, but the flight was late. I left you a message about the connection . . .”
“Yeah, I got it. Just glad you’re back, and heads up—we’re gonna run late. Artie’s out of control again.”
Grace sighed. Artie was the director of the show she and Ken were working on, The Lost Ones. He was a creative genius, but his management style was terrible. Ken was an amazing godfather, letting Emma stay with him while Grace was in Wisconsin. Ken adored Emma, and his domestic skills were, Grace had to admit, a thousand times better than her own, but Emma was only fourteen and the reality was that Ken had a very high pressure job as a head stylist for a hit TV show. “I tried calling Emma. She’s probably at lunch. Leeza asked me to stay a bit longer, the flights were delayed, but I’m here now.”
His voice softened. “It’s OK, Grace. Just get here when you can, honey. How’s our fighter doing?”
“Not great.” Grace had managed to miss her connection, but she’d spent an extra day with Leeza, and right now that was what mattered. Ken understood. Grace and Ken were taking turns helping Leeza and her family. Back in high school in New London where they’d all grown up, Grace, Leeza, and Ken had joked they were closer than the Three Musketeers.
“I’ll fill you in later.” Grace sighed, thinking of that morning. “Be there shortly.”
Pulling onto the 405 headed north, Grace groaned. The freeway was a parking lot. She’d have to get off at the first exit and take Sepulveda, or if that was blocked an-other surface street all the way to Century. This was going to be a long, painful exercise in stop-and-go. She looked at her reflection in the rear-view mirror. Good lord, Grace thought. There were circles under her blue eyes. Her skin was paper white. She looked like she hadn’t slept in three days.
This crazy schedule that left Grace exhausted and racing from LA to Wisconsin and back had started last fall during the annual Fall Family Fun Fest. The leaves were in full fall color. Music and the smell of sausages, cheese, and beer filled the air all week. Grace, Ken, and Leeza had been going to the festival together since they were kids, and even though Grace and Ken had moved away, they wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Like New London’s huge St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the Fall Family Fun Fest was a town tradition. On the last day of the festival this year, Grace and Leeza stole a quiet moment to talk while they watched Grace’s daughter Emma and Leeza’s little Sara dance around the town square.
“I can’t believe I actually live in LA,” Grace had mused. “Me, a die-hard Midwesterner. Now, Ken, that I can believe. He’s taken to it like a duck to water. In fact, he is a duck on the water. You should see his houseboat.” Grace had chattered on in the way lifelong girlfriends do, filling Leeza in on the latest annoyance with Brian, her ex-husband.
“I guess he’s moving into a huge loft in Chicago,” Grace had sighed. “Reclaiming his lost bachelorhood or something. LA is so far away, I worry about sending Emma to Chicago and Emma said he had a date over Labor Day.”
“Who says you couldn’t have a date, too?” Leeza said as she put a straw in a juice box for Sara.
Looking back, Grace realized she’d yammered on about her ideal man, Brian’s issues, and other insignificant blather until Leeza had abruptly interrupted her.
That’s when Leeza had told Grace about her recent doctor’s appointment and the lump he’d found in her left breast. “It’s probably nothing,” Leeza had assured her. “I’m sure it’s just a cyst. Lots of women get them.” Then she added, “The doctor is just being careful because Jonathan and I want to try for a little brother or sister for Sara.” Leeza flashed her famous grin at this confession, the look that said, Watch out world!
“I’m sure you’re right,” Grace agreed and added, “Still, I’m glad you are going in for the follow-up.”
Before Grace could ask Leeza any more questions, Ken appeared with beer for everyone, and they’d toasted the happy news. “A new baby! How great!” Ken said. “Dibs on godfather. Emma got Sara. The next munchkin is mine!” They toasted, and the conversation turned to possible baby names, all thought of Leeza’s follow-up appointment forgotten.
Grace had been absolutely certain nothing would be wrong, nothing could be wrong. It had been a perfect trip. She’d hugged Leeza good-bye at the airport, and she, Emma, and Ken flew back to LA.
A week later, Leeza called and said she had breast cancer, but it had been caught early and there was nothing to worry about. Just something to take care of before she resumed with the Baby Plan.
But it turned out it was something to worry about. Leeza actually had aggressive, stage three breast cancer.
Suddenly the friends were cast into an ocean of tests, radiation, surgery, chemo—and after all that, the cancer had still spread. Then more surgery, more treatments, and finally weeks of isolation during Leeza’s grueling bone marrow transplant over the winter. It was finally spring, and after months of hospital rooms, Leeza was at last home with her husband and little girl, where she could recover and spend time in her beautiful garden.
Whether it was people or plants, Leeza was a care-taker. She had a gift for making things bloom. Just the day before, Grace and Leeza had sat outside admiring the forsythia banking the side of Leeza’s house, a faint dusting of pale butter yellow starting to peek through.
Grace had tried to keep their conversation light to give Leeza a break. “Your garden is going to be stunning this year, Leeza. I still can’t believe Claire designed it. Claire Howard, the meanest girl in school. Who would guess? Oh my God, do you remember the time Ken put a laxative in Claire’s milkshake?”
Leeza laughed. Ken had been a devil in high school. “God, she deserved it, though.” She rolled her eyes and added, “She was the absolute worst!”
“The number-one popular girl,” said Grace. “I still think she’s the one who stole my sweater and put it on that scarecrow at the festival senior year.”
“How about the time she accidentally ‘lost’ your tennis racquet when she was in charge of the equipment at the regional championships?” Leeza added.
Grace and Leeza laughed, recalling what had seemed like the worst things in the world back in high school. “We were so clueless. It’s hard to believe she’s my sister-in-law!” said Leeza. “Will miracles never cease?”
They’d been quiet for a minute, and Grace had said a little silent prayer: I hope not. Please let the miracles continue and let Leeza get well. But she didn’t want to scare Leeza, so instead she just said, “Maybe it was Ken’s milkshake.”
“Yeah, Ken gets total credit for the turnaround,” giggled Leeza.
They talked for another hour about their girls, Grace’s work, and about Leeza’s husband, Jonathan. They were still talking when it was time for Sara to wake up from her nap. As she got up, Leeza turned to Grace. “How’s your mother? Will you see her this trip?”
Grace said nothing. Leeza knew Grace didn’t want to see her mother.
“She comes by the hospital, you know,” Leeza added. “All the time. Whenever I’m there.”
“You don’t have to see her, Leez.”
“I know. But she’s just trying to help.”
“That’s Lorraine—soup kitchens and hospitals are her specialty.” Unspoken were the words Daughters are not. Especially her own daughter. Grace hadn’t really had a relationship with her mother for sixteen years. She hadn’t stood between her mother and Emma, but her own estrangement put a distance there as well. When she went back to New London, Grace stayed with Leeza and Jonathan. They were her family now.
“Maybe it’s time, Gracie,” said Leeza, squeezing her hand. “Sometimes there’s less time than we know.”
“There’ll never be enough time,” said Grace firmly, hating that they were discussing Lorraine. “Now, about Sara’s birthday—” She tried to change the subject.
But Leeza cut her off. “Gracie.” Grace could hear their whole history together, the secret only they shared, the reason they were closer than any sisters, in the way Leeza said her name. “There is never going to be a right time, but it’s up to you now. You’re going to have to be the strong one.”
“I don’t see why . . .”
Leeza shook her head. “It’s not about you and me anymore, Gracie, it’s about Emma and Sara. As mothers we both have to do things that aren’t easy, but we owe it to our daughters.” She looked at Grace pointedly. “I can’t help but wonder if maybe Lorraine thinks the same thing.”
Leeza was right, but Grace could only shrug. Her relationship with Lorraine was complicated. Grace and Leeza had hugged, linked arms, and walked back to the house, each carrying her favorite mug.
At dinner that night, they had made plans for Grace to come back for the Fourth of July. “I’ll be well then, you’ll see,” Leeza said as she picked at her food.
“You need to come visit us and get some California sunshine,” said Grace. “We’ll stay on Ken’s boat and be California girls together.” She sang the line from the Beach Boys’ song: I wish they all could be California . . . Jonathan had joined in and they’d gotten Leeza to laugh.
“I’ll get a tattoo like Emma’s,” Leeza had teased, and Grace had winced. “Oh, no, don’t encourage her.” Jona-than winked, took Leeza’s hand with seriousness, then joked, “I don’t know, I think a Snoopy tattoo would be fun,” and they’d all laughed because Snoopy was the nickname Leeza had given Jonathan back in high school for following her around like a puppy.
Leeza was tired after dinner, so while Jonathan had finished the dishes Grace had helped her up to bed.
“Thank you for coming to visit and for staying this extra day, Grace,” Leeza said. “I know it’s hard for you to be away from Emma, but this time with you means the world to me. I wish you didn’t have to leave in the morn-ing.”
“I’ll be back soon. Fourth of July, and I’ll bring Emma. It’ll be here before you know it!” She’d settled the quilt around Leeza, and as she was dropping off to sleep Leeza squeezed Grace’s hand and whispered, “Be strong, Grace.”
It was Leeza who needed strength, Grace thought, but that was so Leeza, always thinking of others.
That morning Grace woke up grateful she’d spent the extra night, but dreading the drive to Green Bay, return-ing the rental car, then the commuter flight to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, where she’d connect with the flight to LA. Jonathan had gotten out of bed in the predawn darkness to turn on some lights and walk Grace to her car. He looked like a man who had been to hell and back.
“It’s going to be fine now,” Grace had assured Jonathan as she hugged him good-bye. “She’s home with you and Sara. That’s going to help her get better fast. Being home is the best medicine. You’ll see.”
Suddenly a space opened up in front of Grace, and a car veered into her lane, cutting her off. She slammed on the brakes and leaned on the horn.
Leeza and her family were not the only victims of Leeza’s illness. Ken had made several trips out to see Leeza too, and Emma had bounced back and forth be-tween Grace, Ken, and, on holidays, her father, Brian, in Chicago.
Grace reached for her cell phone to try Emma again. No answer. She checked her messages. Nothing.
At last, Grace saw the sign for the Culver cutoff and started inching the car over to the right lane. Driving in LA was a far cry from the streets of New London, Wisconsin. She still wasn’t used to it. Truth be told, Grace still felt like a visitor. She had one foot in LA, trying to make a new life, and the other back in her hometown, New London, for Leeza. She didn’t know if she was coming or going, and most days she didn’t think she was doing anything very well. If she was with Emma, she felt she should be with Leeza. If she was with Leeza, she felt she should be with Emma. If she was with either of them, she felt she was leaving Ken in the lurch at work. Her whole life looked like a bad patch of traffic. It will get better soon, Grace thought. She gritted her teeth, zig-zagged across three lanes, and merged onto the exit ramp.
Excerpted from “THE RECIPE BOX” by Sandra Lee. Copyright © 2013 Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade®. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold. All Rights Reserved.