Mesa Musings: No one made cinnamon swirls like Mrs. Gilliland

Late afternoons, my mom was usually in our kitchen preparing dinner. The year was 1953, and we'd been in our new Costa Mesa home for a number of months. I was 8, and my mother not yet 30.

Our next door neighbor on Fairway Drive was the kindly Mrs. Gilliland. Mrs. Gilliland, who was probably in her 60s, lived alone. Her husband had passed away several years earlier. She had a daughter who occasionally visited.

An afternoon or two a week, when my mom was in the kitchen, Mrs. Gilliland would come to our back porch, which had steps leading up to our kitchen door. Most of the homes in our neighborhood were still without back fences.

Mrs. Gilliland would never climb the steps or knock at the door, but would stand at the base of the porch and call out to my mom in a high-pitched falsetto: "Yoo-hoo! Betty."

My brother, sister and I became quite familiar with the drill.

"It's old Mrs. Gilliland again," I'd mutter under my breath.

Yet, the mere sound of her voice filled us with expectation. She always stood by our back porch with a plate in her hands.

She'd spend a number of hours each week baking in her kitchen. Her specialty was pie. She produced every kind of dessert tart you can imagine. There were berry pies, cream pies, custard pies, chocolate pies and summer cobblers. On the plate was a generous wedge of her latest creation.

My mom would open the door and step out onto the porch.

"Betty, I've made a cherry pie and I want you and the family to have some for dessert," she'd say, extending the plate for my mother's acceptance.

"Why thank you, Mrs. Gilliland, how kind of you," my mother would reply. "Bill and the kids will be delighted."

And delighted we were!

Though her pies were to die for, she produced an additional delicacy that I prized above all others: baked cinnamon swirls, made from leftover pie crust dough. Mmm!

My brother and I would devour the swirls the moment my mother closed the door and set the plate on the kitchen counter.

Sweet Mrs. Gilliland was our next door neighbor for three years or so, and we loved her. Because she was so good to us, we diligently endeavored not to trample her gladiolus when our baseball inadvertently caromed into her yard.

But the day came when Mrs. Gilliland stopped calling at our back door. We heard she was ill, and we missed her distinctive, "Yoo-hoo!"

She went to a hospital for an operation and never returned.

We saw her daughter at the house over the coming weeks, and soon a "For Sale" sign was posted in the front yard.

My brother and I didn't give it much further thought, and we stopped paying heed to her gladiolus.

I soon started junior high, and then went on to high school and, frankly, remembrances of Mrs. Gilliland fell from my radar screen.

Until the other night.

I awoke from a deep slumber at 3 a.m. (nothing good awakens one at 3 a.m.!) and, from out of nowhere, she was on my mind — dear Mrs. Gilliland! I'm not sure why. Perhaps I heard "Yoo-hoo!" in some altered REM state.

I sat up in bed and thought about her for a moment and felt a tinge of sadness and guilt. I pondered cinnamon swirls … and kindnesses.

The Earth has spun many thousands of times since she last came to our back porch. I miss her.

My mother sold the Fairway Drive house five years ago, after my father died. They'd lived there more than 50 years, and were the last original owners on the block. During that time, many different families lived in the little house next door.

But Mrs. Gilliland had been the first.

Sadly after her passing, no fresh pie crossed our back porch again.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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