Was it about red cake?
No, not really. Nor was it about gift exchanges or the home-cooked meal prepared by my mother’s surviving sister — as good as both were — or about being in my sister’s lovely home, dressed so fine for the holidays — as good as that was.
In truth, it’s hard to say what yesterday was about. Except that it had something to do with Mother. And something to do with Aunt Jo, too. And a whole heck of a lot to do with this deep down desire of mine — and maybe others too — of keeping their memories alive.
It was in this vein that we assembled; Mother’s sister, both daughters and ex-daughter-in-law and our chicks and their chicks and even one of Aunt’s Jo’s grand-chicks. We convened to bake Mother’s red cake and along the way, we conversed. Then we dined. And drew numbers – not from a hat but a pretty piece of green depression glass — which allowed lucky number twelve to walk away with a bottle of White Shoulders cologne — the only scent I’d ever known Aunt Jo to wear. And because I got Sis to climb up rickety stairs into a cold attic to dislodge a dozen or so dusty paperbacks, we each picked out a vintage Harlequin Romance — to keep or do with as we will — as a visible reminder of Mom’s life.
But keeping a memory alive is a tricky business. It doesn’t just happen — nor does it happen, I think, by keeping up certain traditions or by following a recipe to the letter. At least, this is what I woke up to this morning. Because yesterday, though our red cake was a little crusty around the edges, and therefore, less than perfect — though we fell short in recreating Mom’s legend of a red cake — we walked away with something better; we walked away with not just a piece of dry cake, but a piece of Mom’s reality — something a little crusty around the edges — something a little like Mom would have baked herself — something even close to the person Mom was in real life.
Mom never baked a perfect red cake — as far as I know. If not dry, wasn’t it lop-sided? And didn’t most come out of the pan only partially — the rest following suit only after a hearty bang? And weren’t they cracked down the middle. Or had a side lopped off? Or sometimes both — in a particular dismal year of holiday baking?
Mom was not used to working with or toward perfection. But give her something broken — something dinged up — something that needed a fresh coat of paint and a little bit of love — well that, she could work with. And goodness knows, baking a red cake was no different — whatever fell apart was simply put back together as best she could, with toothpicks and some of that gooey frosting she made — the frosting that set her red cake apart from all others. I don’t ever remember Mom fussing over her visibly flawed red cake creations. She simply did that day’s best. Then released them — usually, with some off-hand benediction — something like, “Well, that’s all I can do to make it right.”
I miss Mom’s imperfection and her acceptance of imperfections — both in people and in life’s situations. I miss her ability to walk away from a less than perfect cake (or life) without a backward glance or desire for do-overs; I miss her uncanny knack of knowing how best to put the pieces of life back together when things get sticky but unglued — so that all involved could move on after taking deep breaths. Not because everyone and thing was ‘all better’, of course — but because everyone was still together — in spite of it all.
Yes, yesterday’s red cake was more about the crusty reality of Mom than whatever our affection and memories of her in the intervening years have made of her. And like any litmus, it revealed a substance of reality.