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Years ago, I went to a seminar on stress reduction at the Y. Most of what the instructor told us struck me as either obvious (make lists of what you have to do and check off what you’ve accomplished) or embarrassing (a series of breathing exercises that made me think of Lamaze class), but there was one thing he said that made the whole class worthwhile, a trick I still use when I find myself getting overwhelmed: He told us we should visualize a place where we felt completely safe and peaceful. He said it didn’t make any difference if it was someplace we knew well or someplace we’d only dreamed about, but that we should think about it in great detail, notice everything around us, memorize all the sights and the sounds. Then he instructed us to go to this place in our minds. I glanced quickly around the room. Everyone had closed their eyes and gone to their childhood bedroom or a beach in Jamaica or wherever life was simpler. I had no idea where I was supposed to go. I felt embarrassed sitting in my folding chair, as if the people around me would know that I was still in the conference hall while they were all walking down a white sand beach with the sun glinting off their hair. I ran over a quick mental list: the house on Lake Placid we rented one summer; my own back porch; Paris, where I’ve never been but would like to someday go. None of them seemed right, they all seemed to be asking too little or too much. But when I finally closed my eyes and tried, what I wanted came to me with complete clarity. The place that I went, the place that I still go, was the warm, hollowed-out center of a Bundt cake. It is usually gingerbread, though sometimes that changes. Sometimes it’s gingerbread crowned in a ring of poached pears. The walls that surround me are high and soft, but as they go up they curve back, open up to the light, so I feel protected by the cake but never trapped by it. There are a few loose crumbs around my feet, clinging to my hair, and the smell! The ginger and butter, the lingering subtlety of vanilla . . . I press my cheek against the cake, which is soft as eiderdown and still warm. This isn’t a fantasy about food exactly, at least not insofar as I want to eat my way through a cake that’s taller than I am. It’s about being inside of cake, being part of something that I find to be profoundly comforting. The instructor told us to take another deep breath, and all around me I heard the smooth shush of air going in, waiting, coming out. I thought I might never open my eyes.
Cakes have gotten a bad rap. People equate virtue with turning down dessert. There is always one person at the table who holds up her hand when I serve the cake. No, really, I couldn’t, she says, and then gives her flat stomach a conspiratorial little pat. Everyone who is pressing a fork into that first tender layer looks at the person who declined the plate, and they all think, That person is better than I am. That person has discipline. But that isn’t a person with discipline, that is a person who has completely lost touch with joy. A slice of cake never made anybody fat. You don’t eat the whole cake. You don’t eat a cake every day of your life. You take the cake when it is offered because the cake is delicious. You have a slice of cake and what it reminds you of is someplace that’s safe, uncomplicated, without stress. A cake is a party, a birthday, a wedding. A cake is what’s served on the happiest days of your life.
This is a story of how my life was saved by cake, so, of course, if sides are to be taken, I will always take the side of cake.
It’s a laugh to think that I was feeling stressed when I signed up for that workshop. What was I feeling stressed about eight years ago? My son, Wyatt, was twelve then, still a full year away from the gawky roller-coaster ride of his teenage years. He asked for help on his homework and introduced me to his friends when they came over to go sledding. Camille was a little girl who still crawled into my lap some nights after dinner and let me brush her hair. I called her Kitten. Camille is sixteen now and about as much a kitten as a lioness eating a half-living zebra on a scorching African veldt. Eight years ago, my mother still lived by herself in Michigan and only came to visit twice a year and sometimes not even that. My husband, Sam, was the hardest-working hospital administrator anyone could have imagined, if one was given to imagining such things. I remember it now and hang my head in disbelief. I want to go back to that person I was, take her by the shoulders and shake her. “Look again!” I want to say to myself. “You are standing in the middle of paradise.”
I arrived home in the rain, my arms filled with groceries. I tried to bring them all in at once, which wasn’t exactly possible, but the rain was beating down with such a biblical fury that I thought it would be smarter to make one incredibly challenging trip than three manageable trips. The paper bags, a foolish choice, were melting between my fingers. My keys were so far down in the bottom of my purse (looped over the left wrist) that they might as well have been in Liberia for all the chance I had of getting to them. Not that I was even sure the door was locked. It might have been unlocked. I couldn’t turn the doorknob unless I did it with my teeth. It was very clear that I had shown some poor judgment. I kicked at the door.
Through the window I could see my daughter sitting at the kitchen table reading a magazine. At the second kick she raised her eyes heavily, as if she were in fact not reading at all but had been hypnotized by the magazine. There was a hard wall of rain between us and yet I could still make out the supreme disinterest in her gaze. It was a look I knew intimately. I kicked again. She tilted her head, not entirely sure why I was interrupting her: Clearly, there was the door, I was capable of opening a door; I had keys if the door was, in fact, locked; I could see her weighing all this out in her mind. I felt a critical shift in the balance of the groceries and kicked again, just to speed things along. She sighed, a sound so reverberant with weariness that it made its way across the room and past the door and through the rain to reach me. She lifted her slender frame, a willow, a willow leaf, shuffled to the door, and opened it. When that task had been completed she returned wordlessly to the table and resumed her reading. I pulled myself inside and gasped at the air. One bag, the fifth bag, sensing we had reached the threshold of safety, decided it could no longer bear the burden of its responsibility and split apart, sending tangerines and three packages of frozen spinach and a roll of paper towels and (the kicker) a large plastic bottle of cran-apple juice bouncing over the floor. Not the eggs, not the paper carton of milk, I did not lose sight of the ways in which I was fortunate. I sank to my knees and put the other bags down before they could follow suit. I was profoundly wet. I could not imagine that dolphins ever got this wet.
“I couldn’t get to my keys,” I said.
“It wasn’t locked,” Camille said, but she didn’t look up.
I got up off the floor and started to pick up what needed to be picked up. There was a great lake forming beneath me.
“Ruth?” My mother came into the kitchen holding a stack of papers in one hand. My mother was always holding papers. They seemed to be a natural extension of her hand. I imagined her sleeping with fistfuls of paper clutched to her chest. “I need you to look at these for me. I’ve been over them a million times and they just don’t make any sense. Does it look like Blue Cross paid the doctor or does it look like I have to pay him? I don’t want Dr. Nickerson to think I didn’t pay him.”
She was wearing a pink warm-up suit that appeared to have been ironed. She was looking at me, but I wasn’t sure that she saw me at all. If she had seen me she surely would have commented on the fact that I looked like I had just been dragged from the lake, that I was raising myself up from a fiery ring of tangerines.
“I’ll go over them, Mother, but I just got in from the grocery store. I need to put these things away first.” I pushed back a wet clump of hair that stuck to the side of my face like seaweed.
“Did you get the dried apricots?”
“Were they on the list?”
She closed her eyes for a minute. “I can’t remember. I can’t remember anything.” She turned to her granddaughter. “Camille, it’s a terrible thing to be old. I hope you never get to be my age. Or maybe by the time you get to be my age they will have invented a cure for forgetting things.”
Camille made some small humming sound that acknowledged that she had heard her own name spoken but she did not stop reading.
“I’ll put apricots on the list for next time,” I said.
“And these papers. Will you look at these? If I owe Dr. Nickerson money I think I should pay him.”
I scooped up the sodden remains of paper sack and threw them in the garbage. I put myself inside the cake and tried to breathe slowly. I made it a simple lemon cake, no glaze. I was an only child and my parents had been divorced since I was two. My mother had done everything on her own. She had taken good care of me, played rounds of Go Fish, cooked nutritious meals, sewed me clothes that never looked homemade, taught me to play the piano in a passable manner. This was payback time. “The mail has already gone out today. Just let me get the milk in the refrigerator.”
“Camille,” my mother said. “Come over here and help your mother. We’ll get this done in a minute.”
Camille closed her eyes and pushed her fingers against the slender bridge of her nose. I could tell she was trying not to scream, and even though I didn’t expect her to have much success, I appreciated her minimal efforts at restraint. “When I came into the kitchen to read, there was nobody in here. If I were smart I would just stay in my bedroom until it was time to go to college.” She slapped her magazine shut, knocked one narrow hip against the table, and was out of the room.
My mother and I watched her, both of us frozen for a moment. It wasn’t as if we hadn’t seen it before, but it never ceased to be a surprise.
“You never spoke to me like that,” my mother said quietly.
“No, I don’t expect I did.”
“I think I would have had a heart attack,” she said. But then she thought about it some more. “Or I would have killed you. One or the other.”
“I think that’s right.” Sometimes I wanted to run after Camille and grab her. Where is Kitten! I wanted to know. What have you done with my daughter?
“You and Sam need to do something about this. That girl has too many privileges. She talks on the phone all the time, goes out with her friends. She has a car!”
I wondered if my mother thought I hadn’t noticed that one.
“How can you allow a child to behave that way and let her have a car?”
“I don’t know,” I said honestly, because even though I wasn’t interested in hearing her point of view at the moment, it was not entirely without validity.
My mother shook her head. “So the groceries can wait for two minutes. Come sit down and look at these forms.”
And so I sat down, my raincoat still pooling water in its cuffs, my groceries on the floor. I fished my reading glasses out of the bottom of my purse. “You know, Sam is so much better with these things than I am.” I took the papers from her hands.
“Sam’s so busy,” she said. “He runs a hospital all day. He shouldn’t be bothered with medical papers as soon as he walks in the door.”
But she would ask him. She always did. I would fill out the forms and then she would ask Sam to correct my work.
“Ruth! You’re getting those wet!” She leaned over and blotted the papers with a paper napkin. “Can’t you at least dry your hands first?”
On my mother’s behalf, I will say that the insurance forms were viciously confusing, and that after sitting there watching me read for a few minutes she did get up and start to put the groceries away, though she held up every other item and asked me where it went.
“I thought so,” she’d say, and then put the can of soup with the other cans of soup.
My mother moved in with us a little more than a year ago after her house in East Lansing had been robbed in the middle of the day while she was playing bridge with friends. Whoever did it knocked down the front door. They didn’t pick the lock or jimmy open a window, they just kicked the door in, smashed it to bits, and stepped inside. After that she didn’t want to go home. She had a new door installed and waited to calm down. She went back to the hostess of the bridge party and stayed with her for a week, thinking the feeling of uneasiness would pass. When it didn’t, she packed up what the burglars had deemed unfit to take, including her enormous collection of fabric remnants, and moved to Minneapolis to live with us.
My mother had been a high school music teacher who went back to school to get her certification in history and geography when the state’s budget for music programs was cut back. She was practical because she had to be; that was the hand life had dealt her and she didn’t complain. A roast chicken showed up as chicken hash the next night and then chicken soup for the weekend. My father, whom she had met at a convention of Michigan high school music teachers during the two weeks he actually was a high school music teacher, played piano at clubs, bars, and wedding receptions, his engagements sending him out later and later, and then farther and farther away, until it seemed like too much trouble to make the trip home. This was the early nineteen fifties, when being a divorced woman with a child was still a cause for sideways glances from other women in the grocery store, but my mother kept her head up and trudged forward. I try to imagine sometimes how hard her life must have been. I know that our life together was hard enough, but children are remarkably adaptable creatures, and if there is little there they settle for little. But my mother was a young woman, working all day, giving private piano lessons in our house on the weekends and after school. Sometimes my father would blow into town, seeming relaxed and handsome and nearly famous, but he always blew out again, and while he may have left behind a box of macadamia brittle or a child’s coat that was already too small, he never left actual cash for the gas bill.
When my mother finally retired, it looked like things were going to be fine for a long time. She still gave private piano lessons and collected a manageable pension from the school system. She had her friends, her bridge group, her music appreciation club. She even went on a package tour of Europe that Sam and I had given her for her birthday. I always saw her as one of those women who would have to be dragged out of her home by six policemen when she was ninety-eight. But then, what in life actually works out the way you think it’s going to?
I wish I could find the person, the people, who kicked in her door. I never have gotten over my need to tell them that they took too much. The television, the stereo, largely worthless jewelry, six pieces of family silver which included her mother’s butter dish that had come over with the family on the boat from Denmark, they could have all of it, but they shouldn’t have kicked in the door. That was the thing that changed my mother for good. Divorce and hard work and single motherhood—she was up for all of those challenges. But to be seventy-three years old and know that someone can just kick in your door, that they don’t even have to have enough finesse to force the lock, really destroyed her sense of how the world was ordered. It scared her, my mother, who had always been such a brave person. Even after it was long over it left her unsure of things. Now she was living in what was once my guest room and lacked the certainty to fill out consumer questionnaires without my going over them with her.
“Oh, Ruth,” my mother said, looking over my shoulder while I tried to wrestle Blue Cross Blue Shield to the ground. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“I think that’s got it.” Not that it mattered. Sam would check it. I pushed back from the table. The kitchen floor had only the lightest sheen of water left on it. My hair was half dry. “I should get to work on dinner.”
My mother looked at her watch and I saw a familiar cloud of hesitancy and desire pass over her face.
“Oprah’s on,” I said. My mother was a fool for Oprah. “Go.”
“I can help you.”
I shook my head. “Dinner’s a piece of cake. I’ll be fine.”
My mother headed off to the den and I was glad. I would take a moment by myself over practical assistance any day. There was a time when Camille used to pop out of her room at five-thirty, eager to mince onions and stir sauce. Then again, there was a time that a wall divided the east and west of Germany. Life was not a static experience. We shouldn’t expect things to remain the same.
I held four chicken breasts in my cupped hands. I stared into the cold, translucent flesh, wondering how I could make them sing. I got tired of cooking dinner. Everybody gets tired of cooking dinner. There’s too much responsibility. Did we eat this last week? Is this good for you? Is it balanced, is it green, will he like it, will she eat it, do I have the right ingredients, enough time, will this new recipe fail me? Camille wouldn’t eat red meat anymore and had recently informed me as I set a plate of chops on the table that pork, so widely advertised as “the other white meat,” was in fact as red as a flank steak. “Pigs are more intelligent than dogs,” she said. “Why don’t we just eat Benjy for dinner?” Lately she had been talking about giving up chicken and fish, maybe even becoming a vegan, which would reduce me to coming up with fascinating ways to cook broccoli every night without benefit of cheese sauce. My mother clipped chilled-salad recipes from women’s magazines and taped them onto the refrigerator to voice her own preferences. Sam was deeply suspect of anything that he hadn’t eaten before and had been known to pick dishes apart until he could clearly identify each of their elements. Wyatt, my vacuum, the only truly brilliant eater in the family, was a junior in college and enjoying the deep, hot wells of cafeteria food that could be ladled onto a tray. As for me, I couldn’t have cared less. I think I would have been happy with a carton of lemon yogurt every night if it meant I didn’t have to cook. Dinner, I think, would be fascinating if I only had to do it once a week. Dinner could be riveting if there was a way to make it cake.
I washed the chicken breasts and stripped out their tendons with pliers. As I was beating them flat between sheets of wax paper I started thinking about making a carrot cake. I had plenty of carrots. I had been planning on making glazed carrots for dinner but there was no reason why I couldn’t shred them instead. My family tended to grumble when there was too much cake in the house. As a rule, they liked to see cakes go right out the door, to school bake sales, to sick friends, for someone’s birthday. When Camille’s friends came over they told her she was lucky. “My mom wouldn’t know how to bake a cake if you threw a box of Duncan Hines at her,” her friend Becca said as she lobbed off a hunk of chocolate chiffon, but Camille only snarled. Still, if I made the carrot cake without frosting, if I put a minimal amount of sugar in it and baked it on a sheet pan so that I could slice it into squares, I could practically pass it off as cornbread. It hadn’t been a great day, and no one ever objected to cornbread. I left the chicken for a minute and got out the flour. There were raisins and walnuts. I held two cold eggs in one hand and felt the knot between my shoulders start to unravel the tiniest bit around the edges.
An hour later Oprah had said her piece and my mother came into the kitchen and sniffed the air. “That’s a cake.” She pushed the oven light on and peered inside.
“Carrot bread.” I pulled the pot holders out of their drawer.
“There is no such thing. Really, I’m going to be the size of a house if you keep baking this much.”
“I’ve always baked this much and you’ve never been heavy a day in your life.”
“That isn’t true,” my mother said, pouring herself a vodka and orange juice. “I looked like a snowman when I was pregnant with you.”
“That was a long time ago. Nobody remembers it.”
“I remember it,” she said darkly.
I picked up the phone in the kitchen and called Camille’s room. She had her own line with call waiting. No matter how remote Camille could be in person, she always answered the phone, which is why I strictly forbid her to have caller ID.
“Dinner,” I said.
“Is Daddy home?” She wanted to know so that she wouldn’t get stuck waiting in the kitchen. That was my other rule after no caller ID: We all ate dinner together.
I was about to answer truthfully when I heard the back door open. “Yes,” I said, and she hung up.
The rain had not abated. Sam came in with sleek tributaries pouring off his suit jacket. He looked nearly drowned. He leaned toward me and I thought he was going to whisper something in my ear, but instead he pulled me to him and held me tightly in the great, wet walls of his arms. I hadn’t been dry so long myself but I felt oddly dazzled by the spontaneity of his gesture. The water off his coat soaked through my blouse, and once he had kissed me and pulled away, I looked like someone had dumped a bucket of water on my chest.
“I’m sorry,” Sam said. “I’ve ruined you.”
“I dry very quickly.”
“Hollis!” Sam said to my mother. “You have a drink. Be a pal and fix me one of those.” It was my father who had started the tradition of calling my mother Hollis, her last name, rather than Marie, her first name. She said it was the only thing from their relationship that had stuck, other than me.
“It isn’t orange juice,” she said with some embarrassment.
“I didn’t think it was orange juice. Did you think I thought you were drinking orange juice every night?”
“I did,” my mother said. She looked a little confused and I wanted to tell Sam not to tease her.
He shook his head. “I know what you’re drinking and I want to join you.”
“On a Tuesday?” she said.
“This Tuesday.” My soaking-wet, handsome husband seemed to be a bundle of life this evening. “Ruth, are you having a drink?”
“I wasn’t planning on it.”
“But you would,” he said. “Things happen you don’t plan on.” Sam’s blue eyes looked all the brighter for the rainwater still clinging to his lashes.
“Are you all right?”
“Never better,” he said, but his voice didn’t convince me. “Hollis, we want two of whatever you’re having.”
So my mother returned to the cabinet where the vodka was kept and assumed the role of bartender. She went back to the dishwasher to retrieve the shot glass. My mother believed that mixing a drink without a shot glass was tantamount to putting the bottle to your lips and tipping your head back.
Camille shuffled into the kitchen and for a second I thought I saw Sam’s great good mood crumple a little at the edges. He seemed so moved to see her there that if it weren’t for all the rain he was wearing, I would have thought he was tearing up. I held out a dish towel but he ignored it. He went to Camille and folded her in his arms.
“Daddy!” she cried, and wrenched away from him with some effort. “Are you insane? Look what you’ve done to me.” Camille was wearing a T-shirt and some sweatpants and as far as I could see he hadn’t done any real harm.
“Your father is in a hugging mood.”
“He hasn’t hugged me,” my mother said to herself as her steady hand took the vodka right to the rim of the jigger.
Sam made an easy turn in his puddle of water but my mother took a giant step away.
“I’m soaked.” Camille put a hand on either side of her head. It was as if she had been sent to live in a house of friendly chimpanzees and she was constantly astonished by the indignity of it all. Then she turned around and was gone again.
“Well, now you’ve done it,” my mother said, handing Sam his drink. “You frightened her off. You know it’s going to take at least a half an hour to get her to come out of her bedroom now. We could starve before she changes clothes.”
“What are we doing here,” Sam said, “taming the little fox?”
“I only try to hug her when she has a fever,” I said. I was joking, of course. I was sort of joking.
Sam looked at the door through which our daughter had disappeared. “I think we should be more affectionate. That’s one of the things we need to work on.”
“Work on it yourselves,” my mother said. She gave me my drink. She’d thrown in a splash of cranberry juice to make it pretty. I have to say it wasn’t bad.
Sam hung up his coat on the back porch, where it could drip without consequence, and I put the chicken on the table. Camille came back in record time wearing a blue cotton sweater and a pair of low-slung jeans. She pointed at her father. “Don’t.”
He raised his hands to show that his intentions were honest.
“Doesn’t this look good?” my mother said to the plate of chicken, which is what she said every night regardless of the meal.
“Chickens are shot full of antibiotics,” Camille said. “And it’s not just that. Girls are starting their periods at, like, seven now because the chickens have so many hormones in them.”
“Everything is a health hazard if you want to look at it that way.” Sam speared a piece of meat and put it on Camille’s plate, where she looked at it as if it were a squirrel hit in a mad dash across the road. “Walking across the street is dangerous. Driving a car, very dangerous. Think about what’s in the water, or in the air for that matter. For all we know we’re sitting on top of the biggest source of radon in Minnesota.
Did you ever think about that?”
“You’re so morbid,” Camille said morbidly.
Sam shook his head. “Not at all. I’m just sticking up for the chicken. My point is, you never really know what’s good for you or what’s bad for you. Have you done the right thing or the wrong thing? You never know what’s going to get you until it’s too late.”
I put down my fork. My mother and daughter put down their forks as well. We all stared at Sam. “What in the world happened to you today?”
Sam sliced, chewed, reflected. “Nothing much.”
“May I be excused?” Camille said to no one in particular.
“You haven’t eaten,” my mother said.
“I ate something,” Camille said, though she must have meant she ate something for lunch because clearly she hadn’t eaten her dinner.
“Stay put,” Sam said.
“At least have a piece of cake,” I said.
“Cake!” Camille cried. “You know I can’t have cake. Why do you keep making cakes? This isn’t a bakery.”
“This isn’t a bakery,” Sam repeated quietly, as if it was news to him.
“She can’t have cake if she hasn’t eaten her dinner,” my mother said.
But I was already on my feet, already heading over to the pan on the kitchen counter. The debate was still raging but I had a knife in my hand. It was carrot cake, after all, which is practically a serving of vegetables.
“I’m going to be the size of a house,” Camille said.
“You are currently the size of a coat hanger. A house is a long way away.” Sam reached forward and pulled her plate toward the middle of the table and I smoothly set the cake down in its place. Usually he would complain about the cake too, but tonight he backed me up. Camille was grumbling, but up came the fork and she took a delicate bite.
“Cake when she hasn’t had any dinner at all,” my mother said. It was wrong. It was the moral equivalent to pouring vodka without a shot glass.
Camille’s eyes fluttered and then closed. The cake was warm and her fork went down again. “Oh,” she said quietly.
There was a time I cared: a meat, a vegetable, a starch, some cake. Life had an order, but now the point only seemed to be eating. Here was my daughter, eating, devouring, she was almost through with the cake.
“Did you make this with honey?” Camille said. There was something in her voice I nearly recognized. It sounded like interest, kindness.
“Because sometimes—” She couldn’t finish her sentence without stopping for another bite. “You use brown sugar?”
“It’s another recipe.”
“I like the honey.”
“The problems they’re having with bees these days,” Sam began, but I held up my hand and it silenced him. There was too much pleasure in the moment to hear about the plight of the bees.
My mother took a long, last sip of her drink and then went to the counter to get the cake, the knife, and three more plates. “First the two of you are having a drink on a Tuesday, now we’re all eating cake before we finish our dinner.” She cut four pieces and gave the first one to Camille, whose plate was empty.
“It’s madness. Anarchy. It must make you wonder what’s coming next,” Sam said.
My mother handed me my plate. I don’t eat that much cake, but I never turn down a slice.
The four of us ate, pretending it was a salad course. Camille was right to pick up on the honey. It was the undertone, the melody of the cake. It was not cloying or overly sweet but it lingered on the tongue after the bite had been swallowed. I didn’t miss the frosting at all, though it would have been cream cheese. I could beat cream cheese longer than most people would have thought possible. I could beat it until it could pass for meringue.
When we were finished with our cake we were all as happy as babies.