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From the New York Times bestselling author of Step-Ball-Change and Julie and Romeo-now in trade paperback for the first time...
Ruth has always found baking cakes to be a source of relief from the stresses of life. And now-as her husband loses his job, her life-of-the-party father arrives for an extended stay (much to the dismay of her mother, who also moved in recently), and her teenage daughter perfects the art of sulking-Ruth is going to have to save the day. And let the crumbs fall where they may...
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Jeanne Rayworks as a registered nurse at the Frist Clinic in Nashville, Tennessee. She is married and has two daughters. Together, she and her husband have ten grandchildren. She is the author of Julie and Romeo, Step-Ball-Change, and Eat Cake.
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. B...
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