view from the back porch

Decided to share a little thing I wrote about my grandma, more than ten years ago, not long after she passed away. Forgot I even had it. This one’s for you, Dee-dle-dee! Just like your daughter, you were pretty amazing. :)

Growing up in Indiana where cornfields and gravel roads are far more common than buildings three-stories high, I cultivated an early appreciation of simple things: old houses, spacious backyards, playing on dirt hills, ritual Sunday dinners with the family, eating sweet corn and tomatoes with EVERY meal in the summer, and long drives in the car through the countryside that hopefully ended in ice cream somewhere. My childhood is full of memories like these, and most would not be possible without one person in particular: my grandmother, Mary Margaret Redenbarger.

She was a happy soul and just about the sweetest thing in this world or any other. Like her lyrical name suggests, my grandmother loved to hum the old tunes of Guy Lombardo, Billie Holiday, and Rosemary Clooney. She was well read; she hugged me generously; and an unfinished jigsaw puzzle always awaited me on her kitchen table.

We had the most special of relationships. I was the apple of her eye and she was like a heaven-sent angel to me; our time spent together was always splendid. And how I loved visiting her! Her house was just a short bike ride from my own, close enough that my mother entrusted me and my sister to travel the brief journey by ourselves. This delicious freedom granted to us by our mother, combined with the seemingly endless stretch of summer days, made us want to visit often and stay long.

Grandmother’s house quickly became my second home. Although I loved every part of it, perhaps nothing in that house was lovelier to me than the back porch. It was nothing elaborate or fussy or extremely decorative, but it provided an extraordinary view of the world. Its ambiance permeated every corner, crack, and crevice. No matter what time of year, a welcoming atmosphere greeted anyone who passed through its door. On a more poignant level, its inherent plainness taught me many truths about life.

As imperfect as it may have looked, the porch was perfectly square. Two of its walls were screened-in; the other two were brick and contiguous with the house. The floor was smooth, cool, gray concrete – the kind her dog Heidi loved to nap on, as dogs are wont to do during the oppressive days of summer. The studs between the screens were given a fresh coat of bright white paint every few years; but I actually preferred the peeling, weathered look the porch obtained after several thunderstorm beatings so common to the Midwest. It was the most inviting place on earth. Dare I say it was magical??

Because of its location leading into the kitchen, the back porch naturally became the “front door” of her house. For as long as I could remember, friends and family entered that way; no one ever came to the proper front door. It had a glorious view of the neighborhood. Its open screened walls faced, at once, the backyard, sideyard, and street. Looking up the street to the corner, I could see who was headed this way for a visit. Come twilight, the dense canopy of maple trees would be filled with the flashes of fireflies. I could smell the sweet perfume of the magnificent lilac bush not twenty feet from the corner of the porch. Robins sang, cardinals chirped, squirrels chattered; I would be mesmerized.

After my grandfather passed away and I was in my twenties, I moved in with my grandmother and the porch was mine to visit, whenever I wanted, every day. I could now spend time gleefully pondering all the possibilities of a long summer day or perfecting the fine art of simply doing nothing. When I stepped through its threshold, the porch would work its subtle magic. It became a place to reflect on my own path in life. And it taught me to appreciate the natural pace of things, while observing even the smallest detail in my surroundings.

My grandmother and I would spend entire afternoons reading books and flipping through magazines on the porch, silently enjoying each others’ company. Or we would talk about lost boyfriends, all my crazy hopes and dreams, angry fights with my parents, and my very serious (yet probably imagined) bouts of being completely misunderstood by EVERYONE. She would listen sympathetically, with nary a harsh word or judgment, as grandmothers are so wise to do. We would often doze off, in a state of unspoken camaraderie, carried away by the rhythmic sound of cicadas. And when the heat and humidity became almost unbearable, she would ask, “How about a glass of lemonade? Lemonade, made in the shade.” My worries were forgotten; my cares seemed to drift away. Of all places, grandmother’s porch provided me escape and peace.

We would watch the seasons change. In the summertime, the voice of some enthusiastic parent announcing the players at the Little League diamond would drift across the fields. As warm August nights gave way to cool autumn evenings, I would keep score of the high school football game myself, listening to the cheers from the crowd and the music from the band. In the winter, the snow would push its way through the tiny metal squares in the screen and swirl itself into small drifts on the cold floor. Then spring would come and with it, thunder rolling across blue-gray skies. The falling rain would make a pleasant hollow trickling sound as it rushed down the metal drainpipe and splashed over the gutter edge. How I loved when it would rain!

Over the years, the porch became a symbol for our family’s gatherings too. It was here that my Aunt Lynn orchestrated masterful Easter egg hunts. It was here that we spent Memorial Day weekends dining al fresco on grilled hamburgers and hot dogs. We celebrated birthdays, graduations, holidays, new jobs; and it was here that we gathered with friends and relatives to celebrate my grandparents golden 50th wedding anniversary.

And as life goes on in its continuous and sometimes unforgiving cycle, it was there on the same porch that I learned of my beloved grandmother’s passing from this world. It only seemed fitting. When I recall that day, I am lost on the details… but her spirit was thick in that place, as if at any moment, we might hear her yelling at us from the kitchen to come inside for some lemonade.

Of course, that was several years ago. I have since moved on and her house belongs to a new family. When I think of that porch now, I often wonder if it was blessed. It was where I genuinely came to know my grandmother, connecting with her not only as a relative, but also as a true friend. Perhaps that’s what they mean when they speak of sacred places – places we hold near and dear to our hearts for reasons we cannot explain.

I firmly believe there are lessons to be learned in everything we do, in every place we inhabit, in all that we are. Grandmother’s back porch was more than just a room; it was a place symbolic of our special relationship – weathered and timeless, sweet and serene. It was here, in this sacred place, that I learned these lessons: to nurture strength of spirit, to leave my day’s worries and cares on the doorstep, to know the warm comfort of safety, to be accepted no matter what, to be loved unconditionally.

I miss that porch terribly now. But maybe I’m really missing the innocence of youth and angelic grandmothers and days when the biggest worry in the world was whether the tires on my bike were flat. I may be here at the desk in my office now, but in my mind, I’m sitting on that porch wiling away the hours with my grandmother. There, it’s always spring and summer, and I’m a child again. If I close my eyes, I can smell the lilac blooms. I can feel the gentle mist of rain on my cheeks and nose and forehead, as I press my face to the screen. I can taste the sweet lemonade. If I listen carefully, I can even hear my grandmother singing in the kitchen.


chocolate cake

The day my mom died, I baked a cake. I got the call while I was teaching class. My sister said 24 hours, if we were lucky. Come home now. I left immediately.

I was strangely calm driving home – so calm, I felt the need to stop at the grocery store. I wanted ingredients to make Mom’s chocolate cake. I thought, well, people will be coming over… it might be nice to have something to feed them. Something home-made. Something comforting. As in, Oh dear, you’re upset? Here, have a piece of cake.

Mom passed away around noon, not long after I arrived home. I made my cake later that evening, ironically, after most people had left. It didn’t occur to me at the time that the act of baking was my own catharsis. Only since my mom’s death have I realized it’s always been.

When things get rough or complicated, I bake. Cupcakes, pies, cobblers, cookies, tarts, quick breads… anything with the holy trinity of sugar, flour, and butter. But most often, I turn to a cake. A cake never fails to give its baker due credit – it either looks totally amazing or completely a wreck right out of the oven. Which is like describing me on most days.

Baking does two things for me: it soothes my soul and feeds my raging perfectionistic tendencies. Seems like a paradox, right? That I can be both calm and uptight? Probably because it’s mostly internal. No one has to know I’m freaking out on the inside, because LOOK! HERE’S SOME CAKE. How can I be falling apart inside when I can so clearly function on the outside?!

Baking is creative, it’s comforting, it’s loving, it’s untroubled. It’s also scientific, precise, and glorious perfection. It calms me down when not much else works. It establishes some semblance of order. I have to pay attention, or I might fail. For a brief moment, baking allows me to be perfect in an imperfect world. And I’m good at it. Actually, I’m pretty awesome.

I was a perfectionist growing up and throughout school. I was the first-born, the first grandchild, the first at everything. I was eager to please and had extremely high standards that were visible only to me. Whatever I touched had to not only be done in the best way possible, but also the right way. A’s in trigonometry were unacceptable; I wanted A+’s (because this teacher was one of the few who gave them). I didn’t want to just enter a design competition in college; I wanted to win first place (I did). It wasn’t enough to simply have a commendable portfolio of writing upon graduating from BSU; no, I wanted to submit it for ONE. MORE. top honor on my diploma (and there were only 6 of us who received it). When I started a project, I finished it. And I never half-assed anything. Needless to say, I made myself sick many times over from the practice of being “perfect.”

Perhaps what mattered most to me was this: I never wanted to let Mom down. Yes, I accomplished things for myself because I truly wanted them. And yet, what I really sought was approval from my mom. She had expectations, and I wanted to exceed them. Shatter them, really. Mom was an excellent baker too. She once told me I was better at it than her – that I had the patience and careful attention to detail that she lacked. I was floored. But even something as ordinary as baking a cake, I wanted to surprise and impress her with my mastery. I miss that I can no longer do that. With Mom gone, it takes a little “oomph” out of wanting to achieve so crazily.

The truth is, I don’t do things as perfect now. I think that’s one of those wise things you learn as you get older. I certainly still do my very best – always. And I probably (grudgingly) hold others to some ridiculous expectations they can’t possibly meet. But I don’t let the nitpicking demons drive me crazy. I’m more intuitive now – focusing on what feels right and what makes the most sense – saving up my energy for what’s genuinely important.

My mom wasn’t a perfectionist herself, though her chocolate cake never failed to surpass people’s expectations. Is it divine intervention that I chose to make this particular cake on her last day? Or was it just habit? I don’t know. In the two and half years since she’s been gone, I’ve taken profound enjoyment in sharing the recipe with friends, family, coworkers, students, and many others I know. It’s like I’m passing on a piece of Mom at her absolute most perfect “Mom-est.” Most say it’s the BEST cake they’ve ever had. And I say, Duh. Of course it is. :)


Best-Ever Chocolate Cake

For the cake:
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 sticks butter (1 cup)
1 cup water
3 heaping Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

For the icing:
1 stick butter (1/2 cup)
3 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1 lb powdered sugar (usually in a box)
5 Tbsp milk

1 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, bring butter, water, and cocoa powder to a boil. (Look for tiny bubbles frothing from the sides of the pan. Don’t burn!) Carefully pour into bowl with flour mixture. Whisk together until smooth.

In a small bowl, combine buttermilk, eggs, and vanilla. Add to flour/cocoa mixture above. Batter will be runny with some bubbles.

Pour into ungreased 9×13 baking pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. (Note: cake should not be jiggly in the middle – it will look like that until almost the end of its baking time. You know it’s done when the middle is spongy to the touch.) Let cake cool for about 30 minutes.

For icing: Place all the ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir continuously until incorporated and icing coats the back of a wooden spoon. Pour over cake. (Note: it’s best to ice the cake while it’s still warm – will create a nice thin, gooey layer in between.) Wait about an hour before you cut into it, otherwise it falls apart. But that might be okay too. :)