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. :)

cake2

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. :)

aunties are the best ♥

When I was 12 or 13 years old, my Aunt Lynn bought me my first Sweet Valley High book at the Glendale Shopping Mall in Indy. Of course, I had been reading long before then – with Mom being a teacher, it was difficult to escape reading in our house. Each trip meant not only the promise of 4 or 5 new books from her, but also involved a lengthy, carefully curated process by me. I would browse the shelves excitedly, select only the most pristine copies, and carry them to the register secure in the knowledge that my aunt loved me very much indeed. Thus began our shared love of books and literature and reading and writing that continues to this day. And that happy memory – visiting a bookstore with my aunt – is one I’ve grown to cherish above many others from my childhood.

That’s the way Aunts (or Aunties, as I like to call my Auntie Lynn now :)) should be: a role model of the best kind, one who embodies the same values as the parent, but who can also be a true friend. One who loves unconditionally and can do so without ever being the bad guy. I’m fortunate. My mom was blessed with two sisters – my Auntie Lynn and my Aunt Jayne – and they have both been integral to my development as a person. Their influence in my life is far-reaching and continues to this day.

Besides bookstores, I share a love of old movies with my Aunt Lynn. Jayne and I are completely mad about dogs. We all three love to shop, for shoes especially. I’ve spent numerous nights with them in their homes… everything from putting on fashion shows with my Glamour Gals as a 10-year-old to fine dining and drinking wine as an adult. Lynn taught me to play cards. Jayne encouraged me to taste new foods. When I finally got my learner’s permit in high school, Lynn let me drive her car when no one else would. I admire my Aunt Jayne as a strong example of what women can accomplish in their careers. And neither one of my aunts had children, so it has always seemed – to me, at least – perfectly normal (and acceptable) to contemplate a life without kids.

Aunties are the best, really. I should know after all; I’m an auntie myself now. :) Six times over. Three times in the last three months (!). Five nephews and one niece: Abbi, Rusty, Emmett, the twins Hayden and Parker, and the newest Everett. The whole Aunt Mary Beth thing? I find it’s a role that suits me well. It never gets old, and I dearly love it.

Being an auntie affords you the best of all worlds. You can be the cool aunt, the exemplary role model, the wise mentor, or the goofball extraordinnaire. You might be the pseudo-parent-when-the-kids-hate-their-own-parents or the procurer-and-purchaser-of-items-your-mom-refuses-to-buy-you. You are the encourager, cheerleader, less-evil disciplinarian, and mother figure. The big sister, teacher, confidante, and friend.

And so, I take my role as an Auntie seriously too, because I know the lasting impression it can have. Now that Mom is gone, I feel like there is a gaping hole and I have to sorta fill in for her too. While I’ll never be as good as a grandma (that’s a whole other post, right?), it’s a hole I’m happy to fill. I want to be the kind of person my aunts were to me: engaging, smart, patient, fun, and above all else, loving.

For the last several years, I’ve made it a top priority to visit my Aunt Jayne, wherever she lives in the country at the time. Right now, she’s in Texas. I go there to recuperate… from work, from the world, from the craziness, even from the memories of Mom that sometimes overwhelm me. Again, just as I’ve always felt my whole life, the unconditional love and unspoken understanding are ever-present. She and my Aunt Lynn both are like my mother in many ways, and when I’m around them, I feel like Mom is there too. But it’s more than just that – they are also my friends. And they are part of that internal history – the history of ME – that I’m afraid is slowly being forgotten now that Mom is gone. So I try to hang on to every thread and scrap that I can.

I’ll be at Aunt Jayne’s home in a few weeks, and I can’t wait. I think that’s what has eaten away at me the most about Mom’s passing… the intangible support, the constant stability, the secure knowledge that my family will be there for me: those have been yanked right out from under me, shaken up and rearranged quite a bit. And I struggle mightily with that. I need this vacation to reconnect and to remember all the good things I still have in my life – like my two wonderful aunts. And to not forget how lucky I’ve been.

happy birthday Mom

Hello boys and girls. I’m back. Been awhile, hasn’t it? Oh, I have my reasons, which you’ll learn in time. If there is such a thing as the Struggle Bus, I’ve not only been riding it lately, I’m pretty sure I’ve been steering it. Or NOT steering it, as it were. :D

What’s kept me away for so long? Over a year? Well… as it turns out, writing about a loved one isn’t as therapeutic as one might have hoped. In fact, it’s pretty painful. Just the thought of putting words to my memories of Mom was enough of a force to sink me into the proverbial pit of despair. I’ve been wholly unmotivated – and in almost every facet of my life. You see kids, I deal with depression – the real, clinical kind that’s often diagnosed with medicine and lots of therapy. I chose to ignore it for a good chunk of my adult life, believing instead that something was horribly wrong with me. It was Mom who pointed out my cheerless moods, reminded me of our family history, and so I sought help. After Mom was gone, it was inevitable that I’d slip up somewhere. I just didn’t realize how low I’d go.

The highlights of my year (or lowlights??)…

To start with, I didn’t fully comprehend how individual the grieving process would be for me and my entire family, and how the grief would choose to attack us at inopportune times. Truly, I didn’t know what to expect; but then, who does? You really can’t prepare yourself for something like this. It’s interesting to watch how each of us deals with it – from eating too much to imbibing on weekends, from not cleaning the house to sleeping all the time or not sleeping a wink, from not leaving the house to being careless at work, from worrying too much to not caring at all, from ignoring all the important relationships in our lives to simply not even having the urge to try anymore. Grief can be rather unforgiving.

And oh, how the wisdom poured in! Most people said the holidays would be hard, particularly Thanksgiving and Christmas, those heavy with tradition. Honestly? They weren’t; they were oddly comforting. Maybe I’m fortunate to have a family that chooses to stick together when things get rough. So that’s what we did. No, no… for me, it was the double-whammy of January and February that sucked balls. Short days, NO SUN, little to do, might as well be eternal darkness for all I care… BLAH. Some people said birthdays, anniversaries, and other significant milestones would be the trigger. Again, not so much. Her birthday and the 6th of every month passed by with little fanfare. She certainly wasn’t far from my thoughts on those days, but then, she NEVER is. In fact, Mom’s birthday is today. She would have been 66. And while that is incredibly sad, it’s not the thing that gets me down either…

Mother’s Day? Now that was horrendous. The annual Komen Race For The Cure, which I’d done for years with absolute joy and compassion? I was nothing but angry at all the survivors there. The return to school in August also bugged me – probably because Mom, a teacher, always loved the fresh start to the academic year. And hey, the one-year anniversary of her death? It was akin to living her showing and church service all over again. Flowers, cards, words and prayers from well-meaning friends and family. I was in awe so many people remembered. It both consoled me and tore my heart in two.

In the middle of all that madness, exactly ten months to the day after Mom died, I lost my dog. My beloved Teddy, the sweetest soul in all the world. “Bereft” didn’t begin to describe my general state of being. I like to think he left me to keep Mom company – at least, that’s what I tell myself over and over again. But it’s a poor lie.

So, between the ongoing grief over Mom, the added heartache over losing my dog, and with it, an unholy stretch of pitiless gray days, my depression returned in full force. Weeks went by with absolutely nothing to punctuate the monotony. I settled into the comforting, deadly routine of: get up, go to work, come home, put on pjs, read books, go to bed. Oh, and eat – often and badly. Wake up the next day and repeat. I was so down, that to enjoy living required effort… to just live really, really hurt.

I’m not sure what finally got me out of that overwhelming hole, because I had dug down deep. Maybe it was fear. Maybe I had a little help from above. Maybe, like my mom, I’m a fighter after all. I began to pay attention. I made note of every emotion I felt, every thought I made, and every word I spoke. It just seemed important to do so. And slowly but surely, I started to see color where only the grays had been. I also reached a turning point… a point where I realized that this is the way things will ALWAYS BE. Mom is gone – really gone. She is NOT coming back. And this is how it will always be… how it will be WITHOUT her. Different, but somehow already feeling the same. I don’t want to get used to that feeling. This has shocked me to the depth of my soul; it has also allowed me to move forward.

It’s frightening to know I may have years ahead of me without her. And while that thought is very sobering, and almost paralyzing, I’ve managed to find the tiniest, most distant sliver of hope in it. My mom can’t be forgotten. Not by us certainly (her family), not by her friends, not by this world. She was just too good. So I have to keep her memory alive, and the only way I know how is through my writing. That’s the main reason I’m back here, on this blog… to write again. Mom would tell me to; in fact, she’d be my biggest, loudest supporter. I have to remind myself of that, when the ups and downs and middle-grounds threaten to take over. So I write today because I just can’t stay away from it. And that’s my gift to you, Mom. Happy Birthday. ♥