What you need is a good hug

Angel Food Birthday CakeWhen I was a child, I remember sitting on a kitchen stool, watching my mother fix a  cake for my birthday. As my special day falls in winter, it was often snowing outside, but warm and cozy in the kitchen.

By tradition, birthdays were celebrated with an angel food cake, usually a box mix.

Box cake mixes were invented in the late 40s when housewives returned to the kitchens and men returned from the wars with an appetite for home cooking. And nothing said “love” better than home baking. At first the cake mixes just added water, but the need to add eggs and oil invested the homemaker in the process and allowed her own creativity.

Even though my mother’s angel food cake was a box mix, eliminating the need to crack a dozen eggs and separate out just the whites, it wasn’t a simple cake to make. My mother shared with me many years later that she reserved angel foods for special occasions because they were so unpredictable.

The mark of a good cook was not that you made the cake from scratch (this was the era of the post-WWII housewife, after all) but that your cake didn’t fall or sag to one side, a feat accomplished by carefully running a knife through the batter to even it out and cut through any air bubbles in the batter. A special two-piece cake pan reserved just for angel foods was used.

And the oven temperature had to be just so–not too hot, not too cold. We were given strict instructions NOT TO PLAY in the kitchen, for fear the vibrations would cause the cake to fall. We could peek through the small glass window in the front of the stove door, but quietly–NO YELLING.

When the hand-set timer rang, the cake pan was lifted carefully from the oven using long-handled oven mitts and set upside down on an empty liter club soda bottle. This was the same bottle that acquired a cork-lined nozzle on ironing day to sprinkle the clothes that took all afternoon to iron. But that’s a story for another time.

By the time the cake had “set” my mother usually had three little kids–my sister, brother and me waiting for the pan, because after the cake was carefully cut around the center tube and removed, we got to scrape all the gooey crumbs from the tube and bottom of the pan.

Taking the butcher knife, she would carefully cut around the edges of the cake and lift it out, the tube and bottom still attached. Then she’d make a second cut to free the cake and with an expert twist she’d remove the bottom of the cake pan.

angel food cake frostedMy mother set the cake upright on the special footed plate and cut a small square of cardboard to cover the center hole where the tube had been.

She’d mix a simple powdered sugar and milk glaze, always two coats: the first to capture the crumbs, the second to cover the cake. If it were your birthday you got to pick the color of the icing–mine by choice was always pink. Then came the insertion of candles into the plastic holders saved from one birthday cake to the next, and the long wait until the celebration.

It was the only type of cake my mother ever devoted this time and energy to in her busy life. Although she didn’t know it, her mirror neurons were at work. Making something for another person was the truest form of altruism, allowing the creator to share in the joy of giving. It represented both self-expression and that communication-without-words that moms have practiced for thousands of years.

When my mother died and my daughter left to build her own family, I had thought homemade angel food cakes had disappeared from my life. But recently, on a landmark birthday, I felt a surge of nostalgia and determined to make one for myself.

I found a Betty Crocker angel food cake mix at the grocers, lost among a full shelf of brownie mixes. Then I discovered no store in my small town stocked the proper two-piece tube pan I needed for the project. I had to order it on Amazon!

I no longer had a club soda bottle, since I haven’t ironed in years, but a Diet Coke liter bottle, propped carefully on the edge of the pan sufficed. I didn’t bother with the cardboard square in the middle. But the sweet crumbs inside the cake pan stuck to my fingers as I pried them from the inside edge of the tube pan.

A little extra frosting accommodated a sag to one edge.

I closed my eyes and I was back home, getting a hug in the only way my mother knew how.

What about you? Do you have a special cake that says love and hugs?

Thank you, Kimberly Vardeman, for the great angel food cake picture!

Letting go

pianoWhen I was a little girl, my family had an old upright piano, black. We lived in a small house, so the only place available for it was in the baby’s room. That meant whenever he was taking a nap I couldn’t practice.

My mother engaged a piano teacher who came promptly on Wednesday afternoons to give me a lesson. We didn’t have a lot of money, so it was impressed upon me that learning was important.  My mother, when she had a moment, would also sit down at the piano and play the old wartime songs from the 40s. I still have her tattered songbook.

I’d like to say I became an accomplished pianist, but instead I flunked. I think I was the only kid of nine–at least I felt like it–to get fired by a piano teacher.

Fast forward to my early 30s. My mother-in-law had a spinet, maple finish. A traditional housewife, she’d sit down to it in the afternoons, after the wash was done, the house cleaned, before it was time to start dinner, and she’d play old country hymns. I loved to hear her play.

When the opportunity arose, we bought a piano, a concert grand this time, because money was flowing. My daughter took lessons, and became amazingly good. Soon she was playing Beethoven Sonatas with gusto. I loved to hear her play. Sometimes I’d take lessons, too. But a heavy career prevented the good practice needed to advance and I never did.

When my daughter left for school, the piano was sold and the proceeds used to start a new company. A good investment, surely, in our future. But I cried when it left our house.

Fast forward to now. Living n a house separated from neighbors by a wide margin. No way I’d interrupt anyone’s conversation, even if I played loudly and badly. Semi-retired so time to play. I took the plunge and bought a new piano, a studio upright this time, walnut finish.

I moved the piano five times! I heard other people play it. But I never played it much myself. I had an abortive attempt at lessons and quit when the teacher  shook her head and said, “Well it is nice that you know how to read music.” At least she didn’t rap my knuckles.

It was time to let go. But more than letting go of the piano, in a way it was letting go of a part of my mother, and of my mother-in-law, and of my daughter playing so brilliantly as a little girl. Letting go of the dream of someday, some way, playing casually, fearlessly, enjoying the music. I had to acknowledge it wasn’t going to happen, at least not in this lifetime.

I put an ad in Craigslist, and after a few abortive responses, a gentleman came to visit it. He brought his young son. And the two of them, each in his own way, sat down and played the piano. It came to life! I heard what the keyboard had been hungry for all these years.

guitarI took the proceeds from the sale and bought a good classical guitar.  The guitar is Canadian, with a cedar top and rosewood sides and back. It is hand-made with nylon strings,  a very personal instrument. I cradle it and it hums.

I signed up for online lessons, and am learning to take short, frequent practice times while the fingers toughen up and develop the needed callouses.  I know if I play with a pick the sound is more bright, but I like the softer, more visceral sensation of playing it with my own fingers.

I am learning to be patient with myself. In the first week I learned three chords! That was enough. I have the rest of my life to welcome this new companion into my life.

It was hard letting go. And yet, since I have been willing to do so, the music I always knew was within my soul rises to the surface each morning as I sit down to play. And I am content.

I’m turning into my mother-in-law

2012-09-08 - Apple Cobbler Insides - 0015

Some women have a worry of turning into their mother, especially during stressful times. I have found through a quirk of fate that I think I’m turning into my mother-in-law instead!

She was a simple, though intelligent woman who died many years ago, a traditional homemaker who raised a large family in the 40s and 50s and never worked outside the home.

But as I review my current, semi-retired lifestyle, I find it remarkably similar to hers. For example: She rarely went out, except to the grocery store, the hairdresser and the bank. (Hand raised. Just got back from all three.) She had one good friend. (Hand raised).

She loved to cook Southern style, what we’d call today, whole foods, slow cooked: Home-made biscuits, fried chicken, apple cobbler, all made from scratch. Because I am mostly vegetarian and gluten sensitive, my style is different, but the same.

Right now I am cooking applesauce with apples from the frig, and I make my own almond milk, because many of the store-bought brands list sugar as the first ingredient! But I experiment–cooking beans in a slow cooker is the only way to go, and I have a chayote squash waiting for tomorrow’s supper. I notice I have shared her joy of discovery of a new recipe, the pleasure in the process and the pride in the final product. A nice feeling!

She was intensely interested in both her neighborhood and nature around her. She usually had a small vegetable garden and grew roses, even in the shortened growing season in Flagstaff. For me it’s the new covey of baby quail living under the Russian sage, and the pecans I harvested and shelled from our tree out back.

The fire that blackened Mt. Elden north of town was right at the top of her street. She felt the horror at that destruction much as I am living through the aftermath of the Slide Fire.

She loved afternoon TV and could quote you chapter and verse of the Phil Donohue show. For me it is books–I’ve currently embarked on an round-the-world cruise. Right now I am “in” Canada, and loving it!

But most of all, when I went to visit her, I loved the predictability. When I was in my thirties and forties, a full-time working woman, I’d rush to her house and let out a sigh of relief at her rhythm of life. The pineapple crocheted doily was always on the kitchen table, the same picture always hung over the couch, and the coffee (always Folgers) was brewing in the old Pyrex percolator that she’d had for decades.

I used to wonder, back then, what on earth she did with her day.

Now I know.

 

 

 

 

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