THE WOMAN LIVES FOR LEMON CAKE
My mother loved to scrapbook. She had drawers full of scrapbooks, and they were all filled with pictures of cakes. It was funny because we never ate a lot of sweets. My mother said it was bad for our health, and she made us eat vegetables instead-usually boiled or chopped, whatever she preferred. We lived in a small apartment above a laundry mat, and we were lucky, because most apartments in those days didn’t have laundry mats. We lived in a small city in Kentucky, and a lot of cities back in those days were dirt poor. My mother dreamt of owning a garden. A garden or a farm, whatever we could afford. We couldn’t afford much. We got buy on bread and cabbage water and lettuce.
We got buy on little or nothing at all. We couldn’t find our way through the dirt-lined streets, the slowly crumbling democracy. The politicians didn’t have a clue. We listened to them on a radio. The radio was the only means of communication we had at the time. We didn’t even have a phone. We were far too poor for that. My mother said Johnny was going to go through college, and that was final. My mother said lots of things. Lots of things didn’t matter. Johnny got in trouble, sometimes. Usually, it was about a girl. He got in line with the bad guys and spent his days smoking behind bleachers at the high school, and getting chased away by the principal or Mr. McGreggar.
My mother was a superb cook. She subscribed to all the latest cooking magazines and happily watched all the cooking shows at my Aunt Rachel's. She was a fanatic about cooking. She loved Starbuck’s. It was her favorite place to eat. We ate mostly brownies and cakes and cookies, and of course coffee. I was working nine to five at my job in San Fernando, and it was hard to go out and see my mother and hear her heartbreak about how no one came to see her. She said the magazines kept her busy. She was forty-five and used to be a schoolteacher and now got Social Security.
She had a new boyfriend. His name was Sam Simmons and he worked at a catering company out in Alcapolco Drive. I met him and we didn’t hit it off right away; he suggested we go fishing together. I asked him what kind of fishing, and he said salmon. He loved salmon. It was his favorite fish. He had silver hair and blue eyes. They were bright as the sea, maybe even brighter, and my mother enjoyed talking to him, she said. His son died in Vietnam and he was lonely. He was fifty-nine and they hit it off very well. I wasn’t sure I liked it. I wasn’t sure about anything at that point.
In the summer of ’89, my father bought a boat. Things were going smoothly in the marriage. My oldest brother, Johnathan, loved fishing and my father won five thousand dollars from the lottery. Mom was outraged he bought a fishing boat with the money and he told her to relax. That was the last straw. Mom kicked him out and he was left on the porch, with one suitcase, the fishing boat, and the car. Johnathan went to help Mom. I went to help Dad. That was the summer of ’89. My sister wasn’t born, yet.
In ’91, I moved to Columbus, Ohio. My mother threw a fit. She whined and cried and had a big meltdown. Dad didn’t bother to care. He had a new girlfriend and was living in a trailer out in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He said he didn’t want to go back to her. They still had the boat and went out on it every day and watched the sun go down over the trees and he said he was real happy, for the very first time. Dad said Mom liked his cakes too much and should shove them up he knew where. I thought Mom should open up a bakery. She was living off of Social Security, too. She said she couldn’t work because her back hurts. She said some people talked about her behind her back where she used to work at the peanut factory and they said they always had a job for her. She insisted the boss secretly hated her and refused to go back. I never knew why. I didn’t really know what she was talking about and nodded and smiled in all the right places.
I lived in a nice little house. The house was white and had white trimmings and the grass was taller near the front door. I had a little car, a Volvo. It was blue. I got it for my graduation present from graduating from Stanford. I got a degree in law and child education-of course I chose neither. I don’t really know why I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Most lawyers were, at best, a mixed blessing, and nothing good could come of that.
It was nearing Thanksgiving and Mom said it was about time I met Johnathan. He was an avid golfer and a tennis player and the apartment he lived in had a tennis court and a volleyball court. Most of the apartments were empty; they built them in the early 90s and Johnathan said they were going to add on to them. Mom said she was getting along with his daughter-her name was Amanda and she had blonde hair and blue eyes and a daughter named Arabelle. Arabelle was bright-eyed and loved jokes. Her mother got one of those joke books from the mall and was telling jokes to everyone she met-even people on the streets. Amanda said she had to make Arabelle stop telling jokes.
“I think we should all have dinner one day,” Mom said one morning. I had come over to help fix her garbage disposal. It was always on the fritz. It had just rained and a nice shimmer of rain was on the grass. The grass was green and it was spring and they were growing.
I quirked an eyebrow at her. “With who?” I persisted. “Some rock star pop group?”
She giggled and blushed. Mom put her hair up in a bun and puttered about in her garden. The wind blew. It was cold for spring. “Johnathan and his family, of course,” she said. “I’d love for you to meet them.”
I shrugged. “I guess,” I replied. “Don’t we have to talk about politics? You know how avid you get about politics.”
She made a face at me. “The president is such a coot!” she declared. “I don’t know what Americans see in him.”
“We voted for him fair and square.”
“Don’t be silly, you never vote.”
“Right. Didn’t think about that one.” I snorted, and shook my head. I had a hard time keeping up with my mother. I agreed to come to dinner, and brought my wife with me. Her name was Anna. We met in our freshman year of college. She got a degree in biology and was a biologist at the local aquarium. She made sure the fish were fed. And the algae was kept at bay.
Johnathan came over to the house the next week. He brought Amanda and her daughter; Arabelle was only five. She had some bubble toys and was blowing bubbles with the bubble blower. I didn’t know what those things were called. I set her in the high chair and she blew bubbles in my face and giggled and laughed and squirmed, trying to get out of her high chair. Her mother gave her a cup of pudding and she laughed and banged her spoon on the tray.
“Charming child,” I muttered, and made a face at her.
She burst into tears.
“Isn’t she, though?” Johnathan banged me on the back and hacked another cough.
Good smells wafted from the kitchen.
I wasn’t sure how long I could stand these people another minute. Johnathan was okay if he didn’t talk. His daughter was okay if I didn’t see her. And his granddaughter was just a crazy nut.
“Guess what I’m serving!” Mom exclaimed.
She came in and put a pot of roast beef on the table.
Arabelle burst into tears Arabelle burst into tears and threw her spoon onto the floor.
* * *
Dinner was a terror. Arabelle cried the whole time. Johnathan argued with me about politics. He said Ross Perot should never have been elected; all I asked was for him to pass me the ketchup. Mom said I shouldn’t waste the ketchup, and wondered how she could make her own. I didn’t think you could make ketchup at home. It wasn’t the kind of thing you could make.
Mom brought out a store bought cake and Johnthan really had a fit. “You mean you didn’t make it yourself?” he asked. He sounded disappointed.
I stared at him incredulously. I couldn’t believe he would say such a thing to my mother. It was very rude and insensitive.
“I would have,” she said. “But, my recipe is gone.”
He looked startled. That really changed his tune. “Recipe?” he asked. “You have your own recipe?”
She made a face at him. “Yes, sweetheart,” she said in exasperation. “Don’t you remember how we met at the cookie bake-off and my cookies won third place? I had a whole stack of recipes. I don’t go anywhere without them. Then, I lost my cake recipe.”
“This changes everything,” he said. “We’re going to have to move heaven and earth to find it.” He glanced with me. “You with me on this, chubs?”
* * *