On Cake and Love

“Not that I’m counting, but I see you with your second piece,” Rich says with a wink as I bring a forkful of tiramisu cake to my mouth. 

I smirk and happily scrape the rest of the cake from the bowl, not wanting to waste a bite. “I’ll probably regret that tomorrow, but it’s so good.”

“Nah, you deserve it,” he says. 

A couple of weeks earlier, while digging through the chest freezer looking for something to make for dinner, I found a Rubbermaid container filled with Rhett’s birthday cake. Dinner was pretty much forgotten once I discovered the cake. While the cake itself is made from a box mix, I use my mom’s recipe for buttercream frosting and then I decorate the cake. I don’t consider myself a pro by any means, but it’s my one “crafty” thing I do for my kids. And it’s the only true tradition I have kept going for five years. 

Growing up, my mom made all of my birthday cakes too, which I know has influenced my desire to make my kids their cakes too. In the early years my mom picked the cakes she would make, but then I started picking my own designs, from Winnie the Pooh to the Tasmanian Devil. Each year on the night before my birthday, after I went to bed my mom would stay up and finish my cake. When I woke up on my birthday, the cake was perfectly made and displayed on the kitchen table. 

I know my mom was up well past when I went to bed, and I only know this now because I’ve found myself up late, putting the final squeeze of frosting on the cakes for my kids. And every year I ask myself, “Why did I want to do this again?” But the next morning when the kids wake up and I see the looks on their faces when they see their cakes for the first time, I remember why I stay up late. 

Now back here in my kitchen, I open the Rubbermaid container, impressed to see the cake still looking delicious—not a speck of freezer burn. Rhett sees the bright blue frosting and says, “My birthday cake! Is today my birthday?” 

I pause, honestly surprised he remembered his cake from almost six months ago. I laugh, “No, this is just leftover from your birthday.” 

After dinner, I slice the cake and each of us has one piece—and I am impressed at how well it tastes for being frozen. 

One-piece remains, and I put the container back on the counter. 

The next day, Rhett asks for the cake again and Rich tells him, “Nope, that’s Mom’s piece.” Whether he said it because he loves me or is scared to get between me and a piece of cake, I’m not sure. But I love him for it anyway. 

According to Gary Chapman’s book about the five love languages, quality time is my love language. And while I definitely know that’s true, I believe cake is part of my love language too. It’s more than the taste of the cake, which don’t get me wrong, I love. It’s the time my mom spent making 18+ cakes in my life, and now the time I’ve spent making cakes for my kids.

Cake marks special occasions and traditions. From birthdays and weddings to the everyday—such as a solo trip to the grocery store. There are also the vacations I’ve taken to visit friends, where I’ve dragged them to the nearest Sprinkles cupcake store (shout out to Melissa and Sprinkles in Scottsdale). Or the times Rich has surprised me by bringing cupcakes home from town when I knew he had to go out of his way to get them. 

Just like I can picture most of the cakes my mom made me, I hope my kids remember some of the cakes I make for them. The fact that Rhett knew this was his cake six months after his birthday, already gives me hope that this tradition is meaningful.   

I don’t expect them to remember each cake, I just hope the memory of how they felt on their birthdays doesn’t completely fade. Even though my cakes are far from perfect, I want them to know I did it out of love for them.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a piece of cake in the kitchen that’s calling my name. 

//

This post was written as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “Love Languages”.

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I surprised Rich by having this groom’s cake made for our wedding.
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Accidentally lit my hair on fire on my 30th birthday.
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@phoenixfeatherscalligraphy for C+C, 2020

What She Remembers

She can’t remember who called to tell her the news. Although the call wasn’t unexpected, it was the type of news no one is ready for. It was a cold Friday in January, there was probably snow on the ground, but she couldn’t tell you for sure. 

A few weeks before, she’d traveled home for Christmas. Her new boyfriend drove down the day after the holiday to meet her family. They had only been dating a few weeks, but they’d both agreed the timing felt right. She wanted him to meet her dying aunt, her mom’s only sister. She was the aunt who never missed a birthday party and passed on her love of baking to her niece.

They went to her aunt’s house and talked while she laid in bed, but the aunt she once knew wasn’t there anymore. When they left, with tears in the corners of her eyes she whispered, “I wish you could have met her before.”

She thinks that was the last time she saw her alive. When she looks back on 28 years of memories she feels guilty she can’t remember the last moment. What did they talk about? What was the last thing she said to her? She assumes it was, “I love you,” but it feels like there should be something poignant she can clutch in her memories—a lingering hug, or her aunt’s words of wisdom to carry with her.

After she received the call, she went through the motions of her workday. She didn’t make plans to leave early—she thought she had enough time. She went home for lunch to pack her bag and put it in her car. Then she sat through her last class of the day, wishing she was with her aunt, instead of in a classroom with 12th graders.

When the school bell rang, she locked her office and left the building. It was dark soon after she was on the interstate. She didn’t hear any new updates from her family and assumed no news was good news. 

Three hours later she arrived in her hometown and went to her sister’s house. She thought they would go see their aunt together, for what might be the last time. As she sat on the couch, she thinks she asked, “Do you want to go and see Aunt Dee?” 

Her sister said something like: “Haven’t you talked to Mom?” The details are fuzzy, but the confused look on her sister’s face is clear in her memory.

“No, I just got here,” she said. Shortly after, their parents’ headlights crossed the front window. She isn’t sure who said, “She’s gone.” Was it her mom or her sister? She wishes she could remember. When she tries to grasp at the memory, when she tries to make sense of it all, she doesn’t have a face to put to the words. 

Her first reaction was anger. Why hadn’t someone told her? As she sat in tears, her dad said, “We knew you were driving and we didn’t want you to be upset while you were on the road. And there was nothing you could do.”

She knew she should have left work earlier. Maybe if she had been able to say her final goodbye she would actually remember the moment. There might be a final word she could cling to, something she could hold in her mind as her memories started to fade. 

The boyfriend became her husband, and now they have two kids. Her kids will never meet her beloved aunt, gone too soon at 50 years old. She has albums filled with photos she will show them over the years—but it will never be enough. 

She doesn’t talk about how she feels losing her aunt. She didn’t lose a mom, or a sister, a wife, or a grandma. It seems like her loss is less than the others. So she keeps her feelings tucked close to her chest, thinking of her aunt often. She keeps their texts saved, wishing the conversation was still ongoing. That instead of the last text being about a guy she was bringing home to meet the family, she was sending photos of her kids playing in the snow, of them on their birthdays. 

She knows there never could have been a perfect “goodbye.” And had she known the last time was going to be the last, it wouldn’t have been any easier.

Most of all, she wishes her aunt was still here. She wishes that January day never happened. But that’s not how the story goes.

Instead, she walks into the kitchen and takes out her recipe book. She reaches for the card with the familiar handwriting, running her fingers over her aunt’s lettering. She might not remember her aunt’s exact last words, but here in her kitchen—she is filled with her aunt’s voice, one scoop of flour at a time.

//

Deanna Ruth Walker was born May 5, 1962, and died on January 11, 2013. She was a beloved mom, wife, grandma, sister, friend, and, my aunt.

4th of July Cody Columbia Falls Dirty Dash 030Dee in Glacier

Mom, Should I Have a Snack?

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From morning til night,
The requests never end.
We just had breakfast.
It’s almost lunch.
How can you still be hungry?
Someday I know I’ll miss being the keeper of snacks.
But until then, can you go and ask your dad?

 

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@pheonixfeatherscalligraphy for C+C, 2020

This post was written as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “On Repeat.”

Katie

“There’s a fertilizer spreader outside of Chicago that I want to go and look at. Do you want to go and we’ll make it an anniversary trip?” Rich asked.

“With the kids?” I responded.

“No, I was thinking we would leave them with my parents and have it just be us. What do you think?”

I paused as I think about seeing the city, mostly for the first time. Six years earlier, when I was six months pregnant with Rhett, we had driven from Montana to Ohio. We stopped for lunch, deep-dish pizza, of course, and to walk around “The Bean” at Millenium Park. 

“If your parents are up for keeping them, let’s go!” I said. 

Three days later, we were sitting on an airplane at 6 a.m., preparing for take-off. It wasn’t lost on me that 10 years before, my friend, Katie was still alive and living in Chicago. As we prepared to land at O’Hare, I sighed, wishing she was going to be there to meet us. Despite feeling sad, I was excited to see the city she loved so much. 

The next day, as we walked down the busy downtown streets and onto Navy Pier, I silently wondered, Did she walk these same streets, to these same places? Who was she with? It was a windy and drizzly day, which seemed fitting for the ‘The Windy City,’ and I imagined her dark hair blowing into her face, the water splashing up onto the pier from Lake Michigan. 

Sometimes we know a good thing when we see it, even at the age of five. Katie and I met when we were in kindergarten. I don’t remember a time before her or what drew us together–likely it was that we went to a small school, and our class was small. But it still felt special to us. She moved after second grade, leaving me heartbroken. We kept in touch with letters and pictures throughout the remainder of elementary school. As time passed, her family and her made more moves, while I continued to stay in the same place. Toward the end of high school, we slowly lost contact, other than exchanging senior photos and announcements.

At the end of college, we reconnected in a digital world. Thanks to a quick search on Facebook, I instantly caught up with her life. Our contact became more frequent, and we both realized we had thought of one another over the years but hadn’t reached out. We continued to keep in touch through messages and emails, liking one another’s photos and being able to see each other in real-time. 

Many times we talked about meeting up. She lived in Chicago, working as a dance instructor after college. Her life appeared full of excitement, city adventures, and friends. I had always imagined living in a city, and at times I envied her life. By then we were several years past college, and I was working full-time and going to grad school, the fun of undergrad college days behind me. 

On an otherwise normal day in April, I answered a phone call from my sister. Her calling instead of texting in the middle of a workday made me take pause, and I felt uneasy as I answered the phone.

 “Katie’s gone,” my sister softly exhaled after I said hello. 

“What do you mean? How?” I asked.

I quickly went to her Facebook page, confused as the last messages I saw were her friends and family wishing her a “Happy Birthday!” We didn’t talk on a daily basis, so it wasn’t unusual that I hadn’t talked to her in a few days—since I had wished her a happy birthday. We were only six weeks apart, and now we were both 25. As I scrolled down her page, I saw the posts I had missed, “I can’t believe you’re gone.” “You were such a light, and your smile lit up every room you entered.” And the posts went on. How had I missed these?

I went home after work and curled up in my bed. Guilt and anger, but mostly sadness, filled me that we hadn’t set a date and planned a trip together.

I never thought there would be a day that she wasn’t there anymore. I took time for granted. 

In one of her last messages to me, she said, “I always knew I picked a good one back then.” I did too. 

I’ll always be sad I never saw Chicago with her, but I’m grateful for the time I spent there—imagining it through her eyes.

“Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay. 

 

The Magic of Christmas

Headlights cross our front windows, sending beams of light through the house. It’s early December, and although it’s only 7 o’clock, it’s already been dark for a couple hours. “Rhett and Allie, come see! Someone is here!” They run toward the window, peering into the darkness. A minute later, a man in a red suit appears, his black boots shining. Rhett pauses for a moment, then whispers, “Santa?” Last year he was nervous when Santa stopped by our house, and I’ve been wondering how he would feel about this year’s visit. Two loud raps hit the front door and the kids stand frozen by the Christmas tree.

My husband, Rich, opens the door and Santa booms, “Merry Christmas! Is this Rhett and Allie’s house?”

I walk over to the kids and start to usher them to the front door. “Hi Santa, how nice of you to stop by!” I say as Allie hides behind my legs and Rhett stands with his fingers in his mouth, inching closer to the door.

“Have you two been good this year?” Santa asks, kneeling on the floor. They both nod, their eyes wide.

“I heard that you have been and I wanted to bring you a little gift before Christmas!” He pulls two small bags from behind his back. Rhett cautiously reaches out to take one, but Allie shakes her head and hides behind me.

Rhett tears into his bag, while I slowly pull the gifts out of Allie’s bag, showing them to her. Santa says, “Well, I have to be going. Mrs. Claus is waiting for me at home!” He stands up and waves his goodbyes, then closes the door behind him as he disappears once again into the darkness.

//

Click over to Coffee + Crumbs to read the rest of my essay.

Our Kids Are Only This Age Once

While we get our kids ready for bed, my son climbs onto his top bunk. He doesn’t sleep there yet but loves the somewhat “off-limits” idea of it. My daughter looks up at her brother and immediately points to him and says, “Up!” My husband gently lifts her onto the bunk and she starts running from one end of the mattress to the other.

My stomach starts doing flip-flops as I envision her falling headfirst onto the floor. “Sweetie, no running. Crawl.”

She looks down at us, “Huh?” as she tilts her head to the side, using both hands to brush the hair from her face.

My son looks down at his dad with a big smile and says, “You come up here, too?” My husband agrees and starts to climb the ladder.

I stand down on the floor, arms crossed, secretly counting the minutes until the kids are asleep and I can get back to my book. But eventually, I give in to their cries for me to “come up here!”

Truthfully, my heart swelled knowing they want me to join them. All too often I choose to sit on the sidelines, letting these moments pass by, worn out by the demands of motherhood and mentally clocking out before they are asleep.

To read the rest of my essay, click over to my newest story at Motherly.

 

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Unexpected Long-Distance Relationship

“Mom, who’s this?” my son calls from the living room.

With my hands fully immersed in the kitchen sink full of soapy water, I turn to face him. I can see the kids have pulled out a photo album. “Hold on, let me come look.”

As I walk toward them, drying my hands on a towel, I realize they’ve found an album from my final semester of college. Memories start flooding back as I kneel down beside them on the floor.

“That’s my friend and me when I lived in D.C. It’s a long way from here,” I reply, pointing to us, with the Washington Monument in the background.

As we continue to flip through the album, I remember my first day there. I was only 22. I took one step out of the airport, and a wall of humidity met me. The sun was beating down on that hot August day. Wide-eyed, I stared up at the tall buildings around me, traffic whirring by. I stopped walking and stood beside my brand new suitcases. People scurried past me with their rolling luggage. No one made eye contact. I definitely wasn’t in Wyoming anymore. Reaching into my purse, I pulled out a single sheet of paper. Although I’d read the address several times in the last few weeks, I paused and leaned on my luggage to steady myself. This was my new home.

Glancing up, I drank in my surroundings: high-rise buildings, concrete, and hot sticky air. I watched as yellow cabs slowed down in the street, people in suits raising their arms to stop a driver. I inhaled, grasped the handles of my suitcases, and tentatively stepped closer to the curb. My eyes wandered cautiously, and I slowly raised my arm in imitation of the other travelers. Eventually, a cab pulled up and the driver hopped out of his car. He came around to help me load my suitcases into the trunk: my entire wardrobe for the next four months, crammed into two bags.

With a thud, the driver closed the trunk. I walked to the back door, climbed in, and sat down. I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. The blast of the AC was a welcome relief on my sweaty face.

“Where to?” the cab driver asked.

With false confidence, I recited the address, and he nodded. The cab accelerated, and we were on our way. I peered out the window, taking it all in.

Three weeks before, I was living at my parents’ house on summer break from college. Earlier that year I’d applied for an internship with a senator in D.C., but weeks and months had gone by without a word. I’d mostly forgotten about it until I received an email in early August. “You’ve been accepted as a press intern in our senator’s office. The internship starts at the end of the month.” My stomach turned flip-flops. Was I really going to do this?

I said yes.

The next few weeks flew by as I found someone to lease my apartment, adjusted my school schedule, and said goodbye to my friends and family.

The night before I left, I went to my boyfriend’s house.

“You’ll come and visit me, won’t you?” I cautiously asked him as we sat on the lawn. In the silence, I passed my hand back and forth over the newly cut grass. The dark night surrounded us. An occasional car drove down the street.

He sat across from me with his arms draped over his knees. “Maybe. I don’t know. It’s only a few months. We’ll see each other at Christmas.”

Pulling my hand from the lawn and folding it into my lap, I replied, “Okay.” I was thankful for the darkness which hid the disappointment on my face.

Weeks later, with my briefcase on my lap, I sat on the orange seats of the Metro. This was my daily commute to Capitol Hill. The hot summer had faded into an east coast fall. The humid days floated away as the leaves began to hit the ground. In the previous weeks, I’d traded some of my false confidence for real confidence. In the mornings, I put on comfortable shoes to walk the few blocks to the Metro stop, taking the Red Line to the Capitol. When I arrived at my office, I sat at my desk and swapped them out for the dress shoes tucked inside my bag. My days were spent researching topics the senator was involved in and writing press releases with the deputy press secretary. She was only a year older than me and quickly became a friend and mentor, not only helping me with my writing but navigating the Senate and the city.

Changing shoes once more at the end of the day, I walked back to Union Station, swiping my Metro card for the ride home. One of my roommates, Chrystal, greeted me at our apartment. We’d never met before August but were paired together: a girl from Wyoming and a girl from Idaho. Both a long way from home. I dropped my bag on the floor and sat cross-legged on the couch as we swapped stories about our workdays. We passed the evening in an easy conversation. Once the dinner dishes were cleared, I called my boyfriend back home. In a typical conversation, I ended up arguing with him, not happy with who he was spending time with while I was away. I moved into the hallway and sat on the floor, so my roommates wouldn’t hear my sobs. As I hung up the phone, I wiped tears on my sleeve, quietly opened the door, and walked back into our apartment. Chrystal greeted me with a hug but didn’t ask me any questions—her presence was all I needed.

In the remaining weeks and months, Chrystal introduced me to more people. We visited monuments and museums and tried new food. She felt like an anchor when I kept trying to pull away, back to the comfort of where I grew up. She was mature beyond her years, and her confidence was contagious.

A year and a half later, I stood at the end of an aisle. My dress flowing, my hands clutching a bouquet. I’d spent the morning getting my hair and makeup done while butterflies popped up in my stomach. It was a warm spring day, the perfect day for a wedding.

The guests stood up and the bridal march began. I turned to face the white chairs filled with people. Chrystal walked up the aisle toward me, toward her groom.

She said yes.

We said yes to a friendship that crossed state lines. Through the years we’ve kept in touch through Facebook, text, and the occasional phone call. I flew back to D.C. to visit when her career took her back there after college. Later, we met for a long weekend in San Francisco, seeing the sights of a new city together. When she relocated to Texas, I spent a weekend exploring her new state with her. When I got married, she was there with me in Wyoming and later came to visit me at my new home in Montana. We’ve been there for each other in the good times and bad, and everything in between. Like most long-distance friendships, we go through phases where we talk often, followed by times when we’re out of touch. Even then, I know she will always be there for me.

Almost 15 years have passed since that fall in D.C. Now, sitting here with my kids, I run my fingers over the prints in the album. The Washington Monument, a football game in Virginia, a group of interns huddled under umbrellas, trying to stay out of the pouring rain in New York City. These are experiences I know I’ll never forget.

Flipping to the end of the album, I find one of the last photos: Chrystal and me with our cheeks pressed together. We have big smiles on our faces. I left D.C. that winter with more than a degree. I left with a friendship I knew would last a lifetime.

I close the album and pick up my phone, typing out a quick message to that girl from Idaho. Chrystal responds back, and we pick up right where we left off.

//

This essay was originally published at Sweatpants & Coffee.