gratitude cake

I started this post several months ago, and for some reason I just never finished it. Last week, in a series of serendipitous events, I remembered it, and so now I’m sitting down to finish the first story, and start the second one.

The last thing I made for my grandfather was this cake. It was several years ago, and we were visiting over the Labor Day weekend, and I brought a plum torte with me. It was sort of a birthday cake, although I’m sure we probably also had homemade ice cream that my parents made. It’s probably one of the few things I ever made for him to eat. I didn’t cook much as a kid, and I’ve lived away for all of my adult life. When we visit family we are usually fed, not the other way around. When he would visit us in the early years of our marriage we would always eat out somewhere around town – his treat! – and I wasn’t much of a cook in those years either.

Still, so many of my memories of my grandfather center around the table. There are holidays and birthdays and all the food traditions of home, of course. But the ones that I think about when I think of him are simpler. At least once a week over the course of my summer internships during college, I’d leave the office at noon and cut through a few neighborhoods to his house for lunch. My grandmother would make me a sandwich, and my aunt would fill one of their tupperware tumblers (avocado green with a white rim at the top) with ice and water from the front of the refrigerator. The water would smell like tupperware and my grandparents’ kitchen. I took a drink from a plastic tumbler the other day and it all came rushing back – it’s such a signature smell to me. 

There are just a couple of weeks when Italian prune plums are in the stores, and I’ve learned to buy them all when they arrive. They show up near the start of September, right before my grandfather’s birthday on the 4th, and my niece’s birthday just a few days later, on the 6th. This year I bought over 150 of them, and I started making a couple of these plum tortes a night. The house smelled delicious for a week or more. I began to think of them as a gratitude cake. Each year, to honor my niece’s birthday, we do acts of kindness in her memory. I brought this torte with me everywhere on her birthday – sharing it with people that are special to me, people doing work we appreciate, people we love.

I made so many tortes that I decided to freeze a few. I served a couple at the Open House reception I throw each year in October. They were a hit. I love to share food with others. I love to watch people smile when they eat it, to turn and tell their friends to grab a slice before it’s gone. One third grade boy started hanging out with me after he finished his slice. He asked me a lot of questions about the ingredients, and how I made it. He told me it was delicious. He brought his mother in to share a slice. She’s a new friend to me, and I love that we stood together for a few minutes and talked while she ate. She mentioned the cake again at a birthday party last month. She’s still thinking about it, and that makes me smile.

We had two cakes left in the freezer, but when M picked up some pasta orders from a school fundraiser last Friday, our freezer got very, very full. He sorted and rearranged everything, and managed to fit it all in. But when I opened the door later that weekend, I noticed the cakes sitting on the top of the pile, and thought I’d put one in the refrigerator to thaw. Maybe for a Tuesday night, post parent-teacher conference treat. Maybe to throw in the car for our trip to spend Thanksgiving with family. Maybe for a little bit of late summer in November.

Tuesday night conferences never happened. M called me around four that afternoon and told me that he was headed to radiology for a CAT scan for a suspected ruptured appendix. Suspicions were confirmed, and our evening plans and travel plans and holiday plans all came to screeching halt. I raced around to pick up the girls, rushing to get us all back to the hospital to see M before he was taken into surgery. But the surgery had to wait – there are necessary interventions first. We sat up most of the night, piled onto a tiny hospital bed, and then a second one. Later, the girls and I climbed into one bed at home to sleep for a couple of hours. I snuck out before dawn to return. Hospital minutes drag on and on and on, and just when you nod off for a moment, someone comes in to wake you up and talk some more. There was little sleep, and little eating.

Two years ago our Thanksgiving travel plans to visit M’s family abruptly changed when my grandfather fell ill and entered the ICU. We decided we needed to be there, and to provide some support and relief for my parents and my sister and her family (which included a newborn). We packed quickly, and I scooped up a stack of cookbooks on the way out the door. During the drive I mapped out a meal plan for the rest of the week, enough food to feed eleven people as they moved in and out of hospital watch and through those foggy first weeks of infant care. I wasn’t sure how much we could to do ease the burdens of those days, but I knew that I could make sure that everyone was fed, and had a table to sit down to each evening. I wasn’t cooking for my grandfather, although I longed for him to be sitting there at the table with us. But in a way I was. When we visited him in the hospital, my mother was telling him all about the food we had feasted on the night before. My husband was feeding him scrambled eggs, and coaxing him to drink some water, and he was listening to the description of our thrown together Thanksgiving while he ate. He seemed the most alert during that time. I think he knew we were all together, and understood the significance of that gathering.

Thanksgiving morning felt pretty heavy last week. We were all exhausted and disoriented. The fridge had been cleaned out in anticipation of our travels. We had planned to be fed for five days, and now we were home from the hospital, tired and off schedule, with no real appetite for anything. We thought we should get some fresh air, find some coffee (for me), stretch our legs a bit to get the blood pumping again. We went to the garden and stayed for a few hours until mid-afternoon. We searched for a few places that might be open on the holiday, but struck out everywhere. We headed home to make peanut butter sandwiches and call it a day. Everyone traipsed upstairs to watch the recorded Macy’s parade, and I started to dig through what was left in the fridge.

The first thing I saw was this cake. I put it out on a cake stand, and set it in the center of the table. The sunlight was streaming in the back window as I dove back into the fridge for more inspiration. I turned the oven on and tossed some squash and brussels sprouts onto a tray for roasting. I started some water to boil, and pulled out some of that new pasta in the freezer. I diced up a lone pretzel roll into bite size pieces to share. Raw veggies came out of the bin and into dishes. I poured pear juice into wine glasses for the girls. I called them all downstairs for sandwiches and surprised them with this.

And there in the center was that plum torte. One of a dozen or more. One that I first made years ago for my grandfather. One that I share every fall with others. A gratitude cake that showed up just when we needed it most.

5 Responses to gratitude cake

  1. What a beautiful story.
    I have been following your blog for years. Though some years younger than you, I am also an architect, also have a couple of children, and used to always have some renovation or project on the go in in my spare time. In this busy, often rushed season of my life, I often lament the fact that I don’t have the time/energy/will to make elaborate dinners or pursue hobbies I once enjoyed. It brings me immense comfort to read that you didn’t always cook/bake like you do now, that in the early days you subsisted on quick meals and take out. It gives me hope that I will one day find my way back to the activities I enjoyed and perhaps discover new pursuits.
    This is my little note of gratitude for discovering inspirational voices like yours in this vast internet. Thank you.

    • I felt that way as well, and still do to some degree. But I have found ways to do the things that fill me up and keep me going, and I’ve incorporated those into a busy life with children and work. One thing I discovered pretty early on was that it was okay to do things that I enjoyed around my children, rather than waiting for them to go to bed – because who’s got any energy then? If I had a project that I wanted to work on, then I just set up shop somewhere in the house, and the girls would watch or play near me or sometimes help out. It took some practice, but looking back on it now, I wouldn’t change it. I think it’s good that they see me doing things that are important to me. I used to feel tremendously guilty for taking time to work out or run (so I just never did it!) because I was already away from them all day at work. But I also want them to be healthy and happy and feel balance in their own lives, so showing them how I find that is a good thing.

      I remember when E was little and I felt this tremendous need to have some sort of creative outlet. I discovered this little pottery painting studio with an owner I grew to love, and we’d spend hours in there. I don’t know that I needed a bunch of painted pottery, but there were a few years where I made a lot of homemade tree ornaments! E would sit in this little plastic high chair next to me, and she’d paint with water onto paper towels, or flip through board books. It was so peaceful in that space, and when I see her lost in her own art projects in her room, it takes me right back to that space. Those moments were important. They filled me up, and her as well.

      I really appreciate your note. Thank you.

  2. My friend, this is so lovely, it brought tears to my eyes. You are magic. And you share it with everyone. Thank you.

  3. I love that cooking and feeding your people is your love language. This was a sweet post. Glad the gratitude was extended back your way
    Caroline recently posted…The Italy Trip RecapMy Profile

  4. Some of the best meals spring from an “empty” fridge. I’m really a recipe follower and not experienced at making do with food, but we’ve surprised ourselves on several occasions with what we can come up with. And it usually happens when we’re the most drained. Always worth it. So sorry your holiday plan was crashed and hope M is doing better.

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