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Mother Cake


In May 2020, Minnesota Stay-at-Home Order Week Five, I see a recipe in the newspaper: parsnip-cardamom-ginger cake with buttercream frosting. I write down the ingredients. Maybe flour is back in stock. It’s the day of my weekly grocery run, and yes, I grab a five-pounder of flour off the shelf, enjoying the heft of the big paper cube and feeling the flour dust dry my hands. I buy parsnips, golden raisins, and butter, along with my weekly staples. Barely inside the back door of my house, I remove my cloth mask and whip it down the basement stairs. I pluck a disinfecting wipe and slather my keys, cell phone, doorknobs, and latch. Setting the grocery bags on the counter, I gingerly pull out the items and put them away. In my way, I pray they’re free of dormant virus, which can angle nonetheless into the mouth, nostrils, and eyes. I wash my hands and repeat to myself again and again, Don’t touch your face, don’t touch your face, don’t touch your face.

I realize before I shred parsnip or break eggs, I should find the mixer needed for the frosting. A stand mixer is called for; an electric hand mixer is what I have. It was my mother’s, and I rarely use it. I pull a step stool in front of the refrigerator and lift my heels to reach over and in, aiming my arm past a large ceramic bowl and pushing aside vases and boxes of chicken broth with dubious expiration dates. Mixer box. I slide it forward, wondering when I last used it. No idea. Back in the dark cupboard, this item is innocent of the virus. All but forgotten, it is clean.

I open the cardboard flaps, soft as dogs’ ears, and pull out the mixer body. I fit the beaters into the holes and plug in the cord. Pressing my thumb carefully against the speed switch, I hope something happens––yes! The motor vibrates, powerful as ever, the beaters whirl, mesmerizing as ever, and I am churning with my mother and the home I left 35 years ago.


5 Powerful Speeds: Whip – Cream – Mix – Blend – Fold

My mother died on a warm day with the window open above her bed. October 2005. Two caregivers could barely stand in the small room my sister and I shared as children, jammed now with a hospital bed, commode, and side table for medications and supplies. When my mother’s cancer returned after an eight-month remission, the oncologist said the metastasis was advanced. My sister lived close by, and I was half a continent away; I agreed to anything my aging father and exhausted sister thought best, including only palliative care, given my mother’s age. She was 81. She was also in denial, sure she would recover. I flew there every two weeks for several months to give my sister and father relief, let them step out of the house, do an errand, park their car in the sun, and cry. 

My mother had grown up poor, one of 10 children packed in a Vermont farmhouse with an exhausted mother and abusive father during the Great Depression. Never having enough had scarred her; shame and fear were her ground. My father had never made much money, but my sister and I never went hungry like my mother had. We had food and school clothes each year. My mother bought us new what she had never had, but large dollops of envy were folded into her gifts. A sweater on the floor was a personal affront to her, “You don’t know how lucky you are” a refrain. She didn’t talk specifics about her childhood, so we didn’t understand; we just felt how she resented us, resented motherhood, maybe resented living. 

Now, in her dying, as she orbited around denial and terror, she lashed out at all of us in our bedside rotations. The tumor was growing fast and pressing on organs in her pelvis; she was agitated in any position. There were nonstop demands to sit up, drink water, sip applesauce, use the commode, roll over, have a blanket, not have a blanket. She moaned at my father when he moved her, accused my sister of poisoning her, snarled at the hospice nurses. When I was there she wondered why, even as she asked me to comb her hair, open the window, pull something out of the drawer. My heart was sore, seeing how thin, tired, and mad she was. During one visit, as I sat on the edge of her bed, she told me I had dealt her a “death blow” when I moved away. 20 years earlier. I didn’t argue with her, but I felt her redirecting the blow back at me. 20 years later. She had good aim.

She wanted her mouth to taste better. She chided me when I slid a toothbrush over her teeth, so gently as if to wash moth wings. 


Convenient Fingertip Control

The mixer box is 1970s mustard yellow, with the word “gold” on a sticker. The “Electric Portable 5 Speed Hand Mixer” floats in the gold sky of the box, like one of the Apollo spacecraft from the same period. Wonders happen in the kitchen, the mixer box suggests, for any lucky woman using this Eastern Electric PM-5S. We creamed butter and sugar with the mixer in my mother’s kitchen, faster than mincing inch-by-inch with the wooden spoon tip. Using low speed, we cut butter into steamed potatoes, butter vanishing into the white potato flesh. On rainy days, my sister and I watched my mother blend cake batter velvet smooth and whip egg whites from viscous to stiff. Mother pressed the eject button and presented each of us with a cake batter beater to lick, or she used two spoons to make cookies, so we each had a tongue tip of raw dough. 


Positive Beater Ejector

My mother sent me the mixer in 1993 when I moved to St. Paul. I had been living on the other side of the country for 10 years, in the Bay Area, the “death blow.” She considered the move to Minnesota respectable and halfway home. I found it conciliatory to an adulthood I wasn’t sure I wanted. I was suddenly far from friends and either ocean, and I was taking a more-than-full-time job I wasn’t sure I could handle. But I would be earning an actual salary and this, to both parents, was proof I was coming to my senses. To mark this event, my mother shipped a box of things she no longer used, so I would be ready to “entertain” or cook––especially for the husband my mother hoped would materialize. The mixer box was wrapped in table linens, aprons, and tea towels. Napkin rings and assorted serving implements also tumbled out. My mother had never used any of these hostessing items herself but had bought them on sale, imagining she might have need, someday, or her daughters might. Dormant in drawers, they were props in unwritten scenes of mid-century ease, proof she’d left behind the hand-me-down helplessness of her childhood. The items belonged on tables in women’s magazines, displaying femininity, homemaking, happiness. Having table linens and napkin rings, just having them, had been a defense for my mother against memories of want. I sensed her hoping I would never feel want either, as I unpacked her box. I also sensed her giving up on needing these items and relinquishing hope that I would ever return home, except as a visitor. A stranger. 


Ideal for Wall Storage

I assemble the parsnip cake in lurches, flour everywhere, and the sink piled with bowls. I pour the batter into a greased and floured cake pan and slide it into the oven. I am exhausted, but there is still the frosting to make. For that, I purchased cream cheese, candied ginger, and vanilla. I already have maple syrup and an undated bag of confectioner’s sugar. After the startlingly fraught process of cake-making, where I felt incompetent and distracted by memories of my mother, I am ambivalent about the frosting. I think we, my husband and I, can, should, do without.

By the time I was 12, baking cake with Mom meant just cake, no frosting. The no-frosting policy was not about my sister, who was thin; it was about me since I was not. “Heavy-set but a beautiful face,” my mother’s words. She declared I had to start “watching my weight.” The ideal for ladies had shifted from mid-century plump to Twiggy slim, and my mother herself had been slender, so her campaign began. Overtly, it was to ensure I had every advantage. It was also an induction into self-loathing on the brink of my teenage years. The campaign ensured I would be a wallflower at parties, overly serious about school, and happiest when inside reading. I lost interest in baking and in anything involving my mother’s approval. Except school.

I look at the package of cream cheese I bought for the cardamom cake. Calories. Years of adult therapy mean I mostly no longer self-loathe. But this ambivalence over the frosting is strong, old. I think about eating cake with women friends over the years, at parties or work events. Most women I know pass on dessert or say,
Oh no, half that size, or, Would anyone like to share this? At tables, while they think no one’s watching, they skim the frosting with a knife and wipe it on the edge of the plate. They eat their cake carefully, beseeching each otherworldly mouthful to please not go to their hips

The mixer sits beaters-down in its box, the “built-in heel rest” sticking up like a dabbling duck’s tail. I run the hot water and wash the bowls, measuring cups, spoons, and other items in the sink. It is early evening and the windows are open. I think of my mother gone 15 years, my father gone five, my sister quarantined in Massachusetts. I think of the work I’ve done offloading the contempt that raised me, accepting the woman who sent me the mixer and creased table linens, napkin rings and pearl-handled cake servers. I miss her, my father, my sister. I feel weightless and orphaned. This nightmare pandemic is just getting started, and it feels like the end of the world. The water runs hot, and the soap is foamy. I may be safe in my kitchen doing dishes, but when I turn on the TV, I’ll see nurses wearing garbage bags and makeshift face shields, astronauts from a failed planet. There will be hospital hallways lined with beds, people in them breathing through hoses. My husband and I watch these scenes nightly. We witness our fellow humans’ terror, and we brace ourselves for what could happen to us, what has happened to people we know. We declare each night what we are grateful for. “Having each other” tops the list every night, and we know it could all crash in a day. 

I make the damned frosting, using all five speeds. 


Eastern Electric

That night in a dream, my mother lies on her side in her hospital bed in my childhood room. A blanket covers her. She wears her dark-rimmed glasses, just as I remember her. She is afraid but speaks about her fear with acceptance and steadiness. She does not speak of the death blow she felt when I moved. I am with her, sitting against her thin legs on the bed’s edge. It is dark in the dream room, but somehow my mother is fully illuminated. I say she has been the best mother she could be; she does not reply, but I know she is grateful to hear it. I cup my hand on her shoulder, feel how small and bony her shoulder is under the blanket. I am sad. Childless though I am, I feel like a mother soothing a gravely ill child. I feel like a daughter, touching my gravely ill mother. There is no distance, no masks. We are on our own moon, and touch speaks to the dying.

The next morning, still in the reverence of the dream, I pour coffee and put dishes away. I nest mixing bowls below the counter and see––as if in a parallel dimension––my mother’s pots, pans, and bowls jumbled in her cupboards. Sliding my own wooden spoons into their tray, I see her messy spoon and spatula drawer. I take up the gold box and gaze at the mixer floating in an aureate sky. She kept the mixer in its box, cord tucked under the handle, so she wouldn’t lose the beaters. I fit each clean beater on either side of the handle and tuck in the cardboard flaps. Eastern Electric. My overnight, unplanned mission.

The parsnip cardamom cake is wrapped in foil on the counter. Frosting is in a bowl in the fridge to apply piece by piece as my husband and I eat our way through so much cake. There’s no one else to share it with. Perhaps folly, making a whole cake, but I am glad. The PM-5S brought me to my mother, and my mother to me, as the May moon waxed and seemed, that morning, to touch the earth.



Beth Cleary

Beth Cleary's essays have been published in Fourth Genre, After the Art, Invisible City, The Dollhouse, and other literary journals. After a quarter-century tenured in academia, Beth now writes, reads, and tends her gardens in St. Paul, Minnesota.


Beth Cleary's essays have been published in Fourth Genre, After the Art, Invisible City, The Dollhouse, and other literary journals. After a quarter-century tenured in academia, Beth now writes, reads, and tends her gardens in St. Paul, Minnesota.