One Last Slice
“You could cry, or die, or just make pies all day. . .”
Sometimes the reach of an ordinary act of love is astounding. Once in a while, something routine and unremarkable makes a tremendous impact. On occasion, the mundane is transformed into something priceless. All it takes is a little sentiment, a dash of compassion. . .
The Perennial Baker
At some point I became the baker. Not just a baker, but the baker. Whenever someone in our circle of friends was having a birthday, there was a silent acknowledgement—an expectation—that I’d be whipping together a layer cake. I don’t say this to complain; I’m deeply honored that people not only eat the cakes and other baked goods I prepare for them, but actually look forward to whatever is going to come out of my kitchen.
Let’s blame my mother, because that’s the easiest thing. She’s the real baker in the family, and could bake circles around me using a rusty tin can, heated over a candle, while sleeping upside down. Seriously. The woman has read tomes on the differences between baking soda and baking powder. She’s even scientifically fine-tuned her own bread recipe.
So it probably started the day we were on the phone and she asked me if I’d seen the cover of Fine Cooking Magazine that month.
“No, not yet. What’s on it?” I asked.
“Oh, probably the most beautiful cake I’ve ever seen. It’s a Hot Chocolate cake with homemade marshmallows on top. I was thinking about making it, but. . .”
“But?” I asked, intrigued.
“I looked at the nutrition information.”
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Revenge is better with a side of bacon. . .
“And it’s over a thousand calories a slice—over seventeen-thousand for the whole cake. That’s kind of irresponsible, don’t you think?”
Suffice it to say, my interest was piqued! A nine-inch layer cake that serves sixteen with over a thousand calories a slice? Not good for the waistline or America’s obesity epidemic, but with those numbers it had to be good!
I think I found the recipe the moment I was off the phone. The process was incredibly labor-intensive, but the finished product made a huge impact. In fact it was the best chocolate cake I’d ever eaten (one has since eclipsed it, but we’ll save that for the end of this post). It was such a hit, I used the recipe a few years later as the basis for a wedding cake for our dear friends Erin and Eric.
I mean, I was really just following instructions. Still, this was probably the beginning of my reputation as The Baker. As the years passed, my notoriety increased as I tackled more amazing cakes (always from Fine Cooking Magazine, the only source I use for baking recipes), and at some point my in-laws found out.
Since then, we’ve rarely attended a family birthday without a cake in hand. It is my marital duty to point out at this juncture that I do not always bake alone. Brian has helped with many a Boston Cream Pie, and the occasional Flourless Chocolate. His assistance is invaluable, and he rarely gets the co-pilot credit he deserves. But I digress. . .
So now I’m the perennial baker, and that’s just fine with me. I treasure the memories of all the baked things that have come out of our oven, but there’s one in particular—the most recent—that I’ll never forget.
It’s probably not for the reasons you think.
When Life Gives You Apples
During a recent visit with her parents, Erin (for whom I baked the Hot Chocolate wedding cake and that disastrous Black Forest failure I wrote about) went apple picking. It’s autumn in New England after all, and if you don’t at least consider apple picking as an activity, there is a secret government agency that will arrest you and relocate you somewhere horrible (like Florida [sorry if you’re reading this Floridians]). In any case, she knew Brian and I were busy and wouldn’t have time, so she brought us something like fifteen pounds of apples.
Generally speaking, I think apples are a stupid fruit. I realize this will evoke great ire with some people, but that’s how I feel. I won’t go into it just now because I don’t want this post to be ten thousand words long (I will not succumb to a fruit rant), but if you give me enough heat in the comments section, maybe I’ll tell you why in another post.
So what the hell was I supposed to do with fifteen pounds of apples? I grudgingly ate quite a few, and so did Brian, but the pile just wasn’t going down fast enough.
Luckily, around this time, Brian’s mother’s 70th birthday was coming up. I’d made a flourless chocolate cake for the last few birthdays in the family, and I was kind of caked out, so I thought why not an apple pie? Okay, definitely not a traditional birthday dessert, but seriously! Those apples needed to go. And while I think apples are kind of awful, I think apple pie is divine. Win-win, right?
So I turned to Fine Cooking, as usual. I found an apple pie filling recipe I liked and paired it with a crust recipe I preferred. Then one Thursday morning a couple weeks ago I pulled out the peeler and went to town.
Truthfully, I wasn’t completely into it. I was stressed balancing writing stuff and day job stuff. Brian’s 91-year-old grandmother was ailing, and our Fall calendar was full-to-brimming with family events and social obligations. Still, I pulled down the vintage Pyrex bowls we’d gotten from said grandmother, and slogged through. It took more time than I’d budgeted, but the resulting pie was gorgeous. I filled it with as much love (and as many apples) as I could manage, and in the end was more than a little proud of the result.
We wrapped it tightly in aluminum foil and carefully transported it to Pennsylvania the next day. When it debuted at Brian’s mother’s birthday party the day after, it was a huge hit. The apples were soft and sweet, and the crust perfectly flaky. At the end of the night it was divided up—a large portion to go home with the birthday girl, a slice reserved for Brian’s Gram, and even a portion to be taken to my brother-in-law’s wife’s family in New Jersey. That’s some serious mileage for a little pie!
One Last Slice of Life
The next morning Brian and I climbed in the car and drove the hour and a half to the retirement home where Brian’s Gram has been living the last few years. We’ve had quite a few trips to Pennsylvania this year—especially in the last couple months—because Gram went into hospice care in July. Along with Brian’s sister, we had an amazing visit—perhaps the best in years. She was funny, and happy, and so full of life.
When presented with the pie, she ate with more vigor than we’ve seen out of her in ages. She wasn’t at all shy in telling us that it was great. “When people make apple pies the apples are alway so hard.” she said. “These apples are so soft. I like them when they’re soft. How did you make this?”
“We used your bowls, Gram.” Brian said.
“Oh! Those bowls were a wedding present for me and Pop, you know.”
Perhaps that explained it. I knew this, but had maybe forgotten. That was a particularly touching moment for me—to see her enjoying a pie that was mixed and molded, and whose ingredients had briefly resided, within bowls she’d received as a token of love in the 1940s.
“This is a big slice,” she said after devouring half of it. “I’d like to save the rest for later.”
“Okay Gram,” Brian said. “Glad you enjoyed it.”
So was I.
We left on a hight note. It was the best visit we’d had with her in years, and as we left the retirement home and started the six hour journey back to Boston, I think both of us were grateful that we’d come. These last few months every visit has had the potential to be the last, and if this visit was the one, at least it was also the best.
The truth is, she didn’t eat much after that. By the middle of the next week, she wasn’t eating at all. Now, as I’m writing this, I’m sitting in Pennsylvania again just a short twelve days later (it’s likely been longer by the time you’re reading this), because Gram left us last night.
Just now, the family is at the beginning of the grieving process. The funeral is in a few days time, but I won’t dwell on that, because it isn’t the point I want to make. There’s one more piece to this story.
The night of the birthday party, Brian’s parents got a call. A dear family friend was in the hospital and it wasn’t looking good. The day we visited Gram for the last time, they visited their friend.
They brought him a slice of pie. And why not? What is more comforting than classic apple pie? He enjoyed it very much, I’m told.
It might have been the last thing he ate, because he passed the next day.
And all of it makes me so very sad, but also. . .
There’s Always Enough To Go Around
When we act to put more love into the universe, we can’t predict just how far it will go. And when we put out more love, we ensure there’ll always be enough to go around.
The truth is, I didn’t want to make that pie. I wanted to write a blog post that day instead, or work on a newsletter. But I’m so glad that I didn’t; I’m so grateful I took those seventy-year-old bowls down out of the cabinet and said to hell with the rest of it. I’m thankful I filled them with love.
I’m glad Brian and I were able to share the gift of flour and butter and fruit and sugar—that the collection of these mundane things was able to bring joy not just to our family, but to the final moments and days of two souls ready to leave this earth.
For that I am more than thankful. I am humbled. And it leaves me thinking. . .
What if every action we took out of love—even if we didn’t feel like it—could have such an impact? What if it already does? How can we possibly measure? What does the world miss out on when, instead, we attend to our more selfish desires?
I’m not sure how the next few days will shape up, but perhaps if there is time—maybe if there are two spare hours—maybe Brian and I will slip into the kitchen and bake another.
And oh, the best chocolate cake I’ve ever had? That honor goes to Gram’s recipe, made in those trusty old bowls by her own, old, knowing hands.
May she rest in peace.
Thanks as always for reading,