Sample Cake

I noticed some of my mother-in-law’s idiosyncrasies even before I married the youngest of her four sons. Her rigid Friday schedule included cleaning house and baking the cake for Sunday dinner. That’s not to say there was not dessert the rest of the week. There was always dessert, but the cake for Sunday dinner, eaten right after church services, had to be special.

Remember that I said this cake was for Sunday dinner. That meant not a slice was cut before Sunday noon. My introduction to this ritual came on a Friday night when the date with my future husband included going to their house to watch some TV show we liked that has slipped my memory – wasn’t Lawrence Welk because that was on Saturday. Her cake sat in the middle of the dining room table in all its chocolate glory. It would not be cut even for a prospective daughter-in-law. I found this intriguing since any cake at my home of origin would have been cut, and maybe gone, shortly after the sun went down on the day that it was baked.  

However, all was not lost. She came in not too long after we settled in to see the show bearing portions of her “sample cake.” She had a tiny pan and had lifted enough batter before baking the cake to make a sample. Other differences from my home of origin were immediately apparent. The cake, light and moist, was topped with a cooked chocolate frosting – far beyond the mix of confectioner’s sugar, butter, and cocoa in the icing of my experience. She redeemed herself even before I got a piece of the real cake – after it was cut on Sunday, of course.

About fifteen years into our marriage, that son began to bake cakes on occasion. In retirement, he has turned cake baking into a true avocation, collecting and trying out recipes to the delight of his family, friends, and the church potluck crowd. This week he’s baked a carrot cake, a hummingbird cake, and an Italian cream cake for Christmas gifts for our surrounding neighbors. Thankfully, he has not “forgotten his raising.” He, too, has a tiny pan and lifted enough to make a sample for me to test.

The cake, light and moist, was topped with cream cheese icing. I’m glad that apple did not fall far from its tree.


We Should Hang Out Sometime

Hang with me here as I fulfill my promise to continue my theme of books serving as mirrors and windows with a review of one with a window to an unusual kind of diversity. Josh Sundquist in his memoir, We Should Hang Out Sometime: Embarrassingly A True Story, sets up a window into a life with choices: (1) wearing a prosthesis, (2) using crutches, or (3) hopping on one leg – and that’s just his major diversity. He’s survived cancer as a nine-year-old and been home-schooled until he enters high school.

The setup belies the humor that starts immediately as his twenty-five-year-old self begins a scientific look backward into why he has never been able to get a girl friend. His differences quickly become background to a socially awkward boy with the title’s pickup line, “We should hang out sometime.” His scientific approach to why none of his efforts with girls worked out (unless you count the twenty-three hours that Sarah was his girl friend in eighth grade) takes each of his female prospects through a background story and a hypothesis. His adult self tracks down the women and interviews them to check the accuracy of that hypothesis. He completes his pseudoscientific aura with funny charts and diagrams.

The humor strikes early. “Both my parents are wire-frame skinny, my mom because she’s a raw vegan, and my dad because he’s married to one.”  It comes often, “A lot of people want their first kiss to be special. I just wanted mine to be in this lifetime.”

The book is an obvious choice for boys from 7th grade up who can see a mirror of hopeful awkwardness toward girls. It’s also a nice window for girls and adults who look at teenage boys and ask, “What in the world are they thinking?” His diversity of a leg lost to cancer plays its part now and then but is not central to who Josh was – just an adolescent boy who really wants a girl friend. Maybe the book will provide hope that this awkward stage will not last forever as Josh has gone on to become a Paralympian, a motivational speaker, and a best-selling author. I’ll not spoil the ending by letting you know if he ever gets a girl friend.


Mirrors and Windows

I’m borrowing the metaphor of windows and mirrors from National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson and wishing I could borrow her eloquence along with it. I concur with her belief that children (and perhaps adults) should find each in their books as they see people who are both like and different from themselves. I join my small voice in a growing choir of children’s book people calling for diversity in their books. By definition, diversity includes ethnicity, gender, religion, mental and physical challenges, and no doubt others that don’t come to my mind at the moment.

Growing up a vanilla person in a world of vanilla books, my first memory of a book that gave me a peek out the window was All-of-a-Kind Family. The five Jewish sisters of the book grew up in New York City’s east side at the turn of the century. We four daughters of a Baptist preacher grew up in rural North Mississippi. Stepping through the book’s window, I experienced a different world eating Mama’s hamantaschen and gefilte fish, going down to Papa’s shop in the basement, and celebrating Purim and Passover.

Yet even as I enjoyed these new experiences and exotic food, I glimpsed things I could also see in the mirror. We four McGee sisters figured out what long-lasting items to buy in the candy counter with our small change. We hated the dusting chore that Mama assigned, and we looked forward to celebrating our own religious holidays of Easter and Christmas. Naturally, I felt a close kinship with Ella as the oldest in a group of close knit sisters who created their own entertainment and overcame small differences of opinion from time to time.

Love for this book has led to other things. I began to look purposefully for other books that gave me a peek out the window – books that were “scarce as hen’s teeth” at that time – to use a Southern expression. I read All-of-a-Kind Family aloud every one of the fourteen years that I taught second grade with hardly a Jewish child in sight. My students loved the view out that window as much as I did. And I believe the book began a love that I am carrying now to the third generation as I give books to my grandchildren with both windows and mirrors.

My voice in this diversity chorus may be small and sometimes a bit off-key, but each voice counts. I hope you, too, will join this choir in celebrating the variety in the human race as you buy and share books that have both windows and mirrors.

[Sneak preview: Monday’s blog will review a new book on an unusual kind of diversity.]


Nobody's Secret

In time for Emily Dickinson’s 184th birthday on December 10, let me recommend a good book for your celebration. Michaela MacColl created an imaginative mystery set in the life of fifteen-year-old Emily before she became the recluse poet that many of us have loved. The title, Nobody’s Secret, comes from the famous “I’m Nobody” poem. I met Michaela at a Highlights Foundation workshop in August. The twinkle in her eye gives a hint of the fun to come in her book.

A mysterious stranger turns up on the Dickinson land to introduce the story. His uncanny knowledge of her and her family intrigues Emily. When he turns up dead in the family pond, the intrigue turns to a mixture of guilt and determination to solve the mystery of who killed him and why. She enlists the help of younger sister Vinnie and the chase is on.

Michaela cleverly entices her readers to suspend disbelief that the reclusive poet could have been a determined teenaged detective, defying many of the restrictions put on young women of the day. Carefully researched and true to the time period, she weaves an intriguing story filled with family secrets, romance, and danger. Adding zest to her story are the quotes at the beginning of each chapter from Emily’s poems that foreshadow upcoming happenings.

Author’s notes satisfy the reader’s curiosity about which parts of the story are facts and which are purely figments of Michaela’s imagination.

This book is listed as young adult, and I like young adults as well or better than the next one, but surely we don’t want to let them have all the fun. If you like Emily Dickinson, mysteries, or both, go ahead. Treat yourself to a good read.


The Attraction of Opposites

A younger friend gave some good advice in our discussion about how opposites attract as we discussed the issue of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty. She and her husband have opposite positions in this view from us in that her husband takes the half-full option while she takes the half-empty one. In wisdom, she said that kept them from going overboard in either direction. I’m going to make an effort to keep that in mind when Al fails to see all the good stuff in that half-full glass.

This season brings another issue on which we are opposites. The first Christmas with an empty nest and nobody returning to share it, I was shocked to hear Al ask, “So, nobody is going to be here this year so we don’t need to put up a tree, do we?”

“What do you mean? I’m going to be here.” According to my philosophy, the day after Thanksgiving was made for cooking gumbo with the remains of the turkey, watching football, and putting up Christmas decorations. I scatter them throughout the house, often finding a forgotten relic of the season in some corner as I get ready for Easter.

Al muttered and grumbled, a cross between the Grinch and Scrooge. The boxes came out of storage, the tree went up, the outside lights were strung, and the yard ornaments properly placed. The next time we were alone for Christmas, he grudgingly said, “I guess you’re gonna want all that Christmas stuff out.”  

This year, he brought up the subject himself. “I think Tiny Tim needs a little more wood to sit on than I put out last year.”

There appears to be hope even for the Grinch, Scrooge, and Al. After all, “in Who-ville they say that the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day!” – and at the Christmas celebration, the Grinch himself carved the roast-beast!

As for Scrooge when his heart was turned, it was said that he “knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed that knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, [and as Al and I would echo] God bless us, Every One!”