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Of all the confections my mother baked over decades, my favourite was the birthday cake she assembled every year in my honour. A white sponge cake, it was cut and rearranged into a multilayer log, with thick, coffee-flavoured buttercream frosting sandwiched between each layer and sculpted generously on the top and sides.
The cake was a sophisticated creation that my mother served chilled from the fridge on an elegant silver platter. In a photo snapped on my third birthday, I’m wearing a green party hat with pink trim, and clapping as the special cake is brought in, adorned with lollipops and candles. This tradition, minus the party hats and lollipops, continued until recently.
My mother died from colon cancer last year, between pandemic waves, during a golden, late-summer week. She was cared for compassionately and expertly by her nurses and doctors, but also by her family. We discovered our role now was to be present for her, as she slept and woke, ate and drank, breathed and spoke. The hours spent with my mother during her months of illness were a gift I couldn’t have anticipated just a year or two earlier. In caring for her alongside my siblings, I became, at 47, the daughter I had always longed to be.
During one of my last visits, as I stood outside her room donning a mask, gloves and gown as required by COVID-19 protocols, I heard Mom exclaim to her nurse, “Oh, that’s Margot’s voice I hear in the hall!” She sounded just the same as she always had and pleased at the thought of seeing me.
Mom asked me what was going on in the world. So I described my train ride and the passersby out on Ottawa’s ByWard Market as they enjoyed warm afternoon sun with their masks on, and giving one another wide, courteous berths while walking on the sidewalks. We flipped through an old photo album, and she narrated details, navigating her memory bank easily to recall wedding guests, names of university roommates, a favourite childhood suitcase and a train ride from Charlottetown to Montreal.
Mom’s supper tray arrived. I tied on her bib and raised her bed to a seated position. I cut her chicken, cauliflower and potatoes into tiny pieces and was happy to see her eat a small portion. For dessert, at my sister’s suggestion, I’d brought her a Kit Kat.
Chocolate bars were a favourite treat, which she loved to indulge in while filling in crosswords, reading anything written by Alexander McCall Smith, or, more recently, passing time in hospital waiting areas. Mom snapped the wafers in half and consumed a few bites with relish.
Exhausted from my visit and the effort to eat supper, Mom promptly fell asleep. I debated waking her to say goodbye – I did, and don’t regret it. “Okay dear, I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said. She lived a few days longer, but that evening was the last time my mother was lucid; it was the last time she would recognize my voice, call me by name or claim me as her own.
From my teenage years onward, communication difficulties and different perspectives limited my relationship with my mother, but she’d always continued to bake, sew and knit for me, and send care packages while I was away teaching in remote communities. Many chances for connection between us had been missed over the years, yet she was happy to hear my voice in the hallway on one of my last visits – she still loved me.
A few months after she died, I took Mom’s well-used recipe album down from its new home on my bookcase. After a lifetime in her kitchen, its stained, pink covers hung from the spiral binding by threads. Leafing through it would be emotional, but in a good way, I hoped. Inside, index cards for main dishes and desserts are interspersed with notes: “Thanksgiving 2015 – 22.5 lbs. Butterball – 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. – just a little bit too long.”
Her recipe files are dessert-heavy, as my mother had a sweet tooth and loved baking. Some recipes are handed down from my grandmother, and their names recall a bygone era: Hello Dolly bars, Donkey Fizzoos, Birds’ Nests, Banana Squares. Other creations, such as lemon meringue pie, Pavlova trifle and rich brownies topped with chocolate rosettes, were Sunday night desserts that I can picture instantly.
As I carefully handled the folded and worn recipes, I noticed directions for mocha buttercream at the bottom of one card, added on in my mother’s neat script. I had found my special birthday frosting! Now, I’ll be able to recreate the cake, to treat myself and honour my mother’s legacy. The result won’t be quite as elegant as Mom’s, but, as with so many other things, it’ll be the effort and process involved that matters.
I’m certain I didn’t thank my mother enough in her life, whether for her baking, for caring for me, for celebrating me or trying her best to reach out to me. It is a deep comfort, however, that my mother forgave me my failings, and this I know because she told me so, adding generously that “we just ran out of time.”
In the end, the cake recipe I cherished was hidden in plain sight all these years, as was an easier path to becoming my mother’s daughter.
Margot Gallant lives in Ottawa.
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