Image from a Bedraggled Joy of Cooking

I’m generally eager to try new things. Novelty draws me faster than routine. I’ve had too many exciting adventures to recount but in the wake of starting new things are the many partially manifest dreams. 

If I look through the lens of birth trauma imprints, it’s all clear. As excruciating as it is to acknowledge the persistence of this pattern, I find such relief to have a cause attributable to something other than some laziness of mine or other character fault. 

Once upon a time, I experienced a strong urge to go home. I’d been living in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains, testing my ability to haul water and chop wood, surviving with fewer familiar comforts than I’d imagined possible. 

This home I was drawn to was my mother’s home, a few thousand miles east of me. I trusted that strangers were safe and wanted to help me so off I went, thumb out, hitching rides from Colorado to New York. It didn’t occur to me to let Mom know that I was coming.

I arrived unannounced on her doorstep to learn she was preparing to sign herself into a thirty-day rehab program. Her family physician had finally convinced her to get help for her ‘drinking problem’. And just when she needed someone to stay with my thirteen year old brother, I show up. New adventures looming for all three of us.

One of the most bizarre things I had to offer my brother was my cooking. Bizarre because I had little experience with homemaker duties despite my good grades in Home Ec classes in junior high. Cooking, cleaning, shopping – all pretty foreign. We grew up in a home where Mom took care of most everything especially the cooking. Dinner was frozen store-bought vegetables accompanied by baked or mashed potatoes and fried, baked or roasted meat or fish. And dessert afterwards of course, usually store-bought cookies. Cookies with obvious chocolate, like oreos and chocolate chip cookies. 

In my happy hippy days out west far from the culture of my childhood, I’d learned to approach food differently. First: eat it raw whenever possible, and ideally fresh picked from the garden. If it would be cooked, then go for lightly steamed or sauteed.  According to my brother, I introduced him to the pleasures of eating cooked carrots, sliced on the diagonal and lightly sauteed. I bet I served these with steamed whole grain brown rice, another novelty in Mom’s home. 

As luck would have it, I was there for his birthday. Eager for another adventure, I decided I’d bake him a birthday cake. From scratch. Not from a store-bought boxed mix as was the tradition. No. From scratch. 

I used a recipe for this because baking anything from scratch besides potatoes (whole in their skin at 400F for an hour) was well beyond the scope of my kitchen prowess. True to my love of adventure, and my convictions about healthy ingredients, I did some substituting. And I doubled the recipe so I could bake a cake FOUR LAYERS HIGH. My brother deserved nothing less! 

So, this is where it gets tough. I want to skip writing down these next steps of baking and get right to the end of the story. But that wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t be fair to me who is trying her best to write a complete story full of sequential details, even if I have to make them up because all this happened so long ago. And as research shows, traumatic events hijack the accuracy of memories. 

I probably found all the baking pans I’d need right there in the well-stocked cupboards of Mom’s tiny kitchen. I probably preheated the oven according to the recipe despite my terror of lighting her gas oven with a match. I probably greased the four round pans with butter and poured in the cake batter. I probably spaced them nicely in the oven so the heat would circulate providing uniform cooking. I probably peeked after fifteen minutes to see the layers starting to rise as they cooked. I probably did all those things. 

The timer dinged announcing the cake is baked. Excitedly I got the oven mitts and opened the oven door. And gasped! All four layers were done, and each perfectly browned layer was half an inch high! 

Despite my shock and profound disappointment, I wasn’t going to throw it all into the trash. Too much effort invested in this remarkable feat. 

I proceeded to set the pans on the counter to cool then remove those little flat disk things, and to layer and frost them with the honeyed jam stuff I’d concocted. I carefully placed the birthday candles, lit them and carried the failed experiment into the dining room, bravely singing Happy Birthday to my waiting brother. 

And while shame was consuming me, he and I consumed this very unusual but surprisingly tasty two inch high four layer cake. The first and only cake I ever baked.