Butter Cake Attempt #2 (St. Louis Style)

Gooey Butter Cake

Gooey Butter Cake

I have once again avoided working on a lovely Sunday by sequestering myself within the walls of my kitchen. I am visiting a dear friend this afternoon whose father passed away Tuesday. I’ve never been good with expressing empathy and I often find that cooking must substitute for the words I cannot find. I spent this morning baking a Butter Cake (Version #2) to bring to her.

This butter cake is of the St. Louis “gooey” variety, similar to Paula Deen’s version, but made from scratch rather than a mix. I found this recipe on Mama’s Empty Nest, adapted from Heimburger Bakery in St. Louis.

I baked mine for 33 minutes, rather than the 25-30 minutes called for in the recipe. I’ve seen too many gooey butter cakes consisting of a cake shell oozing with a filling  resembling pancake batter (blech!). I wanted a moist outcome closer to Tres Leches. I am once again disappointed. I would call it “gloppy butter cake”. Not awful, but the paste-like, interior leaves something to be desired.

For Kafka


He was no bigger than her hand and just four weeks old, too young to be properly weaned. She chose him for his rambunctiousness – and for his pink nose that was entirely too big for his face and made her smile. She swaddled him in an old towel, flipped him unwillingly on his back and coaxed the bottle between his tiny, razor-sharp kitten teeth. “How could anyone be so heartless as to drown a litter of helpless kittens,” she thought as her new companion settled into slurping the milky formula. She had wanted a kitten for months, but her boyfriend had convinced her to wait until he moved in. Well, that wasn’t going to happen now, but at least she had the kitten – more dependable than any long-distance romance. They would save each other.

March 4, 2001 – December 8, 2014

Losing Ritual

If rituals provide us solace by allowing us a tiny bit of control in a world that is essentially mysterious and uncontrollable, then what happens when our rituals disintegrate?

I’m facing the fast approach of two long-held family rituals – Thanksgiving and Christmas.  With both parents now dead, I’m not sure how to face these holidays. My family celebrated in my childhood home until about eight years ago, when the tradition moved to my current home.  Each year, the foundation of these rituals crumbled a little bit – first with my father’s passing and then as my mother’s illness stole her mind.  Last year’s attempt was feeble and now, with her death, these traditions seem hollow – out of habit rather than heart.

For this Thanksgiving, my inclination is to run away.  There’s a yoga retreat (retreat – the perfect word) a few hour’s drive from my home.  Here, I can practice my yoga, soak in a hot tub overlooking the ocean, graze on healthy food prepared by someone else – and hide from the reality of my world.

Yes, I realize this is escapism, but what are my options?  I can host Thanksgiving again, hoping that a least a part of my family shows up.  I can volunteer at a soup kitchen, as other holiday orphans do.  Frankly, the thought of scooping congealed over-salted gravy on cardboard turkey and flavorless stuffing doesn’t warm me – even if it is for a good cause (yes, I realize I need to work on my altruistic and compassionate tendencies…knowing you have a problem is the first step, right?)  The other option is staying home alone or tagging along at a friend’s dinner – pathetic options even to my own ears.

Yes, I think I’ll run away this year.

Life’s Rituals

I left my mother in her home town, safely nestled at the foot of her parents’ graves.  Yes, my heart still aches with loss, but it is tempered by the feeling of “rightness” in our actions of bringing her home, participating in a ceremony of honoring, and placing a closing chapter on her life.

Perhaps this is what is meant by “closure”.

In the airport, waiting for my flight home, I began thinking about ritual and why it’s an important vehicle to help transport us through life.  How can the simple process of taking someone’s ashes to another location, placing them in the ground and saying a few words (or, in this case, singing a song) make the world appear to realign itself?  It felt like I sent a giant “Namaste” to my mom and the earth and all the mysteries of the universe.

But, still, I’m left asking “why does it work; why is it important?”  Donna Henes says, “Ritual practice is as old as humanity, developing from people’s compelling need to understand and connect with the infinite, archetypal, unexplainable mysteries of life. Rituals offered our ancestors a glimpse of the divine order as well as a sense of belonging to something bigger. It’s a ceremony of sorts which begins with thought, purpose and an identified aim. Also, it’s not passive, but participatory. There is no way to benefit from a ritual by just watching it, or by reading or hearing about it. It must be experienced to be affective, or effective, for that matter.”

Maybe that’s why it works.  It allows us to take a bit of control. We are no longer solely being buffeted by the uncontrollable events and mysteries around us; we are able to take this small ceremony and manage it, focus our attention to it, set an intention and participate towards its fruition.  I cannot control life and death, but I can control this.

The other ceremony that comes to my mind is one I participated in 10-15 years ago.  Up to that point, I had struggled with the repercussions of an abused childhood. I had read books about forgiveness, I had journaled my anger and bitterness in hope of releasing it, I had made excuses for the abusive behavior and I tried repressing the memories as well.  Nothing seemed to alleviate my pain until I found myself, during a vacation, in Sedona participating in a medicine wheel ceremony.  During that ceremony, I was given the gift of allowing myself to leave one large piece of “baggage” behind within the wheel.  At that spot, in the middle of Boyton Canyon, on the hot dusty ground, I set down my bag of anger, hurt, bitterness and grief  – and I never looked back.  I left my baggage in Sedona, the best luggage I could have ever lost on vacation.  Could I have done it without the medicine wheel, without the burning sage, without the ritual, without the intention? I hadn’t been able to before.

Rituals and ceremonies with honest, sincere intention seem to somehow place our personal, spinning world back on its axis. They are a bit of control in the uncontrollable world.

Going Home

“Would you like to take a look inside?” he asked.

We looked back at him, surprised.

“It’s empty right now. My former tenants moved out and I’m doing some repairs before the new ones move in. Go ahead,” he said “take a look around.”

We were standing in front of my grandparents’ old home – the home where my mother grew up from 1922 until sometime around 1950.  I had never been here, knowing it only from blurry black and white photos taken in the 1940’s.

Do I want to take a look inside?  Do I want to see where my mother slept and played?  Of course I do.

Even though the house is two stories and looks large from the street, it is actually quite cozy inside.  I enter from the screened porch, the front door opening into a small sitting room with a smaller bedroom and tiny bathroom to the right and the dining area and kitchen behind me. Those four rooms make up the lower floor.  A steep and narrow staircase leads upstairs to a bedroom in the front and smaller bedroom behind.  The bedrooms in this home are places to sleep – nothing more.  Another set of narrow, scarily steep steps lead to a dank and dark basement that runs the length of the house – room for laundry, grandma’s canning jars and a long workbench.  That’s it – a house that, by today’s standards, would be built for two (with the addition of a half bath) and back then held six – grandma, grandpa, mom and my three aunts and uncles.

My grandmother’s huge garden, her pride, has long since disappeared – replaced by austere grass.  The house is no longer white and the neighbors have changed, but I was given the chance to see my mother’s family home.

We’re here, in this small Midwestern town, to bury my mother’s ashes.  Finally, she’s allowed to rest – at the foot of her parent’s grave.  For the first time, I’m seeing where she grew up, where she played, where she went to school and, eventually, where she met my father.

We have brought my mother home.