The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
It happened for the first time on a Tuesday afternoon, a warm spring day in the flatlands near Hollywood, a light breeze moving east from the ocean and stirring the black- eyed pansy petals newly planted in our flower boxes. My mother was home, baking me a cake. When I tripped up the walkway, she opened the front door before I could knock. How about a practice round? she said, leaning past the door frame. She pulled me in for a hello hug, pressing me close to my favorite of her aprons, the worn cotton one trimmed in sketches of twinned red cherries.
On the kitchen counter, shed set out the ingredients: Flour bag, sugar box, two brown eggs nestled in the grooves between tiles. A yellow block of butter blurring at the edges. A shallow glass bowl of lemon peel. I toured the row. This was the week of my ninth birthday, and it had been a long day at school of cursive lessons, which I hated, and playground yelling about point scoring, and the sunlit kitchen and my warm- eyed mother were welcome arms, open. I dipped a finger into the wax baggie of brown- sugar crystals, murmured yes, please, yes.
She said there was about an hour to go, so I pulled out my spelling booklet. Can I help? I asked, spreading out pencils and papers on the vinyl place mats.
Nah, said Mom, whisking the flour and baking soda together.
My birthday is in March, and that year it fell during an especially bright spring week, vivid and clear in the narrow residential streets where we lived just a handful of blocks south of Sunset. The night- blooming jasmine that crawled up our neighbors front gate released its heady scent at dusk, and to the north, the hills rolled charmingly over the horizon, houses tucked into the brown. Soon, daylight savings time would arrive, and even at nearly nine, I associated my birthday with the first hint of summer, with the feeling in classrooms of open windows and lighter clothing and in a few months no more homework. My hair got lighter in spring, from light brown to nearly blond, almost like my mothers ponytail tassel. In the neighborhood gardens, the agapanthus plants started to push out their long green robot stems to open up to soft purples and blues.
Mom was stirring eggs; she was sifting flour. She had one bowl of chocolate icing set aside, another with rainbow sprinkles. A cake challenge like this wasnt a usual afternoon activity; my mother didnt bake all that often, but what she enjoyed most was anything tactile, and this cake was just one in a long line of recent varied hands- on experiments. In the last six months, shed coaxed a strawberry plant into a vine, stitched doilies from vintage lace, and in a burst of motivation installed an oak side door in my brothers bedroom with the help of a hired contractor.
Shed been working as an office administrator, but she didnt like copy machines, or work shoes, or computers, and when my father paid off the last of his law school debt, she asked him if she could take some time off and learn to do more with her hands. My hands, she told him, in the hallway, leaning her hips against his; my hands have had no lessons in anything. Anything? hed asked, holding tight to those hands. She laughed, low. Anything practical, she said.
They were right in the way, in the middle of the hall, as I was leaping from room to room with a plastic leopard. Excuse me, I said. He breathed in her hair, the sweet- smelling thickness of it. My father usually agreed with her requests, because stamped in his two- footed stance and jaw was the word Provider, and he loved her the way a bird- watchers heart leaps when he hears the call of the roseate spoonbill, a fluffy pink wader, calling its lilting coo- coo from the mangroves. Check, says the bird- watcher. Sure, said my father, tapping a handful of mail against her back. Rah, said the leopard, heading back to its lair.
Excerpted from The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender Copyright © 2010 by Aimee Bender. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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