Wacky Cake and a Butterfly
Something besides cake was cooked up in that kitchen.
We were halfway finished baking before I realized Chenelle had done this before. It was after dinner, after watching the news on the fourth floor in one of the several high-ceilinged common areas with more sofas and reclining chairs than I’ve ever seen together in one room. As we walked slowly toward the elevator, Sister Chenelle laid out her bait.
“Do you enjoy cooking?”
“Oh, I do,” I enthused. I really do.
“Well, I have four desserts to make tonight. Do you want to help?”
I thought about it, not for long. It was 7 pm. Sister Chenelle’s 80, has congenital heart failure, and uses a walker. Would I say no, thank you? I didn’t.
“Sure,” I said only a little less enthusiastically. “Four desserts?” If I didn’t help her, chances are she wouldn’t finish until after midnight. So we took the elevator downstairs, walked into the deserted kitchen, donned aprons, and got to work.
“We’ll make two Angel Food cakes, Wacky Cake, and Heavenly Hash,” she directed. “Go into the pantry and you’ll find two boxes of Angel Food cake mix. The rest we’ll make from scratch.”
Then she listed things for me to retrieve: a 1, a 1/2, a 1/3, and a 1/4th measuring cup, a spatula, two forks, glass bowls, metal pans, and more. That was when I realized she’d practiced coordinating the help before.
The kitchen seemed a different place at that time of night, quiet, without the bustle of cooks and volunteers who want to get their chores done and leave. The smell of soup and soap suds had disippated. The counters were clean. The kitchen is big with lots of cupboards, a huge range with a large griddle, several refrigerators including a walk in, a ginormous pantry, and numerous stainless steel sinks (including the one where I did pots and pans, called dark dishes, every night. There’s a commercial mixer (which we didn’t use), a smaller Kitchen Aid mixer (which we did use), and a normal-sized oven. A kitchen like that would be a dream if it was yours alone. But it wasn’t. Probably two dozen women bustle in and out of it every day.
If you thought it was hard to cook in a kitchen with your mother when you got beyond a certain age, imagine trying to cook in one where all those people cook and do chores three times a day, seven days a week. Imagine trying to find an ingredient or bowl that you know you left in a certain location the last time you were there. Miraculously (it was in a Monastery, remember), I found everything for her.
I brought her ingredients, spatulas, bowls, measuring cups, walnuts from the refrigerator, marshmallows from the pantry, sugar, flour, baking soda, salt, chocolate chips, butter, cocoa, and lots more. I set timers, put cakes in and took them back out of the hot oven, melted butter, and stirred peanut butter and frosting when her shoulder got tired. If she was the sous chef, I was the kitchen porter. Somehow it all worked: we completed all four desserts and were out the kitchen door by 10 pm.
You should have seen the sisters and their guests swarm around Chenelle’s cake the next day. It was her Wacky Cake: deep, dark, moist chocolate with chocolate frosting so sweet it hurt your teeth, laid on about an inch thick. As the line formed, she carefully and expertly cut a piece for everyone. We fanned out to our tables and wolfed it down. The food at St. Gertrude’s isn’t bad at all, but Chenelle’s cake was a standout.
Because I was there on a writers residency, on the last night I was at St. Gertrude’s, I gave a presentation to the sisters. I read them The Flamekeepers, My God Question #3 and its Answers, and the Foreward to my memoir (which you haven’t read yet, but I expect that you will someday). I cried, they cried. It was a special night.
On my way back to my room afterward I walked with her toward the elevator and Chenelle asked if I wanted to help her again, baking, “Just one cake this time. We only have to make Wacky Cake and Heavenly Hash tonight,” she said. “For the sisters’ retreat.”
This time I said yes, as much to spend the time with her as to help her out, and our relationship deepened. This time we talked little about ingredients and utensils and mostly about me and the memoir I’d begun working on again at St. Gertrude’s.
“Will you come down to the second floor tomorrow morning to say goodbye before you go?” And then, “Oh wait.” “Let’s go down to the second floor first so I can get you the recipe for Wacky Cake.”
The next morning I loaded my car and walked onto the second floor where she and several other sisters were eating in a small room. We were delighted to see each other one last time and as I left, Chenelle pressed a small manilla envelope into my hand. The words written on it previously, “raffle money”, had been scratched out. She wrote, “God bless you!” underneath them.
I put the envelope in my purse and left. A powerful connection between us was baked in that kitchen. I felt deeply seen and loved and she felt the same from me. I waited to get in the car before I opened her envelope. When I read the poem inside, my eyes teared up (and you know how I hate to cry).
A Butterfly Lights Beside Us A butterfly lights beside us, like a sunbeam . . . and for a brief moment it belongs to our world . . . in all its beauty and glory then it flies away. Although we wish it could have stayed, we are so thankful to have seen it.
Then, a magnet, a butterfly whose wings look like stained glass, fell out onto my lap.
“This truly fits you,” Chenelle had written underneath the poem. “We have been so blessed by your presence among us. Your sharing tonight was so profound and touched each one of us deeply…”
The butterfly is on my refrigerator now, a reminder of Sister Chenelle and my heart friends at St. Gertrude’s.
In case you’re interested, she’s a subscriber to this newsletter and I bet if you ask below in the comments ever so nicely, I can probably give you the recipe for Wacky Cake.
I don’t mind sharing that, but friends, the butterfly is mine.