Years ago, I went to a seminar on stress reduction at the Y. Most of
what the instructor told us struck me as either obvious (make lists of
what you have to do and check off what you've accomplished) or
embarrassing (a series of breathing exercises that made me think of
Lamaze class), but there was one thing he said that made the whole class
worthwhile, a trick I still use when I find myself getting overwhelmed:
He told us we should visualize a place where we felt completely safe and
peaceful. He said it didn't make any difference if it was someplace we
knew well or someplace we'd only dreamed about, but that we should think
about it in great detail, notice everything around us, memorize all the
sights and the sounds. Then he instructed us to go to this place in our
minds. I glanced quickly around the room. Everyone had closed their eyes
and gone to their childhood bedroom or a beach in Jamaica or wherever
life was simpler. I had no idea where I was supposed to go. I felt
embarrassed sitting in my folding chair, as if the people around me
would know that I was still in the conference hall while they were all
walking down a white sand beach with the sun glinting off their hair. I
ran over a quick mental list: the house on Lake Placid we rented one
summer; my own back porch; Paris, where I've never been but would like
to someday go. None of them seemed right, they all seemed to be asking
too little or too much. But when I finally closed my eyes and tried,
what I wanted came to me with complete clarity. The place that I went,
the place that I still go, was the warm, hollowed-out center of a Bundt
cake. It is usually gingerbread, though sometimes that changes.
Sometimes it's gingerbread crowned in a ring of poached pears. The walls
that surround me are high and soft, but as they go up they curve back,
open up to the light, so I feel protected by the cake but never trapped
by it. There are a few loose crumbs around my feet, clinging to my hair,
and the smell! The ginger and butter, the lingering subtlety of vanilla
... I press my cheek against the cake, which is soft as eiderdown and
still warm. This isn't a fantasy about food exactly, at least not
insofar as I want to eat my way through a cake that's taller than I am.
It's about being inside of cake, being part of something that I find to
be profoundly comforting. The instructor told us to take another deep
breath, and all around me I heard the smooth shush of air going in,
waiting, coming out. I thought I might never open my eyes.
Cakes have gotten a bad rap. People equate virtue with turning down
dessert. There is always one person at the table who holds up her hand
when I serve the cake. No, really, I couldn't, she says, and then gives
her flat stomach a conspiratorial little pat. Everyone who is pressing a
fork into that first tender layer looks at the person who declined the
plate, and they all think, That person is better than I am. That person
has discipline. But that isn't a person with discipline, that is a
person who has completely lost touch with joy. A slice of cake never
made anybody fat. You don't eat the whole cake. You don't eat a cake
every day of your life. You take the cake when it is offered because the
cake is delicious. You have a slice of cake and what it reminds you of
is someplace that's safe, uncomplicated, without stress. A cake is a
party, a birthday, a wedding. A cake is what's served on the happiest
days of your life.
This is a story of how my life was saved by cake, so, of course, if
sides are to be taken, I will always take the side of cake.
It's a laugh to think that I was feeling stressed when I signed up for
that workshop. What was I feeling stressed about eight years ago? My
son, Wyatt, was twelve then, still a full year away from the gawky
roller-coaster ride of his teenage years. He asked for help on his
homework and introduced me to his friends when they came over to go
sledding. Camille was a little girl who still crawled into my lap some
nights after dinner and let me brush her hair. I called her Kitten.
Camille is sixteen now and about as much a kitten as a lioness eating a
half-living zebra on a scorching African veldt. Eight years ago, my
mother still lived by herself in Michigan and only came to visit twice a
year and sometimes not even that. My husband, Sam, was the
hardest-working hospital administrator anyone could have imagined, if
one was given to imagining such things. I remember it now and hang my
head in disbelief. I want to go back to that person I was, take her by
the shoulders and shake her. "Look again!" I want to say to myself. "You
are standing in the middle of paradise."
* * *
I arrived home in the rain, my arms filled with groceries. I tried to
bring them all in at once, which wasn't exactly possible, but the rain
was beating down with such a biblical fury that I thought it would be
smarter to make one incredibly challenging trip than three manageable
trips. The paper bags, a foolish choice, were melting between my
fingers. My keys were so far down in the bottom of my purse (looped over
the left wrist) that they might as well have been in Liberia for all the
chance I had of getting to them. Not that I was even sure the door was
locked. It might have been unlocked. I couldn't turn the doorknob unless
I did it with my teeth. It was very clear that I had shown some poor
judgment. I kicked at the door.
Through the window I could see my daughter sitting at the kitchen table
reading a magazine. At the second kick she raised her eyes heavily, as
if she were in fact not reading at all but had been hypnotized by the
magazine. There was a hard wall of rain between us and yet I could still
make out the supreme disinterest in her gaze. It was a look I knew
intimately. I kicked again. She tilted her head, not entirely sure why I
was interrupting her: Clearly, there was the door, I was capable of
opening a door; I had keys if the door was, in fact, locked; I could see
her weighing all this out in her mind. I felt a critical shift in the
balance of the groceries and kicked again, just to speed things along.
She sighed, a sound so reverberant with weariness that it made its way
across the room and past the door and through the rain to reach me. She
lifted her slender frame, a willow, a willow leaf, shuffled to the door,
and opened it. When that task had been completed she returned wordlessly
to the table and resumed her reading. I pulled myself inside and gasped
at the air. One bag, the fifth bag, sensing we had reached the threshold
of safety, decided it could no longer bear the burden of its
responsibility and split apart, sending tangerines and three packages of
frozen spinach and a roll of paper towels and (the kicker) a large
plastic bottle of cran-apple juice bouncing over the floor. Not the
eggs, not the paper carton of milk, I did not lose sight of the ways in
which I was fortunate. I sank to my knees and put the other bags down
before they could follow suit. I was profoundly wet. I could not imagine
that dolphins ever got this wet.
"I couldn't get to my keys," I said.
"It wasn't locked," Camille said, but she didn't look up.
I got up off the floor and started to pick up what needed to be picked
up. There was a great lake forming beneath me.
"Ruth?" My mother came into the kitchen holding a stack of papers in one
hand. My mother was always holding papers. They seemed to be a natural
extension of her hand. I imagined her sleeping with fistfuls of paper
clutched to her chest. "I need you to look at these for me. I've been
over them a million times and they just don't make any sense. Does it
look like Blue Cross paid the doctor or does it look like I have to pay
him? I don't want Dr. Nickerson to think I didn't pay him."
She was wearing a pink warm-up suit that appeared to have been ironed.
She was looking at me, but I wasn't sure that she saw me at all. If she
had seen me she surely would have commented on the fact that I looked
like I had just been dragged from the lake, that I was raising myself up
from a fiery ring of tangerines.
"I'll go over them, Mother, but I just got in from the grocery store. I
need to put these things away first." I pushed back a wet clump of hair
that stuck to the side of my face like seaweed.
"Did you get the dried apricots?"
"Were they on the list?"
She closed her eyes for a minute. "I can't remember. I can't remember
anything." She turned to her granddaughter. "Camille, it's a terrible
thing to be old. I hope you never get to be my age. Or maybe by the time
you get to be my age they will have invented a cure for forgetting
Camille made some small humming sound that acknowledged that she had
heard her own name spoken but she did not stop reading.
"I'll put apricots on the list for next time," I said.
"And these papers. Will you look at these? If I owe Dr. Nickerson money
I think I should pay him."
I scooped up the sodden remains of paper sack and threw them in the
garbage. I put myself inside the cake and tried to breathe slowly. I
made it a simple lemon cake, no glaze. I was an only child and my
parents had been divorced since I was two. My mother had done everything
on her own. She had taken good care of me, played rounds of Go Fish,
cooked nutritious meals, sewed me clothes that never looked homemade,
taught me to play the piano in a passable manner. This was payback time.
"The mail has already gone out today. Just let me get the milk in the
"Camille," my mother said. "Come over here and help your mother. We'll
get this done in a minute."
Camille closed her eyes and pushed her fingers against the slender
bridge of her nose. I could tell she was trying not to scream, and even
though I didn't expect her to have much success, I appreciated her
minimal efforts at restraint. "When I came into the kitchen to read,
there was nobody in here. If I were smart I would just stay in my
bedroom until it was time to go to college." She slapped her magazine
shut, knocked one narrow hip against the table, and was out of the room.
My mother and I watched her, both of us frozen for a moment. It wasn't
as if we hadn't seen it before, but it never ceased to be a surprise.
"You never spoke to me like that," my mother said quietly.
"No, I don't expect I did."
"I think I would have had a heart attack," she said. But then she
thought about it some more. "Or I would have killed you. One or the
"I think that's right." Sometimes I wanted to run after Camille and grab
her. Where is Kitten! I wanted to know. What have you done with my
"You and Sam need to do something about this. That girl has too many
privileges. She talks on the phone all the time, goes out with her
friends. She has a car!"
I wondered if my mother thought I hadn't noticed that one.
"How can you allow a child to behave that way and let her have a car?"
"I don't know," I said honestly, because even though I wasn't interested
in hearing her point of view at the moment, it was not entirely without
My mother shook her head. "So the groceries can wait for two minutes.
Come sit down and look at these forms."
And so I sat down, my raincoat still pooling water in its cuffs, my
groceries on the floor. I fished my reading glasses out of the bottom of
my purse. "You know, Sam is so much better with these things than I am."
I took the papers from her hands.
"Sam's so busy," she said. "He runs a hospital all day. He shouldn't be
bothered with medical papers as soon as he walks in the door."
But she would ask him. She always did. I would fill out the forms and
then she would ask Sam to correct my work.
"Ruth! You're getting those wet!" She leaned over and blotted the papers
with a paper napkin. "Can't you at least dry your hands first?"
On my mother's behalf, I will say that the insurance forms were
viciously confusing, and that after sitting there watching me read for a
few minutes she did get up and start to put the groceries away, though
she held up every other item and asked me where it went.
"I thought so," she'd say, and then put the can of soup with the other
cans of soup.
My mother moved in with us a little more than a year ago after her house
in East Lansing had been robbed in the middle of the day while she was
playing bridge with friends. Whoever did it knocked down the front door.
They didn't pick the lock or jimmy open a window, they just kicked the
door in, smashed it to bits, and stepped inside. After that she didn't
want to go home. She had a new door installed and waited to calm down.
She went back to the hostess of the bridge party and stayed with her for
a week, thinking the feeling of uneasiness would pass. When it didn't,
she packed up what the burglars had deemed unfit to take, including her
enormous collection of fabric remnants, and moved to Minneapolis to live
My mother had been a high school music teacher who went back to school
to get her certification in history and geography when the state's
budget for music programs was cut back. She was practical because she
had to be; that was the hand life had dealt her and she didn't complain.
A roast chicken showed up as chicken hash the next night and then
chicken soup for the weekend. My father, whom she had met at a
convention of Michigan high school music teachers during the two weeks
he actually was a high school music teacher, played piano at clubs,
bars, and wedding receptions, his engagements sending him out later and
later, and then farther and farther away, until it seemed like too much
trouble to make the trip home. This was the early nineteen fifties, when
being a divorced woman with a child was still a cause for sideways
glances from other women in the grocery store, but my mother kept her
head up and trudged forward. I try to imagine sometimes how hard her
life must have been. I know that our life together was hard enough, but
children are remarkably adaptable creatures, and if there is little
there they settle for little. But my mother was a young woman, working
all day, giving private piano lessons in our house on the weekends and
after school. Sometimes my father would blow into town, seeming relaxed
and handsome and nearly famous, but he always blew out again, and while
he may have left behind a box of macadamia brittle or a child's coat
that was already too small, he never left actual cash for the gas bill.
When my mother finally retired, it looked like things were going to be
fine for a long time. She still gave private piano lessons and collected
a manageable pension from the school system. She had her friends, her
bridge group, her music appreciation club. She even went on a package
tour of Europe that Sam and I had given her for her birthday.
Excerpted from "Eat Cake" by Jeanne Ray. Copyright © 2004 by Jeanne Ray. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.