“So the unwanting soul
sees what's hidden,
and the ever-wanting soul
sees only what it wants.”
― Lao Tzu
On any given day, I woke up and I baked cake.
If I had to bake cake I preferred not to bake in large batches. That’s like batch-raising kids, expecting them to think and behave exactly alike, or trying to swim across every lake in East Tennessee at precisely the same time.
I preferred to focus on one cake. Each and every cake had its own personality. If you ignored a cake’s personality the cake would ignore you. It’ll be a rude, boring cake.
I avoided making rude cake. These days, I avoided making cake, period. But if I had to do it, I made great cake. Fun cake. Cake with big dreams, difficult to ignore. Special cake.
“Are you finished with the Knoxville order yet?” my momma bellowed from the other room. I hadn’t heard her come in. Her tone was sharp and edged with panic, and that made me panic. “And, I swear on your grandma Lilly’s fried chicken livers, if you’re making one cake at a time again, I’m going to wring your neck.”
I squared my shoulders, swallowing the rush of nervous saliva in my mouth. Grandma Lilly’s fried chicken livers were no joke. Not only were they delicious and a closely guarded family recipe—like most of our infamous family recipes—they could also maim if thrown with enough force and deadly intent.
Employing great care, I placed the last of the cakes—the cakes I’d just baked and decorated one at a time—into a bakery box.
That’s right. I’d baked one cake at a time. Did that mean I had to wake up at 0-dark-thirty and start baking? Yes, it did. Did I need to admit as much to my momma? No, I did not. Better to wake up at the butt crack of dawn than sell the good people of Barbern boring cakes.
“I’m just finishing up,” I called and jumped into action. If she saw my six-quart mixer she’d have a fit. I stuffed the small-batch bowls and measuring tools into a tall cabinet at the back of the large, industrial kitchen. I returned for the six-quart mixer, hoisting it in my arms and stumbling under its weight.
The click of her heels grew closer and I knew I didn’t have time to hide the machine like I wanted, so I lowered it to the ground and covered it with my apron, spinning around just as my momma appeared in the doorway.
“Thank goodness.” Her hands were on her hips and she looked perfectly put-together, as was her habit.
Her blonde waves resembled a helmet, and in many ways they were. Her makeup was spotless and as thick as a layer of frosting, and as impervious as a hockey mask. A cloud of Chanel No.5, nail polish, and Aqua Net hair spray arrived three seconds after she did.
The way she made herself up was both weapon and armor.
She assessed the state of the kitchen, lingering for a long moment on the large-batch mixer. It was spotless.
“Where is everyone? Who cleaned all this up?”
“I did.” I stepped over the smaller mixer, hoping she wouldn’t spot it. “I sent the team home early, since it was just the one special order.”
Her eyes cut to mine, vexation written on her features. “What are you wearing?”
I glanced down at myself, having forgotten what I had on. “Uh, overalls.”
“Oh, Jennifer!” She said my name low and rough, as though it were a swear word. “A lady does not wear overalls.”
“Nancy Danvish wears overalls.” Nancy Danvish supplied our eggs and milk; her hens and cows were very happy, therefore they made the best eggs and milk. Happy eggs and milk make happy cakes.
“Nancy Danvish is a farmer.”
“But she’s still a lady.”
“That’s debatable . . .” my mother grumbled, almost rolling her eyes before catching herself. “And, goodness, your hair. And your face, ugh.” Under her breath she added, “You know I wonder what planet you’re from; Lord knows it ain’t this one.”
I pressed my lips together so I wouldn’t say, “Thank you.”
I tried my best to pretend unkind words were actually just erroneously expressed compliments, as it just made everything nicer for everybody. For example, my momma’s latest comment could be rephrased to, You’re cosmically stellar.
This habit of purposefully misunderstanding insults has served me well over the course of my life, around town, and at home. I’m sure it would have served me well if I’d gone to public school, but my momma homeschooled us kids instead.
For example, when Rhea Mathis called me “stranger than a vegetarian at a barbeque” during junior choir practice at church, I decided it was her own special way of saying unique. And when Timothy King called me a frigid prude outside the jam session when I was fifteen, I thanked him for praising my coolness and modesty. And when two of my fellow baking finalists at the state fair told me I was a no-talent hack, I smiled and accepted their kind remarks about my work ethic.