JIM DODSON: Putting Icing on the Cake
The dogs and I got banished from the kitchen early last Saturday morning.
The dogs were sent to chill in a rear bedroom. I was sent off to the new town farmer's market for strawberries.
"Try not to take it too personally," I said, trying to cheer them up. "It's just the start of cake season." How soon they forget.
I, on the other hand, learned years ago that the mistress of the hearth isn't one to trifle with when she has cake-making on the brain.
Thirty years ago, you see, she began casually baking for her mom and never stopped. Twenty years ago, she agreed to make a wedding cake for her younger sister's big wedding on Cape Cod and copied a multi-tiered affair from Martha Stewart's Wedding Book so convincingly that she soon had friends and strangers clamoring after her cakes.
After taking several advanced cake-making courses and developing her own recipes, she agreed to make a few cakes for friends and family, and her reputation spread. Strangers soon took to calling her and asking, "Are you the cake lady?"
The first week we met, a decade or so ago, I walked into Cake Lady's spotless kitchen and saw a stunning basket of spring flowers sitting on her counter. "What a cool basket," I remarked, casually touching one of the roses.
You might have thought I'd attempted to improve the Mona Lisa's smile with a Sharpie pen. The entire thing was a cake -- including the basket. The flowers were made from spun sugar. Our love affair nearly ended before it began with a sharp smack on the head from a wooden spoon.
Before she agreed to marry me, I got back in her good graces by agreeing to help box and deliver 135 miniature wedding cakes some cuckoo bird had ordered, one for every guest of the nuptials.
"Must be a wedding for tiny unsociable people," I quipped. "Or maybe a mass wedding for Lilliputians."
"Every cake is unique," she declared, ignoring my sterling wit but offering me the cake tops to nibble -- the parts she cuts off when shaping the cake before frosting it. "A cake is a sign of a new beginning, a symbol of new life, an act of love."
A Form of Therapy
Over the past few years in Maine, the Cake Lady would accept only three or four major wedding cake jobs per summer, plus maybe a dozen large special-occasion cakes and a dozen or so smaller cakes throughout the year.
"I do this because I love making cakes," she insisted. "It's my therapy, my art."
She even made our wedding cake, which I only caught a glimpse of because the guests all went back for seconds. At least the dogs and I got the cake tops.
My particular favorite wedding cake was a replica of Cinderella's castle, or maybe Donald Trump's Palm Beach mansion, complete with Renaissance turrets and a grand staircase sweeping up to a plastic prince and fairy-tale bride. The bride wanted a one-of-a-kind cake, she said.
The Cake Lady slaved on this absurd fantasy confection for days. Finally she went off to put it together at the event room at our local college. That afternoon, the temperatures reached 100 degrees. The room had no air conditioning.
I was on my knees in the garden when the emergency call came.
"You have to come right away. The cake is melting. Bring a hammer."
We somehow cobbled together a series of wooden dowels that held up the castle until the cake was cut. No one ever knew but the two of us. As I recall, the princess and her Prince Charming wound up throwing cake at each other, wearing more of their fantasy cake than eating it.
Cake and Armageddon
Last Saturday, the big cake in question was for someone named Agnes from Penick Village. Agnes was turning 90. There were 100 people coming to her party bash in Whispering Pines. The cake was to be another basket-weave affair with spring flowers. This time I vowed not to touch it.
That same afternoon, we were also scheduled to attend a friend's wedding, and a neighbor's granddaughter had a small army of folks in town for a big wedding bash of their own. Fortunately, my wife wasn't making those cakes, or the dogs and I would have been kicked out of the cottage sometime back around April Fool's Day.
About mid-morning, the Cake Lady tracked me down to say the last layer of cake was cooling and she had 30 minutes to kill before frosting it and wanted to come to check out the new farmer's market. I went to pick her up.
After buying strawberries, I drove her home, only to discover a well-dressed older couple standing on our porch. They acted as if they knew us.
"I just wanted to talk with you both about Armageddon," the man said to me politely.
It was possibly the prettiest morning of the year thus far, the kind of day you hate to think of this old world passing away.
"You know," I explained, "I'd be glad to have this discussion with you, but my wife has a 90-year-old birthday girl waiting for her cake."
Everything Is Sacred
My wife smiled, excused herself, and went back to her kitchen. The man and I stood under our cottage arbor wildly in bloom with wisteria sweetening the morning air. I saw a pair of courting cardinals pause in the blooms overhead to take a long inhale.
"The Bible is very explicit on the signs of the end times," he resumed with quiet urgency. "Armageddon is coming, you know. The signs are unmistakable."
Probably because I hail from a long line of rural Methodist preachers and Southern Baptist deacons, and came dangerously close to attending Lutheran seminary myself, I'm predisposed as the next failed sinner to stand on my hind legs and have a friendly chat about the end of the world. But then again, I didn't have a cake in the oven.
"I suppose," I said for the sake of argument, shifting my sack of strawberries, "that depends on your definition of Armageddon."
He pointed out that Armageddon comes from the original Hebrew describing the hill of Megiddo in the plain of Esdraelon, near present-day Haifa in Israel, the site where the final battle between good and evil will take place.
I reminded him that the word also translates from the original Greek to mean simply "to reveal," and told him something fascinating an old Baptist minister once told me: that eternity and salvation are already here; the old world is constantly passing away and being reborn before our eyes, if we only have the vision to notice it.
"Right this very moment people are losing their houses, dying in cancer wards, even fighting over food. Yet this very instant, someone is also experiencing God's grace or seeing the light of truth. My Grandmother Taylor called that being truly born again."
"You speak like a churched person," he observed.
"I love going to church," I confirmed, "though I'm probably really more of a latter-day Transcendentalist -- maybe even a quaking Buddhoepiscopresbyterian who happens to have fondness for cake tops and a good Methodist church supper."
He smiled. "I have no idea what that means."
"It means that the older I get," I elaborated, "the less I think God cares what our denomination is. A Buddhist friend of mine likes to say, 'Everything is sacred -- even our shortcomings.' They're what help us eventually wake up and see the light -- or smell the cake in the oven. I think that's what Armageddon really means."
It went on like this for a while, I'm afraid, back and forth as neighbors passed and waved while walking their dogs and little kids pedaled by on bikes. Through the kitchen window, I could see the Cake Lady frosting Agnes' party cake, lost in her own world of love and creation.
The man ticked off other unmistakable signs of the battle to come -- the alignment of certain powers, the rise of militant faiths in the East, America's declining values and influence in the world, all pointing to a final conflict between good and evil. It was all described in Revelation 16.
I nodded and told him about a group of teenagers from Carthage I'd recently met in a roadside cemetery near Camp Easter Road. They'd erected perhaps the most over-the-top memorial display of plastic flowers and personal mementos I'd ever seen, in poignant memory of a popular young woman who was killed in a wreck last year. Their healing display of grief for a life that ended far too soon reminded me of a certain wedding cake that nearly melted away one hot summer day in Maine. Talk about averting Armageddon -- in both cases.
"The coming battle is God's final judgment on the human race," he felt obliged to remind me of the Scriptures, offering me some literature on the subject.
"I prefer to hope we wake up enough to find a way to avert that sort of thing," I said by way of bringing our friendly discussion to a close.
We shook hands again. He thanked me for listening. I thanked him for dropping by.
The wedding was a lovely affair. The groom was over 70, the bride a gorgeous 60-something. The church was packed. The music was divine. The couple -- both of whom had seen their worlds collapse with the deaths of spouses -- looked like a couple of giddy teenagers about to elope. Talk about an unmistakable sign of rebirth.
I was dancing with my neighbor's beautiful wife when the cake was finally cut. She'd recently had a knee replaced and had kicked off her shoes to cut loose and dance like a girl at the prom. The theme of renewal was revealing itself everywhere. I hoped Agnes was having at least as much fun out in Whispering Pines.
"That was quite a conversation you and that fellow were having out back today," remarked my bride as we came home to a kitchen that still smelled deliciously of Agnes' birthday cake. "What did you end up saying to him?"
"That everything is sacred -- especially cake tops," I said, pausing to nibble the plate the Cake Lady had thoughtfully left me for a snack before bed.
Bestselling author Jim Dodson, the Pilot's writer-in-residence, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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