Piece of Cake
By Jeffery Cohen
When I was just a boy my mother baked a special cake from a recipe that a neighbor passed on to her. The Hungarian Nut Cake, though simply named, was quite complicated to make. Instead of being flour-based like most cakes, the main ingredient was nuts. Bags of walnuts had to be shelled and then ground to a powder. Eighteen egg whites needed to be whipped into a white froth and gently folded into the mixture. Remaining golden yolks would be blended together with a pound of soft butter and cubes of sweet chocolate creating a velvety mocha brown icing that melted on your tongue. This light, spongy cake topped with chocolate butter cream was like nothing I had ever tasted and quickly became my favorite. And because it was my favorite, my mother chose to make it on my birthday each year.
As she carefully spread the rich icing over the cooled cake, she would smile at me. Then my mother would close her eyes as if conjuring up the past, and she would tell me the story of my first days in the world.
It was a chilly day in November, just like today, she would begin. Your father rushed me to the hospital and almost got a ticket on the way. I was in labor for more than fourteen hours…fourteen hours before you were finally born. You were ten pounds, twelve ounces, and you had a full head of black hair. They said you were the biggest baby on the floor. The nurses called you “little blimpo” because you were so chubby. I remember it was the day before Thanksgiving. Your father brought me a turkey leg for dinner.
Your first month was like a bad dream. I just couldn’t get you to stop crying. By the end of December, I was sure something just wasn’t right. I would hold you and rock you and sing to you, and all you would do is cry. And I cried right along with you, and I begged for an answer.
Why won’t you stop crying, Jeffery? What am I doing wrong? I’d ask over and over.
Your only answer was to spit up everything I tried to feed you. We called the doctor, who was just getting ready to leave for his in-laws’ house, where he and his family planned to spend Christmas Eve. He asked me to give you a bottle of Chamomile tea to see if you could hold that down. It came right up. The doctor felt sure it was an obstruction of the bowel, and it had to be operated on immediately. He told us to get you to the hospital. He would meet us there.
You’ll never know how scared I was. I lost your sister at birth six years earlier, and I was so afraid that I would lose you too. I held you in my arms and told your father we weren’t taking you anywhere. I couldn’t bear to lose another baby. Your father got down on one knee and said, “Betty, it’s the only chance he’s got. We have to give him that chance.” There was no more discussion. We wrapped you in blankets and headed out into the cold. They operated that night. My doctor, God bless him, saved your life.
Then she’d open her eyes again. They were always filled with tears. She would hug me, kiss my forehead, and she’d go back to icing the cake. This was a sweet birthday tradition that my mother and I shared for almost thirty years until her death. I felt like an orphan that first birthday without my mother there icing my favorite cake and retelling my favorite story. When a friend asked why I had such a long face on my birthday, I explained my sadness.
“Do you have the recipe?” she asked.
I dug out a grease-stained notepad that held the secret ingredients of all of my mother’s creations. There it was, scrawled in her handwriting: Hungarian Nut Cake and in parentheses, for Jeffery. My friend faithfully followed the recipe, and she continues to bake that cake every year for my birthday. As for the story of my birth, no one could ever tell it the way my mother did. But if I had too, I could do it with my eyes closed.
About this writer
- Jeffery Cohen, freelance writer, painter, and sculptor, wrote a weekly newspaper humor column for six years. He was a finalist in the Winter Women-On-Writing Flash Fiction Contest and won second place in Vocabula’s Well Written Writing Contest in 2011.