I dragged my feet up the carpeted steps and tried to listen to all four of my kids prattle on about their days at school. Numbly, I sniffed the air. Chicken. A hint of gratitude drifted through my mind. I had remembered to put food in the Crock-pot.
I spoke over my five-year-old’s animated story about a YouTube video to tell my oldest that I wouldn’t be eating and they could serve themselves.
“You’re not eating?” she asked, confused.
“I’m not hungry,” I answered.
“Did you eat something at work?”
“No, I’m not hungry tonight. I’m going to get a shower.”
From the silence behind me, I could tell that my oldest two were exchanging shocked looks.
“Mom, you didn’t eat last night either,” came from my second.
“I know,” I mumbled, closing the bathroom door.
I usually loved coming home after my tiring drive, fighting through roads packed with idiots that can’t drive who are angry that I can’t go any faster than the car in front of me. I liked laughing with my kids and helping them with any homework or issues going on while I finalized getting dinner ready.
I normally loved my job too. I joked around with my regular customers and coworkers, singing snatches of songs that popped into my head all of the time. I have been written up twice at work for singing too loudly. I couldn’t help it; the joy just bubbled out of my mouth.
Over the past couple of weeks, there were no songs or jokes. I could barely muster up a smile when someone else told me a joke. My work was getting done – slowly. I barely had the will to get out of bed in the morning, much less expend the effort to laugh at a joke I had heard a dozen times before from the same customer.
I had seen my work bestie shooting worried glances at me, but I had no emotion left to be able to pretend to be OK. I was functioning, but barely. I was in deep grief. On autopilot.
My Mimi was gone.
She was the woman I longed to emulate – a consummate hostess with a beautifully appointed yet comfortable home full of elegant antiques. She was never flustered or short-tempered; she always knew just what to say, even if it was nothing. So sweet – she always had time to listen to or tell a story, even if it interrupted her soap opera. So kind – always making sure to feed us our favorites and sending us home with a box of animal crackers and an activity to do in the car. So caring – ready to welcome guests into her home, whether they were expected or not.
She was my inspiration.
I stripped slowly in a room covered with bubbling paint and tried to lay down in the cheap tub that was anything but luxurious or elegant. As I let too-hot water stream down my face, I finally relaxed a little. Now that the water was on, I could cry without the kids hearing me.
Sobs wracked through me until the water ran cold. I shut the water off and dried myself sluggishly. I crawled into bed and shut my eyes against the light still streaming in the windows. I just wanted to sleep.
Sometime in the night, a couple of my kids snuck into bed with me. I kissed them and sank back into unconsciousness.
When my alarm went off in the morning, I lagged behind, trying to get the kids and myself ready for the day.
When I got to work, I saw in the reflection of the glass door that I hadn’t brushed my hair. I made a half-hearted attempt to smooth it, but I couldn't really care.
As I walked through the lobby toward my desk, my manager, Shelby, cleared her throat. I looked up and she and the branch manager were standing in my way.
“Come into my office,” she said.
I walked woodenly into the fishbowl she called an office while all of my coworkers pretended they weren’t speculating about what was going on in here.
The branch manager, Candy, was never one to speak tactfully. “While it’s been nice not to have to tell you to stop singing all the time, your work has been slipping the last couple of weeks.”
Shelby tried to smooth it over, as usual. “She means you haven’t been as service oriented and friendly. A few of your customers have called in and mentioned you haven’t been smiling as much.”
I stared at them both. “My Mimi just died.”
“You need to leave your problems at the door,” Candy said. “We can’t let things like that affect our work.”
I couldn’t even think of a response.
After a few moments, Shelby said, “Are you OK?”
“No, I’m not,” I finally admitted to myself and two of the last people I wanted to confess that to. “I’m not OK. I’m about as far away from OK as I can be.”
Candy looked like she was trying not to roll her eyes. “Do you need to take a few minutes?”
“No, I need to leave.”
“Do you want the rest of the day?” Shelby asked. “If you leave now, it will have to be unpaid.”
“No, I want to take bereavement leave.”
Candy snorted. “Bereavement leave is for people who are trying to settle an estate or take care of funeral arrangements. You aren’t involved in any of that. You just need to get yourself together.”
Shelby looked like she wanted to say something but she would never openly disagree with Candy.
So, I gathered what strength I had and did it for her. “I am entitled to five days paid bereavement leave for the death of a close family member, and my Mimi qualifies, according to company policy. Give me the form and call HR. Right now.”
Candy looked like she was ready to vomit acid all over her desk but she picked up the phone. Exhausted, I sat back in my seat and waited for approval from HR. It took over twenty minutes, but I finally got the go-ahead.
As I signed the form, Candy snarled, “Maybe while you’re gone you should go get some help.”
That was probably the brightest thing I had ever heard her say and she would never know it.
I gathered my things and started back toward my car.
“Wait!” I stopped and heard a big commotion of drawers and locks as my work bestie, Cat, secured her cash drawer. She hustled over, keys jingling and curls bouncing. “Did you just get fired?”
I smiled a tiny smile. “You know they wouldn’t fire me,” I whispered, then raised my voice a bit for all the nosy coworkers listening in. “I’m taking bereavement leave.”
Cat murmured, “Good for you, babe. Are you going to talk to someone?”
“I’m going to the doctor,” I told her quietly.
She wrapped me in a warm hug. “Good. It’s been way too quiet around here without you singing them damned Taylor Swift songs.”
I did as I promised Cat and went to my doctor’s office straight from work. They asked me to fill out a depression screening sheet.
I thought I did OK, but my doctor corrected me when she looked it over and said, “Would you mind if I called Mobile Crisis Services for you?”
I was speechless for a moment, then I nodded slowly. “That’s fine.”
When the counselor walked in and sat down, he looked concerned. “You doctor called us because you don’t seem to be doing very well right now.”
“Yeah, my Mimi just died a couple of weeks ago,” I answered, tears pricking my eyes at his compassionate tone, so unlike what I had experienced with my boss.
“I understand. I’m so sorry,” he responded.
We sat in silence for a few moments while I collected myself.
“Dr. Vance was particularly worried about your answer to the question, ‘Do you feel like you might be better off if you fell asleep and never woke up?”
“I just want to sleep,” I told him. “I don’t have to feel anything when I’m asleep.”
“I understand how that feels,” he commented. “Do you have any plans for making that happen?”
“No, I can’t,” I said. “My kids dad already left them; I can’t leave them without a mom too.”
“OK.” He looked relieved. “Can we come up with a plan to help you feel better, then?”
We talked for a while and I did feel a bit better when I left the office.
I still wanted to sleep though.
As I got into my car, I got a message from my cousin. “Hey, you remember how you asked me for Mimi’s pound cake recipe after the funeral?”
I couldn’t even remember what I said during my eulogy, but I told her I did. “Did you find it?”
Mia sent through a picture. Tears pricked my eyes as Mimi’s delicate cursive popped up on the screen. “Thank you so much!”
Although I was exhausted, I stopped at the store and picked up the ingredients.
“2 sticks butter, ½ cup shortening, 3 cups sugar, 5 eggs, 3 cups flour, 1 cup milk, ½ tsp baking powder, 1 tsp vanilla, 1 tsp lemon extract.”
I was almost positive I had flour, sugar, milk, and vanilla at home, but I didn’t want to run the risk of my memory playing tricks on me, so I bought everything fresh.
When I got home, I unloaded the ingredients and turned on the oven to preheat it. Then I opened my phone to look at the full recipe instructions.
“All ingredients should be at room temperature.”
Huh? That was weird. I set two sticks of butter, a cup of milk and the five eggs on the windowsill to warm, then turned back to my phone.
“Cream butter, shortening, and sugar together until fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, thoroughly beating between each. Alternating between each, add in the flour and milk, mixing until completely smooth.”
This recipe gets stranger as it goes on.
“Stir in baking powder, vanilla, and lemon and mix thoroughly. Pour into two loaf pans and place in a cold oven….”
WHAT?! I had to re-read it.
“…place in a cold oven, then bake at 350 for one hour and fifteen minutes. Do not open oven until time is up.”
I quickly turned off the oven and opened the door to allow it to cool.
I stood in the middle of the kitchen, puzzling at these crazy instructions my Mimi had left in this treasured recipe. At this point, I was too confused to be sad.
“Mom? What are you doing here?” my oldest daughter asked.
“I was too sad to work, so they sent me home for a little while,” I told her, leaving out how much of a jerk my bosses had been.
“Are you cooking something?” my five-year-old asked, peering into the oven.
“I was going to bake Mimi’s pound cake.”
“Cake!” the youngest yelled, then went to go watch TV. Great – she just learned a new word!
“You feel like baking a cake?” my second asked.
“I feel like doing something with Mimi,” I whispered.
She hugged me and asked, “Can I help?”
“Not yet,” I told her, looking back at the recipe. “This is the strangest recipe I’ve ever seen.”
My oldest looked up from her homework. “What do you mean?”
“Well, it says all the ingredients have to be room-temperature, even though there’s milk in it.”
“Yeah, that’s a little weird,” she agreed.
“And you’re supposed to mix in the wet and dry ingredients at the same time. Most cakes you mix wet and dry separately, then put them together toward the end.”
She didn’t have a lot of baking experience, so this didn’t impress her much.
“Then it says to put it in a cold oven,” I continued.
“But you’re supposed to pre-heat an oven when you’re cooking,” she protested.
“I know; I told you it was weird.”
She shrugged and went back to her homework. I went to put in a load of laundry while the oven cooled down and my ingredients warmed up.
When it was finally time, I creamed the first three ingredients and carefully added the eggs one at a time, making sure each was completely beaten in before adding the next one. I mulled over how I should add the flour and milk, then decided to add a cup of flour at a time, with a half cup of milk in between each.
Although the recipe called for two loaf pans, I only owned one. Instead, I pulled out my Bundt pan and carefully greased and floured its crevasses then poured the thick, lemony batter into the pan.
Shaking my head, I put the batter into the cold oven. I closed the oven door and turned the oven to 350 degrees and set a timer for an hour and fifteen minutes.
I went to put the laundry in the dryer and helped my oldest daughter with a question on her English homework. At least it wasn’t math.
“Donald’s!” my youngest demanded. I explained why she couldn’t have a Happy Meal and gave her a ketchup packet to avoid a meltdown.
As I warmed up the leftovers from last night, I could smell the cake baking and it took me back to afternoons with Mimi, watching her bustle around the kitchen, making sure things were just so. The smell enveloped me like a warm hug.
I pulled the cake from the oven when the timer went off and set it to cool for a few minutes before turning it out. It released from the pan beautifully. I cut a thick warm slice, even though we hadn’t eaten dinner yet.
When I took a bite, it was perfect. The thick crust crunched delightfully and contrasted with the dense but pillowy soft middle. The gorgeous lemon flavor was just what I remembered Mimi serving on her beautiful porcelain dessert plates.
I stirred the chicken and put it in the microwave for a few more minutes and went to go get the laundry out of the dryer.
And as I worked, I was surprised to catch myself singing.
Cake can't really fix anything, but the love in a recipe like this can cure the deepest wounds.