Archive for January, 2011

Miss Beth’s Incredible Shrinking Two-Inch Tall Curiously Leathery Trail Cake

January 25, 2011

(Doesn’t my little carrot look a bit like a manatee?)

A big thanks to y’all for your bevy of bounteous birthday wishes—you’re very kind. They meant a lot to me.

It was a pretty swell birthday, all in all. Actually, it was my second celebration since we’d partied earlier when the kids were home. This time was more subdued, though I was delighted at good wishes from friends, my birthday poem from Benjamin, and a Happy Birthday song from Ariel. Here’s the last verse of Benjamin’s poem:

While her two young’uns are busy,
they still would want to know,
that this is a blessed, happy birthday,
hopefully not drowning in snow.

How could I not have a great day with odes like that? :-)

I did get a hankering for some birthday cake, though. And since it so happened that Blue Ridge Blue Collar Man had some freshly-dug carrots from our otherwise lifeless garden, I decided that what I was really craving was a carrot cake—my favorite.

So I set about chopping, shredding, measuring, mixing, pouring, and my favorite part (besides eating the cake)—watching it rise through the oven window. I really, really love to watch cake (or bread) rise in the oven because it seems like magic. (As I’ve mentioned before, we are easily amused).

So, as usual, I eagerly peered through the oven window about 20 minutes in. “Hmm…that’s weird.” I said to Tom. “It seems to be about the same size as when I put it in there.”

“Oh, it’s probably just slow rising,” Tom said helpfully.

“Thanks, honey,” I said. “You’re very likely right.” By now it had been 30 minutes. I checked again. “Hmm…that’s weird. Still the same size…no sign of rising.”

“A watched cake never rises,” Tom said, with a sage nod and a knowing look.

“I’m grateful for your insight, O Enlightened One,” I said, laughing. “How did I ever manage without you?”

“I have no idea,” said Tom. “It must have been a struggle.”

40 minutes in: this time I opened the oven door. The rush of warm fragrant air was heavenly. At least it smelled good. In fact, it appeared to be done. But it was still the same size as when I put it in. In fact, it almost seemed smaller, like it was shrinking. I touched the top. Strange—the cake seemed quite firm. Not firm as in “nice crust with moist center” but firm as in “well-cured beef jerky.”

I took both pans out and we stared at them. “They look like they’re about an inch tall,” said Tom.

“Yep,” I said. “About an inch, I’d say.” I pressed the top again. Still very, very firm. “Well, at least there are TWO of them. I’ll just put lots of icing on it.”

So I did. Only I was in such a hurry to get the icing on that the layers weren’t fully cooled, resulting in the icing melting and the top layer of the cake sliding off the bottom one to tilt precariously near the edge of the table. The icing was flowing off, too, dripping off the top and sides of the cake and plate like molten lava. I didn’t realize this, of course, until much later when I came back from an outdoor task.

“Oh no!” I hollered. “My cake!  It’s…melting!”

Tom came in from the other room and we stared at the cake. “That is one pitiful cake,” Tom said.

“Yeah,” I said. “It is indeed a wretched sight.” I spooned up all the icing I could and stuck the two layers back together. We both scooped up what remaining icing could be salvaged, doing our best to repair the wreckage.

“I’m afraid it’s not much use,” said Tom. He wrinkled his brow and frowned. “You know, I think your cake is about two inches tall.”

I got a ruler. It was almost exactly two inches tall. We looked at each other and started to laugh. I got a knife from the drawer and cut a small slice. I took a bite, then handed it to Tom. We both chewed thoughtfully.

“Hmm,” said Tom. “Curiously leathery.” He chewed some more. “Robust.” We started laughing again as we gnawed and gnawed.  “Sort of like…hardtack.”

For anyone that doesn’t know, hardtack was the name of the rock-hard bread that soldiers ate in the Civil War.  It was also called “sheet-iron biscuit.”  To break it into smaller pieces, troops would bash it with their musket butts. 

Then Tom picked the cake plate up with a flourish and held it aloft in his right hand. With his left, he pointed at the cake and looked into an imaginary television camera.

“Hi there, friends,” he said in a Texas drawl, to his imaginary television audience. “I’m Cowboy Tom!  You know, when I’m out on the range with the other cowpokes, we can’t be bothered with a big, bulky old birthday cake. No ma’am. So what do we eat on the trail?” Tom looked over at the cake and smiled.

“Well, we cowhands like to eat Miss Beth’s Trail Cake! Only two inches high, so it fits neatly into your saddlebags! And it has that manly consistency—it’s REAL cake that a buckeroo can sink his teeth into.” He looked back into the imaginary camera and winked.

“So, buckaroos and buckerettes, don’t weigh your horse down with unwieldy cakes! Yes, if you want that long-lasting chewing satisfaction, reach for…” He thrust the cake towards the imaginary camera. “…Miss Beth’s Trail Cake!”

I was laughing so hard at that point that I almost choked on the cake. Tom put the cake back on the table. I got a couple of plates and cut two pieces. Despite its curiously leathery texture, it tasted pretty darn good.

And there we sat on my 53rd birthday and chewed and laughed and laughed and chewed some more. I thought about how blessed I am to have a man who makes me laugh. Who saves me yet another goofy animal-shaped carrot from the garden. Who thinks I’m funny, too, and always laughs at my jokes. And I thought about what a gift our sense of humor is. How it has so often saved us through all these hard and sometimes lean years. And how often that sense of silliness and the absurd has helped us to see what’s worth getting upset about and what’s not. A fallen birthday cake is nothing in the Grand Scheme of Things. Well, nothing but an occasion to laugh. And chew. And to be thankful that it’s at least edible.

But even more, I’m thankful for someone to share it all with. Not only to share Miss Beth’s Incredible Shrinking Two-Inch Tall Curiously Leathery Trail Cake, but to share the joy and pleasure of a big, ol’ deep-down, belly-shakin’, knee-slappin’ guffaw.

What a gift it is. And I am so grateful.

Showers of Blessings (We Are Still Looking Up)

January 13, 2011

(Mr. Gnome dreams of spring)

When I was young and would count the days ‘til something exciting (like Christmas or summer vacation or my birthday, which is, by the way, this week) occurred, I’d say to Mama, “I wish it was next week already!”

She’d always look at me with a wistful smile and say, “Oh honey, don’t wish your life away. Life is precious.”

I think of that often, especially since Mama died much too soon of ALS. In her last days, she often reminded us of how precious life is. And I thought of it in the waning days of 2010, when I found myself counting the days until I could bid farewell to 2010, a year that was truly awful, on both a national and personal level.

We did have a White Christmas, though I wasn’t dreaming of it. It was a  lovely snow—the kind that covers everything, transforming even the ugliest surfaces with its pure white magic. It was as if the Universe was trying to wipe the memories of all the awfulness of the year from my mind and to remind me to always look for beauty and to never forget that, even in the ugliest of situations, there is usually hope for transformation.

Thankfully, though, the snow was gone and the skies clear a week ago last Monday as Tom, Ariel, Benjamin, and I made our way in the darkness across our yard to wait for the Quadrantid meteor shower. We huddled together in the biting cold, our necks craned and our eyes on the northern skies.

As we waited, we reminisced about all the times as a family that we’d watched meteors streaking towards earth and told stories we’d heard from others about their meteor experiences. I told of one story I’d been told by someone we all knew. He’s one of those people who seem to live a charmed life, where blessings and good fortune seems to be an everyday thing (as illustrated by my story). He and his wife, after a perfect evening of celebrating their anniversary (and many happy and prosperous years), stepped out on their deck to look at the clear evening sky. He turned to his wife and said, “Wouldn’t it be the perfect end to the evening to see a falling star?”

Yep, you guessed it. At that very moment, a bright meteor streaked across the sky. Now, I was truly happy for them when I heard the story, but a small petulant voice in my head said, “Why always them, God? Why not me, too?” I always imagine God rolling his eyes when he hears that whiny voice in my head. It’s got to be really annoying. :-)

So that night, as we searched the dark skies for Quadrantid meteors, I turned to Tom and said, “Go ahead—say it. Say, ‘Wouldn’t it be the perfect end to our evening to see a falling star?’” So Tom laughed and said it, and we all looked up eagerly, laughing…but hoping, too. Alas, we didn’t see a single meteor that night, though the stars were bright and beautiful.

So, the next morning, at 5:45AM, as Tom and I were standing on the porch (I get up with him to make his lunch and see him off to work every day), I mentioned that there was still the possibility of Quadrantid meteors, though the peak was the night before. I said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we saw one right now?” We both looked towards the northeast, which was beginning to brighten slightly with the rising sun. Nothing. I sighed and kissed Tom goodbye, watching him make his way across the yard to his truck. Then I turned back towards the mountains, stars, and Venus visible in the East.

At that very moment, a meteor flashed directly across my line of sight—a brilliant, bright streak hurtling towards earth. It only lasted a split second, but I gasped, my mouth agape, and shouted, “Oh God!”

I laughed out loud then, imagining God answering and saying, “Yes? You called?”

I looked up and said, “Thank you,” knowing He was listening. He always is, even when I don’t sense it, just as meteors fall even when I’m not looking.

Sure, I know it could have been just a coincidence. Sometimes things like that are. But I don’t think this was. I think God knew just how badly I needed to see that, how much my puny faith needed that boost. It’s been a hard year, and sometimes we’ve just barely been able to dog paddle to keep our heads above water as wave after wave has washed over us. But, thank God, we are still paddling. We are still breathing, still looking upward, seeking always signs, wonders, and miracles. It’d be such a shame to miss a single one.

Because sometimes they happen when you don’t expect them, in the twinkling of an eye, when you’ve almost given up hope. Sometimes, God reveals Himself in surprising and even whimsical ways. For that, I am so grateful.


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