I am no baker of cakes.
In fact, every one I’ve tried to make has come out lopsided and lousy.
There was one cake, however, that I was determined to make. It was a gum drop cake.
My momma, Willa Mae Lankford, and me had seen it on one of the Food Network’s shows.
“Man, does that look good,” she said. “I’d love to try a piece of one of those.”
It was the week of Christmas, 2008. Momma was in the hospital. The past several months she had either been hospitalized or in a nursing home. She was 82 and she was dying.
I thought to myself, ‘If she wants that cake, she’s gonna have it.’
Wherever Momma was, you could find me with for the most part. My two daughters who lived with us were older teenagers and able to cook, do laundry and generally take care of themselves. That being the case, I spent my time outside of work with Momma. I spent every night with her – be it in a rough hospital chair, or my recliner I’d brought from the house to the nursing home. I was there every night. That’s where I wanted to be.
There were times, however, that I had to run errands like take my daughters to the grocery store to replenish their food supplies, wash up mine and Momma’s laundry, pay bills and do other things.
It was during one of these quick trips from my mother, that I found a big container of red, green, orange and yellow gum drops.
“These will work perfect,” I thought.
I bought a cake mix and the stuff I needed for it and, I thought, had everything set.
Momma had come home from the nursing home for Thanksgiving and my daughter, Jennifer, and myself fixed a royal feast – two hams, two turkeys, probably 10 pumpkin pies (my sister, Ellen, who was living in Greensboro at the time, always requested several). But, somewhere during all of that baking, the oven became a bit wacked out.
Really it was no surprise, because it seemed like everything we had either tore up or malfunctioned during that cold, cold winter.
Finally, I saw my chance to be away long enough to make the anticipated gum drop cake.
I hadn’t told Momma anything about it. I wanted it to be a surprise.
With the cake mix and gum drops safely in the oven, I watched the clock. At last, it was time for it to come out.
Like I’d said, our oven was kind of messed up, and it was never made more apparent than from the baking of that cake. It couldn’t have looked worse if I had driven over it with a car. I felt gut shot.
Dumping it onto a large plate out of the bundt pan – which I’d used because I wanted it to look as festive as possible — things only got worse. It came out in big partially round chunks.
Looking upon my disaster, I had an idea. I sliced it up into pieces. Actually, that hid many of the sins created by this baker wannabe.
The ultimate test, however, was the taste. It really wasn’t that bad. Nothing I’d go out of my way for, but at least OK.
Packing the slices into a big zip lock bag. I got in my old van and was on my way back to the hospital.
It was a couple of days before Christmas, but I wanted to go ahead and give it to Momma. Perhaps I just wanted to get the disappointment over with.
Knocking on the heavy wooden door on the second floor, I heard Momma’s sweet voice call me inside.
We talked for a few minutes, then I reached in under my big brown barn coat — where I’d temporarily hidden the cake — and handed her the zip lock bag filled with the multicolored slices.
“Oh, you made the gum drop cake!” she said. She was so happy.
Not wanting her to get her hopes up, I stammered a bit. “You might want to try just a little bite first,” I suggested. “I’m not sure if you’ll like it.”
She simply smiled at me, opened the bag and took a bite.
“UMMMMM!” She said. “That’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted.”
Offering me the bag, I declined, but told her that I really hoped that she liked it.
All of our family came to the hospital at varying times to visit Momma for Christmas. Each time someone knocked on the door, she’d hide the cake and grin at me.
“That’s mine,” she said confidentially. Within the course of four days, that cake had been devoured – just by Momma.
Christmas of 2008 was Momma’s last. She died in February.
And, though that poor old cake may not have been the best thing in the world to most of us, apparently it was to her. Nothing else about it mattered.
That Christmas was so, so cold and filled with countless bittersweet emotions.
But when I think back to that secret surprise cake, it serves up the warmest and sweetest memories for me.
Jerry Lankford, editor of The Record of Wilkes in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina is an honorary Kentuckian and non-biological brother of Carter County Post Community Journalist Tim Preston.
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