I’m exhausted. Those of you reading along the past couple of weeks know that we’ve been busy. We’ve had our share of ups and downs. Life is like that though. The inevitable roller coaster ride. Sometimes we glide along smoothly and at other times we’re taken up, down and around. I should be in bed. I should be asleep. Or at the very least, I should be using these early morning hours when I’m tossing and turning to catch up on laundry, my work, the mundane list of to do’s that’s been piling up this busy summer, but when words are spinning around in my head, sometimes I just need to put them down.
Writing has long been the way I work through life’s ride. Well, writing, cooking and eating! Anyway, I hope you’ll bare with me. We will be back later this week with two delicious cherry recipes and tales of our adventures in New York (and adventures they have been!). First, though, I have a recipe that I need to share, words I need to say, and memories I need to record for my kiddos to someday look back upon. While this may get a little more mushy than I typically like to get, I promise a good recipe too!
Cinderella has never been one of my favorite fairy tales, but who wouldn’t want a magical fairy godmother – someone to take away life’s troubles, make dreams come true and ensure you live happily ever after. While I’ve never seen pumpkins turn into carriages; rags transform into beautiful ball gowns; and know that happily ever after is relative, and something we have to work hard to create and maintain; I have known the love, tenderness and encouragement of a one-of-a-kind person. My mom comes from a family of six with two younger sisters and a baby brother. One of those sisters was my Auntie Karen (read “anty” for those of you outside of Chicago), and she also happened to be my godmother. Or as she liked to say, my “fairy godmother.”
It’s hard to put into words Auntie Karen’s larger than life personality. She was exceptionally caring, definitely a mother hen, thoughtful, silly, loud, and occasionally slightly foul-mouthed (which of course always had us laughing). She was stubborn, fiercely loyal, sensitive and for a big part of my life, one of my number one cheerleaders.
Growing up, my extended family was a big and vibrant part of my childhood. We got together at least once a month to celebrate a birthday or holiday and spent many other afternoons and evenings visiting and playing. We were a tight-knit group with inside jokes, laughter and seemingly endless fun.
Of this group, my mom and Auntie Karen were the first two married and the first two to have kids. Their life situations being so similar, they were natural best friends. They spent countless hours on the phone; at each other’s homes; or hanging together at Grandma’s. As a mom myself now, I understand the importance, and frankly necessity of these types of friendships to make it through the parenting years. We all need someone to get us through this kind of joyful insanity!
Us kids benefited immeasurably from this relationship too though. I can’t tell you the number of sleepovers, outings and crazy afternoons we spent with my Auntie Karen and cousin Jason (five years my junior). Some of my favorite times, however and the ones that are flooding my memories this week, are the dinners my sister and I would spend in absolute fits of laughter with Auntie Karen, Uncle Jim and Jason. I can’t even recall what we would laugh about, but oh how we would laugh – to the point of tears, snorts and even our drinks being blurted past pursed lips as our hands reached up to clasp our mouths.
I’ve been lucky not to have experienced too much sorrow early in my life. In fact, aside from my beloved beagle pup as a kid, my greatest losses have only happened in the past seven years. And of these losses, two were aging grandparents (the other two aging cats). While there is never a good time for a passing, or the right time for those of us suffering the loss, some deaths follow a natural progression.
Others, however, come unexpectedly, too quickly and hardly seem fair. Six months ago my Auntie Karen began treatment for a very aggressive, small cell lung cancer. The prognosis was not good. At the time they discovered the cancer it had already spread to her bones. There was shock and sadness. The family rallied by her side as she resolved to “beat this garbage.” And while it took her all too soon, and rather unexpectedly this week, she fought through discomfort, pain, too many treatments, doctor appointments, fear and I’m sure an endless stream of emotions I can’t begin to fathom. She reconnected with family, she celebrated her son’s marriage, helped him move into his first home and adopt his first puppy. She got to see that her family would be okay. Given what we know now of how far this cancer had spread and how aggressive it truly was, it’s nothing short of a miracle. She may not have beat it, but she kicked its ass.
One of the things I’ve learned these past few years about loss, is that it comes with a gift. Each and every passing I’ve experienced has brought with it a flood of memories. Pieces of the past that have long since been buried, resurface and find their way into my consciousness. Moments, conversations, events and details that I haven’t thought of in years are suddenly clear and almost tangible. It’s wonderfully comforting. Well, one such memory of my Auntie Karen that came rushing back involves a delicious cake. I knew I had to bake immediately. Yes, a cake!
For those of you that know me well, you know I don’t make cakes (unless by special request from a birthday boy). I’m a pie, crisp, cobbler type of baker (you’ll find lots of those sprinkled throughout this blog). Cakes, however, are just not my thing. Auntie Karen, on the other hand, made a wicked, good cinnamon streusel cake – and she would make it just for me. I can’t even recall how many birthdays I made this special request. I wanted Auntie Karen’s cinnamon streusel cake, and only hers. She always delivered. Honestly, it was likely from a box mix, but it didn’t matter. It was moist, full of brown sugar and cinnamon and absolutely the only cake I would eat for a long time. (To this day I’m not much of a cake fan – unless dad is making my birthday cake!)
So to honor my Auntie Karen’s memory and to share a meaningful recipe with my family, I dove in and made a Cinnamon Swirl Bundt Cake – from scratch!
And I’m happy to report success!!! I was slightly optimistic when I pulled the cake from the oven and it actually looked like a cake. I wasn’t about to count my chickens before inverting it onto a plate though. Last time I attempted that, half the cake remained in the pan. Miss A and I held our breath as I carefully ran a knife around the sides of the pan and turned it upside down. Then Miss A yelled, “Mommy you did it! You made a cake!” We looked at each other, smiled and high-fived. Mission accomplished…well, almost. We did have to try it first to know for sure!
After cooling, we added a light sugary glaze over the top. It probably could have used more, but I ran out of confectioner’s sugar. We didn’t mind though. The cake was full of that brown sugar and cinnamon-y goodness!
It’s not my Auntie Karen’s, but I’ll still give it a solid 3 spoons. Mike agrees. The kids both gave it 4 spoons and devoured their slices. They were both very proud (and surprised) that I pulled it off!
And in some small way I feel better too. I feel connected to my fairy godmother. I only wish it wasn’t too late and I hope she knows how much she meant to me. You see, I do have a regret and I’m nothing if not honest about feelings. I haven’t really spoken to my Aunt in about 15 years. Off and on, here and there, but as sometimes happens in passionate, tight-knit, stubborn families, there was a falling out. Being one of the “kids” I wasn’t really privy to the details. In fact, I don’t know that anyone really knows the real reason for the fallout, but it opened deep wounds and left painful scars. I’ve often believed the greatest of loves can also cause the greatest of hurts.
Us kids were largely innocent by-standers, but we did take sides. Of course you’re going to be protective of your own mother whether they are in the right or not; and since we didn’t really know what was going on, we stuck to our immediate families. My mom and her siblings were divided. We stayed close with my mom’s other sister and family, and they have been a big part of my kids’ lives. My Auntie Karen and my mom’s brother and families, however, aligned and drifted. My cousin and I would see each other occasionally, but there was always an elephant in the room. Things could never really be the same. I remember at the time it was a difficult loss and something I spent a lot time grappling with and working through.
The loss of my grandparents brought another gift though. The past few years, my mom and her siblings have been rebuilding relationships. They would meet for breakfast and talk on the phone once again. It wasn’t the same, nor can it ever be, but the walls did come down. So when Auntie Karen’s diagnosis hit, they rallied. They were a family. They did what families do.
And when we got the call to come say goodbye, we again did what families do. All of us. We came. We cried, we shared and we laughed. By this time, my Aunt was sedated, but she squeezed my hand. I believe that she heard me. I believe that she knew we were all by her side. As I watched family members that had stayed close with her cry and grieve, I had an overwhelming sense of guilt. I feel, in a way, like I don’t have a right to my sadness. I wasn’t there for her or her family for more than a decade while others have been. They have a right to their sadness, but do I?
I wish things could have been different. I wish we would have stayed close. I wish families didn’t have to come with struggles and I wish cancer didn’t have to get to those that we love (or anyone for that matter!) – especially so soon and too young. But we’re really not in the driver’s seat. Sure we can choose our actions and reactions, but many, many things are just not for us to control. The fallout happened. She did get sick. That said, I also know that I do love her. I know that my childhood is inextricably linked to her. I know that the impact she has had on my first 23 years is immeasurable. I only hope she knew these things.
And there lies a few more of death’s gifts – it reminds us that life is short, precious and unpredictable; and that we have to embrace the day, embrace those we love and don’t leave things unsaid.
Or in this case, unbaked. Print this recipe: Cinnamon Swirl Bundt Cake
I will work through the grief, and this silly guilt, I know I will. Death has a way of flooding the mind with a million different thoughts and emotions. I do know I have every right to be sad. I know my hurt is real. I know time will provide healing. I know the connection we shared was something that wasn’t really ever broken, just lost for a while. I know that I’m going to continue to use the lessons she taught me, and I’ll take to heart the lessons she’s teaching me through her loss.
She wrote me a letter when I graduated college. Her words, many of them, are still applicable (some strangely so). Most of them I will keep to myself, but these seemed particularly apropos, “Just remember to enjoy life to the fullest and that the best in your life is yet to come. I Love You and will always be here for you.”
I’d say I had someone better than a fairy godmother making wishes come true. I had my Auntie Karen who taught me how to make wishes come true.