I grew up calling Shannon “Mom” because that’s what Daddy and all his siblings called her. That’s what we, all of her grandchildren, called her. She died this year as the leaves of October peaked. I didn’t get to say goodbye or hold her soft hands or thank her for loving me or to whisper, “I love you,” in her ear. If I had, she wouldn’t have known me anyway. Dementia had stolen her mind.
I didn’t cry when the news of her death came through to my phone. I didn’t cry the entire week leading up to her funeral. I thought about her. I read letters she had written to me over the years. I studied her beautiful cursive writing and how the loops seamlessly connected every letter. I read her poetry about Daddy, my sister, and my brother – all whom I’ve lost throughout the years. I walked down trails covered in golden leaves as if Mom laid them just so with her own hands to remind me to follow the light, but I didn’t shed a tear.
Shannon’s death had been a topic of discussion for several therapy sessions. My therapist called it anticipatory grief. I had been grieving the loss of my grandmother for years now. The longing to hear her voice. The longing to hold her hand. The longing to just sit with her. But, for whatever reason, fear kept me from asking Daddy’s family if I could get those moments with her, and when I gained the courage to ask, she died a week later. I didn’t shed a tear because I had already shed so many. I expected the loss. Now, I had to decide how to honor her life for me. Not for my daddy. Not for the Alley family. Just for me.
When my mother sent me Shannon’s chocolate sheet cake recipe, I knew I had to get into the kitchen and bake. I’m no patissier but baking calms my mind and settles my spirit. Plus, this chocolate cake was Daddy’s favorite, and I remember enjoying its rich fudgy sweetness as a young girl too. I gathered the ingredients from my cabinets ready to honor Shannon-in my way. Just for me.
Mix margarine, oil, water, and cocoa.
I added the softened butter, vegetable oil, water, and cocoa to a stainless steel mixing bowl and clicked the hand mixer on. Chocolate liquid splattered everywhere. Perplexed, I looked back over the ingredients to be sure it didn’t call for a stick of melted butter. It didn’t. I clicked the hand mixer on as if anticipating a different outcome. Again, chocolate liquid splattered everywhere. Something ain’t right, I thought to myself while also giggling at my lack of aptitude in the kitchen. I could hear Shannon’s laugh too. I never said I was good at baking. Eventually, I turned my eyes from the fall colors outside the kitchen window and back to the recipe reading past the first sentence.
Mix margarine, oil, water, and cocoa. Bring to a rapid boil and pour over flour and sugar mixture.
Every day I preach to my students, “Read ALL of the directions,” and here I was being the student I’m constantly preaching to. I transferred the liquid from the stainless steel bowl into a pot sitting on the open flames of our gas stove. With a wooden spoon, I stirred until the margarine melted and the mixture came to a rapid boil. Then, I removed the buttery chocolate mixture from the heat and poured it over the flour and sugar mixture in the stainless steel bowl.
Mix thoroughly. Stir in eggs, buttermilk, soda, cinnamon, and vanilla. Mix well.
And, so, I mixed ingredients like a good student. Once mixed well, I poured the batter onto a cookie sheet with edges all around and baked at 400 degrees for 20 minutes feeling proud. As the cake baked, I once again heated a stick of margarine, milk, and cocoa in a pot until the ingredients melted together.
Remove from heat; add sugar and chopped walnuts.
I reviewed the ingredients list for the measurement of sugar. Already feeling guilty about the half pound of butter I used, I nearly went into a diabetic coma when I read: 1 box of 10x sugar. Unlike Shannon, I wasn’t as heavy handed on the sugar and used a half box of 10x sugar. I sneaked a little taste of the icing and felt the sugar shoot through my veins. The oven beeped. I pulled the rack out with the softness of my grandmother’s hands and ever so gently pressed a toothpick down into the center of the cake. The toothpick came out clean so I placed a mittened hand on each side of the cookie sheet with edges all around and set it on a towel covering our gray concrete countertop.
Put on cake when it comes from the oven. Leave it on the cookie sheet.
I did as Shannon directed. The fudge-like icing drowned the fudge-like cake pooling in the corners and around the edges, so I took a plastic spatula and pushed the pools of chocolate icing toward the top of the sheet cake trying to cover it evenly. After a minute or so, I stepped back and decided to let the cake settle, form, and cool.
I stood and stared at the cake thinking of all the forms I had taken over the years. I struggled as the years passed, and there were months and years I felt like an outsider – like I wasn’t part of Daddy’s family anymore. There were times I so desired to be an active member of Daddy’s family, and there were times I didn’t have that desire. Throughout my young life there was a lot of confusion because I didn’t fully understand the Alley parts of me. My roots felt unsettled.
In reading the decades worth of letters from Shannon, I recognized a theme – love. I didn’t always see or feel the love in my younger years, but now, I recognized her effort and felt the love. I wish I had returned the effort and love a little more.
As I stood in the kitchen, smelling the sweet scent of baking victory, I remembered my walk down the foothills trail covered in golden leaves as if Mom laid them just so with her own hands. When I approached the end of the trail that dreary day, I looked up to the sky and spotted a cottony heart shaped cloud. It felt like an embrace, and I could hear Shannon whisper her own beautiful and seamless cursive words to me.
The loss will always hurt, but our presence has a way of being part of you.Shannon Alley