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Authors: Lynne Hinton

Christmas Cake (2 page)

BOOK: Christmas Cake
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“You thought working on a cake cookbook would keep Margaret from remembering that her cancer has come back? You thought trying to sort through a hundred menu cards would make her forget the doctor's prognosis? You thought making her edit recipes for prune desserts and fruitcakes would help her in preparing to have another surgery, take more treatments?”

There was a pause in the conversation. Beatrice was hurt by her friend's opinion of the situation. Originally she had suggested the idea about the holiday cookbook with only the best intentions. She had really thought it would brighten everyone's spirits. Like all her ideas, she thought it would be the inspiration everyone needed.

She felt just like the other cookbook committee members, she was devastated by what was happening to their friend; and she was only trying to help things. But Louise was right and she knew it. Once again, Beatrice had tried to fix things with a project. And now not even she felt like seeing the project completed. It was already late in the autumn season and they hadn't even settled on the prize for the winning recipe. They weren't even sure how to pick the best cake.

The women weren't sending in cake recipes and Beatrice couldn't find any restaurant to honor the prize-winning recipe. She had grand ideas in the beginning that the winning cake could be featured on some nice restaurant's menu during the month of December. So far, no one seemed interested. No one was returning phone calls. She couldn't find any business to donate a prize. Usually the one never to be discouraged, the one who could pester even saints, especially in a project she initiated, Beatrice was just not being effective. She
was as indifferent and uninterested in this cookbook and contest as everyone else.

Beatrice understood why. Margaret was the center of the Hope Springs community, not just the church, but the entire community. She was the glue that held them all together. She remembered how Jessie had described their friend. “Margaret was the pulse, the heartbeat, the blood supply” for that little rural area. Once the word had gotten out that after five years the cancer had metastasized again, this time in her liver, everybody was affected.

Once they heard the news, everybody in the church, and especially the cookbook committee, Margaret's three best friends, Beatrice, Louise, and Jessie, struggled. They found themselves feeling everything from shock to denial to anger to just trying to make a deal with God. No one could accept that Margaret's cancer was back. Beatrice tried to think of projects. Louise was just mad all the time, and Jessie teared up at every meeting.

“Beatrice, I'm sorry,” Louise said, realizing that she had hurt her friend's feelings. “I know you were just trying to help. And I think a cake cookbook and cook-off will be nice and we can use the money to help Margaret pay for some of her bills. It was a good idea, Bea.”

“It's not a cook-off, it's a recipe contest. And no, it wasn't a good idea. It was a stupid idea.” She started to cry. “We'll end up spending more money than we make. And besides, I can't find any prize for the winning recipe. I don't know how to judge cakes. There's no such thing as a Christmas cake. It was a stupid idea,” she repeated. “I always have stupid ideas.”

Louise was shocked. She had never, not in thirty years of friendship, ever heard Beatrice sound so low. She couldn't even think of how to respond. Beatrice saying her idea was stupid? Louise sud
denly wondered if Beatrice could be suicidal. She considered calling Dick to run over from the funeral home to be with her. “I'll take care of it,” Louise responded, surprising herself by taking control of the cookbook project. “Just find a prize for the winner. I'll do the rest.”

Beatrice felt a tear roll down her cheek. She nodded, not even realizing that Louise couldn't see her response. She wiped her face on a napkin she found at her elbow.

“Okay?” Louise asked.

There was no reply except what sounded like a nose being blown.

“We don't have to put the party cake recipe as the opening recipe in the book if you don't want to,” she added. “We don't even have to use it at all. Okay?” Louise asked again.

There was still nothing from the other end.

“Beatrice, are you nodding?”

“Yeah,” she finally answered.

“I can't see you, remember?” Louise asked, her voice softening.

“Right,” Beatrice said. “I forgot again.”

“It's all right, Beatrice. It's going to be all right,” she said, trying to convince herself as much as her friend.

“Okay,” Beatrice said quietly. “Thank you, Louise,” she added.

“Yeah, you owe me,” Louise replied.

And the two friends hung up their phones.

 

 

Hot Milk Cake

4 eggs

2 cups sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 stick butter

1 cup boiling milk

2 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

 

Beat eggs until they are thick and have changed to a pale yellow. Beat in sugar and salt until completely mixed with eggs. Add vanilla. Melt butter in boiling milk. Stir into sugar and egg mixture. Sift flour and baking powder and beat in very quickly. Bake in 2 9-inch cake pans at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes.

L
ouise sat staring at the phone for a few minutes before she got up from the kitchen table. This cookbook and contest was not at all what she wanted to be working on. She needed to be in her garden, trimming away the old summer growth. She needed to put down more mulch, prune the rosebushes, pull up some old kudzu vines that were dying on her back fence.

She had intended to buy some pine straw from the garden center, find a little fescue grass seed for the bald spots in the front yard, pick up a few bulbs and autumn flowers. She had planned to spend the whole week out in the yard, but now she was going to have to put together Beatrice's holiday cooking project. And Beatrice was right about one thing. If they expected the finished project to be out and a winner selected by Christmas, they needed to step up the process. She sighed and shook her head, thinking about everything she would have to do.

Louise recalled the first cookbook the church ladies had com
pleted. She thought about all the arguments she had with Beatrice, how they fussed about what went where and whose recipe got to be first in a section. She thought about all the trouble there was but then how wonderful the cookbook actually turned out.

She remembered that even though in the beginning she was dead set against the project, she had actually gotten more from it than anyone. Jessie, Margaret, Beatrice, even the pastor, Charlotte, had bonded so tightly because of that silly project. They were now the sisters she'd never had.

Louise considered that time in her life when the cookbook was being put together. She felt her chest tighten as she thought about Roxie, her best friend forever, the woman she loved, moving in with her a few months before she died. She remembered how she felt those months, so happy to be taking care of Roxie and so very sad to know that she was dying.

The cookbook committee had been the only reason she had lived through that grief. Those women had meant everything to her during that horrible time. Jessie had been a rock. Margaret had never let her down. Charlotte was an attentive pastor, and even Beatrice had never let her face a day alone. They had cared for her, gone to Maryland to bring her home after the funeral when she was really messed up, cooked her food, called her on the phone, stayed by her side for months. They had pulled her through her sorrow even though most of the time she had been kicking and screaming about her loss.

And now Louise wondered whether Margaret was the one dying, wondered if another cookbook meant another death. She shuddered at the thought, the awful thought of it. And if that was the case, if Margaret was terminal, she didn't know how those women would ever manage.

“I'm not dead yet,” Margaret had said when the women had gathered around her in the doctor's office. He had just given the news about the findings from the CAT scan she had a few days earlier. He had reported that there was cancer, that she would need more treatments. The words had hung above them like some dark cloud. Margaret had already come through a second mastectomy and chemotherapy. He knew how long she had been struggling with cancer. He had not seemed optimistic at all, and they were devastated at the news.

Jessie, Beatrice, and Louise had accompanied Margaret to the doctor's appointment, just as they had to most of the others. They had been with her from the beginning of this illness five years ago, and they had kept the promises they had made. They did not let her face the disease alone.

After all they had gone through together, after the second surgery and the treatments, they could not accept that the cancer had returned. None of the three friends wanted to believe that it was true. And when the doctor gave his report, Jessie and Beatrice and Louise took it harder than the patient.

“You hear what I said?” Margaret had asked. “I'm not dead yet,” she repeated. And the three women had tried to mask their disappointment, smiling at her, patting one another on the back, pretending the news was nothing more than just a tiny setback in their plans.

Louise sat at the table looking out the window and suddenly didn't care anymore about the overgrown vines and the shabby-looking garden. She didn't care about the unkempt rose bushes and the pigweed that had crept into her flower beds. She didn't even notice the dandelions. She could only think of her friend Margaret and what it would mean to her, to the others, if Margaret died.

“Knock, knock.”

Louise heard the sound at the back door. She smiled. She knew it was Jessie. She recognized the voice, the silly way she always stood at a door and said the sound instead of making it by rapping her fist against the frame.

“Hey you,” Louise called out, moving away from the table. She pulled open the door. “What are you doing out this morning?” she asked.

“Just had a feeling,” Jessie replied.

Louise moved aside so that Jessie could walk through the door. Her smile widened and she nodded. She loved how the friends seemed to know when one needed the other.

“You want some coffee?” she asked.

“No, had plenty of that. I would take a glass of water though,” Jessie responded. “I parked over at the school and walked here.”

Louise looked down the road. “That's got to be two miles,” she noted.

“I know it. My feet know it. My lungs know it.” Jessie took in a deep breath. “I'm trying to be more healthy.”

“Well, I don't think killing yourself is the way to go. Have a seat,” Louise said, nodding toward the table, and Jessie walked over and sat down next to where Louise had just been.

Louise took down a glass and put a few cubes of ice in it and then poured water from the faucet. She knew that Jessie didn't mind well water like some folks in the community. Louise drank it too, but some of the women had gone to getting fancy bottled water delivered to them from town. It had apparently become the “in” thing to do.

“Here you go,” she said, handing Jessie the glass. She reached over
and got her mug from the table. Once she saw the bits of cereal in the bottom of it, she walked over to the sink and poured out what was left. She went over to the refrigerator and got the milk and decided to start over with her coffee.

“You okay?” Jessie asked after taking a sip of water. “I woke up with one of my funny feelings. I checked with all the children, with Lana and the baby. Everybody said I was crazy. Then I called Margaret but she seemed fine this morning. So I thought it might be you who was in trouble.” Jessie had premonitions, and she usually thought they had to do with those who were closest to her. That's why when she felt like something was wrong she always checked first with her family–her husband, James; or her grandson, Wallace, and his wife, Lana, and their baby, since they lived the closest to her.

Louise smiled at her friend. She loved the connection, the bond they shared. “Nope, your radar was a bit off.” She sat down. “It is a cookbook committee member though,” she added.

Jessie thought for a moment. “Beatrice?” she asked. She looked concerned. She had not thought of Beatrice as being in trouble. Jessie knew that Beatrice was one woman who always seemed to be in control. She rarely worried about Beatrice. “What's happened with Bea?”

“Her heart isn't in the holiday cookbook and contest project,” Louise replied.

Jessie looked surprised and concerned. “Is she sick? Something wrong with Dick?” she asked. Like Louise, she knew something was terribly wrong if Beatrice lost interest in her project.

“She told me it was a stupid idea, that she always had stupid ideas,” Louise told her friend. She had taken her seat next to Jessie.

“Beatrice?” Jessie asked, still not believing what she was hearing. “Beatrice Newgarden Witherspoon? Are we talking about the same woman?”

“Short, a little on the chubby side, hair short and teased too high?”

“My Lord,” Jessie said, shaking her head. “Well, does she need to go to the emergency room or should we just call Dick to have her committed?”

Louise smiled. She and Jessie had often given their friend a hard time because of her projects, her ideas to fix things. They teased her about it, but they also loved her for the way she handled adversity. It was like comic relief when they faced difficulties. The cookbooks, the night they all shaved their heads, the sudden appearances of prune cakes when she thought someone was too uptight—Beatrice had a project or “fix it” idea for every brand of trouble. And she never ever considered it a stupid thing. Even when it backfired or turned out to be unnecessary, like the head-shaving event when it was revealed that Margaret wouldn't have to have chemotherapy that time after all, Beatrice had always stood behind her ideas.

Jessie's response to what Beatrice had said about the holiday cookbook and recipe contest was exactly like Louise's reaction. Beatrice was obviously depressed.

“Well, what are we going to do?” Jessie asked. She dabbed her mouth with a napkin from the table.

“I told her I would handle it,” Louise replied.

Jessie sat back in her chair so hard she almost turned it over. “What?” she asked. “Did I hear what I think I heard?”

Louise rolled her eyes. She knew her decision was difficult to believe and she knew Jessie was giving her a hard time. Everybody
knew what Louise thought about Beatrice's projects, especially the cookbooks.

“You're taking care of it?” Jessie said again. She shook her head and drank a swallow of water. She placed her glass on the table and fanned herself with her napkin as if she was suddenly feeling faint.

“Oh, stop it,” Louise snapped. “Who else is going to do it?” she asked. “You keep that great-grandbaby all the time, still go to work at the mill when they call you. The preacher's wife certainly doesn't get involved in church affairs. Twila is getting ready to go to Florida. Elizabeth Garner has cataract surgery next week. Everybody knows Dorothy West is just crazy. And Margaret—” Louise stopped.

Jessie turned away. There was a pause between the friends.

“Margaret is going to be fine,” Jessie finally said.

Louise nodded. She didn't want to contradict Jessie, but she knew she had her doubts about Margaret's future. “Well, regardless,” Louise added, “Margaret doesn't need to be bothered about a cookbook right now.”

“Yes,” Jessie responded.

There was another pause. Jessie took another swallow of water. She put down the glass and wiped her forehead.

“Did they set the time for the surgery next week?” Louise asked. She knew that Jessie had gone with Margaret for her preadmission appointment at the hospital. They were all waiting to know what time the outpatient procedure to put in a portacath was scheduled. Someone was supposed to call Margaret and let her know when to show up on the day of the surgery.

“She's scheduled for the first slot on Wednesday,” Jessie replied.

Both women understood the surgery involved placing the device
under Margaret's collarbone that would become the IV site for the chemotherapy drugs. She had received one previously but it had been removed more than a year ago.

“So, that means getting to the hospital at six
A.M
.?” Louise asked. She was thinking ahead of arrangements she would need to make for being with her friends in the waiting room.

Jessie nodded. “It's always best to be first,” she noted.

“Yeah,” Louise responded, although not very convincingly.

“She'll just be in for a few hours,” Jessie added.

Both women recalled that she had done well with the last surgery. She was groggy afterward; but she had not gotten sick from the anesthesia. It had not been too terrible for her. The chemotherapy, however, had been quite terrible. Margaret had gotten an infection at one point and was hospitalized with that for about a week. Everybody knew that she was not looking forward to another round of chemotherapy.

“Are we all spending the night with her Tuesday?” Louise asked, knowing she would certainly stay with her friend. Jessie and Beatrice, however, had spouses, so Louise wasn't sure if they would be bunking with her and Margaret or not.

Jessie shrugged. “We didn't really get that far,” she replied.

Louise nodded.

They both glanced around the room. It was as if neither of them knew what to say.

“How do you think she's really doing?” Louise finally asked.

Jessie shrugged again and shook her head. “She's not talking much to me,” she noted. “You?”

Louise shook her head in reply. “We haven't talked about any
thing except the weather and when a good time to work on the church flower beds would be.”

“I think she's just holding up for us,” Jessie surmised.

Louise thought about that. “Maybe. We didn't take the news very well,” she added, recalling how shocked they had all appeared when the doctor came in with the news.

Before he came in, Beatrice had even cracked a joke that maybe it was time for Margaret to consider getting breast implants and that maybe the doctor could recommend a good plastic surgeon. She remembered how they were all laughing when the doctor finally walked into the room. No one was ready for the bad news.

“I think Margaret's just trying to take this the way she takes everything,” Jessie said.

“As it comes,” Louise finished the sentence for her friend. They both were very familiar with how Margaret handled problems.

Margaret never intended to fix things. She didn't run from trouble but she didn't try to make it something it wasn't either. She was as levelheaded and as calm as any woman Louise or Jessie ever knew.

“Remember what Charlotte used to say?” Louise asked.

Jessie nodded, recalling the former pastor and how much she thought of her parishioner. “Yep, even before there were bracelets and bumper stickers with ‘WWJD' on them,” she said, referring to the popular phrase from a few years before, “Charlotte was saying when she got in a jam she asked herself, ‘What would Margaret do?'”

BOOK: Christmas Cake
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