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Authors: Lynne Hinton

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BOOK: Christmas Cake
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Both women smiled. They knew Charlotte loved all the people she served as pastor. But some people complained that she was too close to the members of the cookbook committee. Some of the other women were jealous of their relationships. And yet, even among the
committee members, everyone knew that Charlotte respected Margaret the most.

All three of the other women, Louise, Jessie, and Beatrice, knew that the preacher and Margaret had a very special bond. It hadn't, however, ever bothered them. They all knew that Margaret was the bravest, most faithful of them all. The fact that the preacher recognized that and honored that didn't trouble them or make them jealous; it simply made them respect the young woman even more. Secretly, they all approved of the special friendship.

As if the two women were reading each other's thoughts, they glanced up at each other, and Jessie shook her head. Neither of them had contacted Charlotte to tell her about Margaret.

“Do you think Margaret has called her?” Louise asked.

“I don't know,” Jessie replied. “I tried once,” she added. “But when the answering machine at the women's shelter picked up, I just didn't know what to say. I hung up before I left a message.”

Louise nodded. She hadn't even had the courage to go that far. None of the three women wanted to break the news to their former pastor. They knew that Charlotte would be very upset.

“Maybe we should just wait until after the surgery. Then we can let her know when the treatments start,” Louise offered.

Jessie narrowed her eyes at her friend, and Louise understood what the face meant. Charlotte would need to be told.

“Well, I suppose since you took care of Beatrice and agreed to take care of this holiday project, I will make the call to our young Charlotte.” Jessie rolled her eyes as if she couldn't believe what she was agreeing to do.

“I think that's just right,” Louise replied cheerfully. “I'll get Hilda Brown's hot milk cake recipe; and you tell Charlotte that the woman
she respects the most in the world has cancer in her liver, a second metastasis.” She kicked Jessie's chair a bit. “That's fair, sounds easy enough.”

Both women smiled. They understood that nothing about what lay ahead for them in the next weeks before the holidays this year was going to be easy.

 

 

Italian Cream Cake

1 stick margarine or butter

½ cup vegetable shortening

2 cups sugar

5 egg yolks

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup buttermilk

1 bag of coconut (14 ounces)

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup chopped pecans

5 egg whites, stiffly beaten

 

Cream margarine and shortening. Add sugar and beat until mixture is smooth. Add yolks and beat well. Combine flour and baking soda and add the creamed mixture alternately with the buttermilk. Add coconut, vanilla, and pecans. Fold in the stiffly beaten egg whites. Pour batter into 3 greased and floured 9-inch pans and bake at 325 degrees for 25 minutes or until cake tests done.

 

 

ICING

1 8-ounce package of cream cheese

½ stick melted margarine

16 ounces powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

chopped pecans

4 maraschino cherries, chopped

coconut

 

Beat cream cheese and margarine until smooth. Stir in powdered sugar. Add vanilla and continue beating. Ice cooled layers, sprinkling top layer with pecans, cherries, and coconut.

B
eatrice hung up the phone after her conversation with Louise and sat back down on the barstool. She rested her chin in her hand, then tilted her head to watch the birds at the bird feeder outside the kitchen window.

It was one of the things she loved most about her house. She always made sure that she had a window in front of the sink and a bird feeder just a few yards away so that while she cooked and did the dishes, she could watch the birds as they gathered nearby. It was the way she liked to think about being connected to the animal kingdom. All the mothers, the female of the species, gathering the food for the young ones, all of them trying to have enough for themselves to sustain the energy necessary to do all that was required of them.

For most of her adult life, Beatrice would catch glimpses of the world outside while she was in the midst of her kitchen work, her cleaning and peeling and baking and canning. She loved to watch the
birds. It somehow kept her active, kept her engaged in the tasks at hand, kept her doing what had to be done.

She would study the tanagers and the flickers as they spilled the seeds all around them or carried them off to nests in trees close by, and wonder if they ever watched her and if they felt the same camaraderie through the window that she did. She wondered if they even stopped to see another female taking care of her brood.

Bea looked closely and noticed the same birds that had been there all season. She saw the little brown sparrows and the black and white chickadees, their small feathered bodies flitting about, the seeds flying from the small shelf. Beatrice was glad Dick had replenished the food earlier. She knew the squirrels had gotten most of it the day before, and she didn't feel like refilling the container.

When they had first married, Dick had tried to get his wife to move the feeder, get it away from being so close to the two trees it stood between, to deter the squirrels from jumping on it, but Beatrice wouldn't have it.

She liked the feeder right where it was, right outside the window at the sink. She didn't care if the squirrels did manage a quick jump from the trunks of the big maples to the tall white pole where they easily shimmied up to the feeder. It didn't bother her that they could get to the food so easily. Besides, there were only a couple of squirrels left in the neighborhood anyway. The Bixbys from next door had gotten a new dog and he had run off most of the squirrels and rabbits. Lucky for Beatrice, he didn't seem to bother the birds.

She watched the morning action at the feeder and thought about the conversation she just had with Louise. She had surprised herself with the revelation she made about her heart not being in the holiday cookbook. She hadn't really known that she felt that way until
she said the words out loud. Now that the fact was out there, that her heart wasn't in the project, she felt a bit relieved but also a little scared. She knew it wasn't like her to give up so quickly. She wondered if what Dick had said a couple of months ago was true, that she was depressed and needed to get some medication.

She recalled the conversation they had that led him to say that. He had been trying to get her to go out for dinner for weeks and she kept declining the offers. Beatrice used to love to go out to restaurants. She loved the movies and trade shows. But in recent weeks she only went out for church and various required meetings. She just didn't have the interest in leaving her house anymore.

When she had said to Dick that she didn't want to go out on a Friday night after he had purchased tickets to some country music show over in Siler City and had made dinner reservations at their favorite steak house off Highway 421, he had told her that he was concerned about her, that he had talked it over with his sister and his doctor, and that he thought Beatrice was clinically depressed and needed some help.

Beatrice had never thought of herself as the depressed type. She knew several people from the community had claimed to be depressed. Her daughter's husband had even started taking some drug he had seen on the television because he said he felt the way the man on the commercial said he felt. And for the most part, Beatrice had tried to be sympathetic toward those facing that illness.

However, she had never admitted it because she liked to think of herself as being nonjudgmental and compassionate, but the truth was, she tended to look down on those people who battled with the mental illness of depression.

She was truly supportive of some folks who claimed to need medi
cal or professional intervention because of intense sadness or fatigue, indifference, or other depressionlike symptoms. She understood why some people would be depressed.

She knew that Nadine Klenner needed help after her daughter was killed in that car wreck at the church. She didn't think that the young mother's condition was a pretense or a means of getting pity. She completely understood why Nadine needed to be in a psychiatric unit and take medications for some months after the accident.

She understood when her son-in-law sought assistance because he had just buried his father and was having to place his mother in a nursing facility. This was at the same time he lost his job and was diagnosed with the illness that had killed his father. Beatrice had encouraged him to get help.

It wasn't those folks who suffered tremendous losses or faced horrid tragedies that she judged for having problems with feelings of overwhelming sadness, or for saying they couldn't go to work anymore, or for admitting that they needed some additional help. There were lots of people that she believed should get professional assistance.

It was the ones who didn't seem to have anything wrong in their lives that made Beatrice raise an eyebrow when they said they were “under a doctor's care” for their depression. It was the ones in whom she didn't see anything that she would describe as “traumatic” or reasonable cause for a mental breakdown.

She just didn't understand how a healthy person who had a good job and whose family was intact, and who had a home and a car and good health could suddenly just feel indifferent about life, not want to get out of bed, or weep uncontrollably. She couldn't accept that a person couldn't shake the bad mood or the loneliness. She figured a person could pull herself or himself out of the pit of self-pity.

She had always thought a good prune cake could undo the knots or just getting outside would lift a person's spirits. She knew working in the garden and having a knitting project always made her feel better. And Beatrice understood that she had always managed the hardships of life, significant losses of a spouse, of siblings, and of her parents, disappointments in relationships, isolation, loneliness; she just didn't understand why everyone else couldn't either.

She thought about the former pastor of the church, Charlotte. She recalled how the young woman often seemed inattentive, somewhere other than where she was. Margaret had mentioned that she was concerned about her, that maybe she needed to talk to someone.

Beatrice, however, simply thought she needed to get out more, date some, leave the church on her day off. For three or more years, Beatrice had given her pastor craft books, flyers about singles meetings, flower bulbs for the beds around the house, books to read, anything to draw the young woman out of her sadness.

When she heard that the pastor was seeing a therapist, Beatrice thought Charlotte had gone to the dark side. She figured the pastor just wasn't praying enough, wasn't faithful enough; and she had questioned whether she should even have been in the ministry. Beatrice just didn't understand how a preacher—a person trained in seminary, one who knew all the scriptures, was supposed to help others, and was supposedly called to serve God—could feel withdrawn from her community, could wrestle with depression.

She pretended to understand, acted like she was sympathetic with Charlotte and some of the others she had heard about who were going into therapy or having to take antidepressant medication, but the truth was, she just didn't understand. She had assumed a person could take care of those “feelings” herself. She thought if a person stayed busy
enough, engaged enough in her family or community or a project, there would be no time for depression. She had really believed that a good prune cake, a regular Bible class, and volunteer work could push sorrow aside.

Until now.

Now it was she who didn't want to get out of bed or change out of her pajamas. She rolled out only because Dick was so noisy and so persistent in the mornings, she couldn't stay in there. She had lost her appetite, had difficulty remembering details, cried a lot more than she should about small things, insignificant things, things that never used to worry her, and she didn't care about the Hope Springs Women's Guild Christmas Cake Contest and Cookbook.

She submitted the idea when Margaret started getting sick, and although most of the women rolled their eyes at her as they always did and tried to get her to change her mind, they had agreed to the project, but only if she did most of the work. That had been weeks before and she hadn't done anything. She just didn't care whether the book was put together, or whether there was a Christmas cake for the community. She just didn't care about anything.

Her feelings of despair, she thought, did have to do with Margaret and the recurrence of the cancer; but Beatrice also knew that she had started feeling this way before they heard the news from the CAT scan. That information just seemed to make her worse, and now, she realized, it prevented her from being more proactive about her own condition.

Once Dick found out from Bea about Margaret's prognosis, he had left his wife alone these last couple of mornings when she wanted to stay in bed or didn't want dessert after dinner. He figured her sadness was appropriate after hearing the bad news about her
best friend. He hadn't mentioned her going to the doctor again. But Beatrice didn't know how long Dick's empathy would last, and she didn't know whether she wanted to use Margaret's illness to justify or explain the way she had been feeling. In spite of that, however, she didn't know what to do.

She continued to watch the birds out the window. She noticed how the small ones had cleared away now that a blue jay was there. The long, slender bird pushed the others aside and perched right along the edge of the feeder. He seemed to enjoy his dominant posture, his high place in the bird kingdom. He ate a few seeds and appeared to dare the other birds to return.

Beatrice picked up the phone at her side and dialed the funeral home. Betty Mills, the receptionist, answered.

“Betty, it's Bea. Is Dick around?” she asked, twirling the cord with her right hand.

“Hello, Beatrice,” Betty said with her smooth funeral home voice. “How are you today?”

“I'm fine,” Bea replied. “How are you?” she added, trying to be cordial. The truth was, she never really liked Betty. Bea thought she always sounded a little too sweet. Bea thought she talked down to the bereaved, treated them like children.

“I'm doing really well, hon,” she responded. She cleared her throat. “I heard about your Christmas cake contest at the church. I think I'd like to enter my Italian cream cake,” she said.

“That's nice, Betty.” Beatrice thought an Italian cream cake didn't sound very Christmas-like, but she didn't really feel like discussing it.

“It was my grandmother's,” Betty continued. “We had it every Christmas.”

“That's real nice.” Beatrice tried to sound interested.

“One year, there was a shortage on the maraschino cherries and Grandmother had to ride three hours over to Virginia to get a can.” Betty sighed. “We loved that cake.”

“That's special,” Beatrice noted.

“So, what's the prize?” Betty asked.

“Um, we're still working on that,” Beatrice replied.

“You know, our church gave one hundred dollars for a winning recipe one time,” Betty announced. “Lilly Clover won for some bean casserole.”

“Okay.” Beatrice was getting tired of the conversation.

“I guess your little church can't afford that though. But still, it would be nice to win,” Betty said. “I'd like Grandma's cake to be honored.”

“Is Dick there?” Beatrice asked. She was tired of talking to Betty.

“Oh, yes he is,” the receptionist answered. “Let me get him for you.” Then she paused. “I could just give him the recipe card, couldn't I?”

“Yep, that would be grand,” Beatrice answered.

There was a pause from the receptionist, and Beatrice heard the bell on the front door ring. She knew someone was coming into the funeral home.

“Let me get Mr. Witherspoon for you,” Betty noted quickly and put the call on hold before Beatrice could say anything else.

A few seconds passed and Dick picked up.

“Hey doll, what's up?” he asked.

“Why did you tell Betty about the cake contest?” she asked before giving any greeting.

“I don't recall telling Betty about your contest,” he replied.

“Well, somehow she knew about it and you seem to like to talk to her about everything.”

Dick sighed. “I didn't tell Betty about the contest and I don't like to talk to her about everything.”

Beatrice wanted to cry but she didn't.

“Well, don't tell her anything else,” she ordered. “Betty likes to make fun of our church because her pastor has a doctorate and they have a special choir with those shiny handbells and she thinks they're better than everybody else.”

“Okay,” Dick said softly, “I won't ever tell her anything about what's going on at church.” He waited. “What did you call for?” he asked.

Beatrice could tell he was trying not to be mad at her. They had lots of these kinds of discourses lately. He had never argued with her but she had noticed that he seemed to be losing patience with her. He had even started staying longer at work than he used to. Beatrice now suddenly realized that he was avoiding her, avoiding coming home.

BOOK: Christmas Cake
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