“If you’re going to make a cake, make a cake.”
Mama Bess didn’t mess around when it came to food. She baked the best cakes – coconut or German chocolate, usually. She whipped up the tastiest buttermilk biscuits and sausage gravy. Her fried chicken fed me through many a summer visit.
She couldn’t abide sweet yellow corn bread, though. That was crossing the line from a decent sopping corn bread into the realm of near-dessert, the way she saw it. This inspired her to say: “If you’re going to make a cake, make a cake.”
Know what you like. Know what you want to be. Do that.
My grandmother died last week. I’ve had a few different grandmothers, thanks to the wonders of parental divorces and subsequent remarriages. I don’t think it shocks anyone who knows me that, of them all, Mama Bess Street – the mother of my mother – was my absolute favorite.
On Monday, March 15, I was on Messenger, checking in with Mom as is my routine. I might not call every day or even every week, but we communicate pretty frequently over the Internet. I’ve given Mom grief from time to time for failing to mention vital need-to-know information. When I asked how things were going this time, she didn’t hold back. She wasn’t happy. Mama Bess was dying.
She’d been living with my folks in their house in Deltona for several years. I was still married to Joy, sometime in 2007 or so, the last time I really recall Mama Bess knowing for sure who I was (as opposed to mistaking me for my father or not knowing me at all). Alzheimer’s took so much of what made her the vital, vigorous firebrand that I’d known since childhood. She was smart. She was funny. She was tough. I missed her. I’d been missing her for years when Mom told me that the hospice workers didn’t expect Mama Bess to last more than a few days more at most. She wasn’t eating. She wasn’t drinking. She couldn’t last much longer.
The next day, March 16, I packed Huck in the Juicebox and hit the road south to Florida. I stopped a few times along the way to let the dog stretch his legs and grabbed lunch on the go. When I got to the Florida welcome center north of Jacksonville, I felt rather tired. I thought maybe I’d just grab a nap, but something told me that I should keep going. So, I did.
I pulled into the driveway at my folks’ house to find Mom coming out to meet me and Huck. She showed me to the cottage so that I could drop off my bag. Then we walked into the house, just in time for the nurse to come in and tell us that we should be with Mama Bess. I stood with Mom, the nurse, and Bess’ second husband, Malcolm, as she drew her final breaths. Knowing it’s coming doesn’t make it any easier for anybody to watch – especially when it’s someone you love, someone you’ve known all your life. I’ve only watched one other human being die in front of me – and that was a condemned murderer in Florida’s electric chair. In that case, he was a stranger who killed people, viewed through the relatively safe filter of journalistic objectivity. This woman changed my diapers. She raised my Mom. And I haven’t been a journalist for about seven years.
If I had taken that nap near the border, I wouldn’t have made it in time for those final seconds. I’m not quite crazy enough to think that she would have kept waiting for me, but I did feel a little freaked out, like I was some kind of angel of death. Before I could dwell too much on that, Mom asked me to call Dad and Don, to let them know that Mama Bess was gone.
It was a whirlwind week in Florida. I’ll talk about it more as I continue to process. For now, I’m pondering those words she burned into my mind so long ago: “If you’re going to make a cake, make a cake.”