I sat beside my dad on the flour-dusted kitchen floor, waving away lingering traces of smoke. I don’t recall exactly how we got there, but there we were. We didn’t say much, but every few minutes we would glance at each other and stifle our laughter. We almost burned down the kitchen, our guilty eyes said to each other.
Don’t tell mom, mine said.
It’s our little secret, his said back.
Nana’s voice wafted in from the living room.
“How’s it coming in there?“
A pause, as we scrambled for a suitable answer, and then—
“Can I help?”
It was the first December that Nana was not the one baking our Christmas dessert during the sleepy, peaceful hours that always follow an early morning of eager gift unwrapping. So what exactly was I doing in an oversized apron, surrounded by measuring cups and recipe cards and an electric mixer that I’d rarely come in contact with in my 19 years? It wasn’t that I lacked an interest in cooking. On the contrary, I grew up surrounded by Italians for whom home cooking was a way of life, but my personal culinary history consisted primarily of burnt brownie batches and grilled cheese sandwiches. Then there was my dad’s mother—Nana—who found joy in filling tins with peanut butter cookies and baking her famous Irish soda bread for my family every St. Patrick’s Day. She should have been the one whipping up the cake to a sound track of Sinatra carols as my sister and I stomped through the kitchen with snowy boots, offering us the batter-laden spoon—not the other way around.
She was 77—a fact she reminded us of multiple times during Christmas Eve dinner—and slowly starting to forget. It started with my age, then where I lived, and suddenly my name was on the tip of her tongue but just out of reach. Before I came home for winter break, my parents had warned me that her memory was in decline. I tried to prepare myself for the inevitable lapses, but to little avail. We invited her to spend the holiday with us in our home, a short drive away from the assisted living residence she had moved into the year before, and I looked forward to catching up with her after five months away. Yet the sinking feeling that she was growing older and forgetting fragments of her life pulled me down whenever we began a conversation and ended up back where we started only 10 minutes later.
“You always did so well in school. And you’re in college now?”
“Yes, I’m in New York City, at Barnard.”
“Oh, Barnard. What a wonderful school...Now, what grade did you say you were in?”
My dad encouraged me to approach each conversation simply: Avoid dates, names of friends, and details about the classes I was taking; just let her know that I’m happy and safe where I am. Got it. I could handle a few awkward exchanges with the woman who used to sew beautiful quilts for her friends, put up a pot of tea for her neighbors on cold nights, and send me a card the day before my birthday every year without fail. What I couldn’t handle was that Nana could no longer assume her place in the sacred space that was her kitchen—the house down south had been sold, her belongings moved into boxes in our garage. All she could be sure of was the unfamiliarity of the world around her, surging forward at a good clip while she stayed behind, gazing backward at the fuzzy images of her younger years.
It was Christmas Eve when I finally got around to gift shopping for my family. As I wandered around Williams-Sonoma in the local town center, the last name on my list was Dad, and I was utterly stumped. Coffee beans? Golf balls? A Columbia cap?
Just as I was about to seek refuge in the knowledge of the woman behind the customer service desk, I spotted the chocolate cake mix boxes piled high on a corner shelf. I envisioned myself cracking eggs and mixing batter on Christmas morning, placing our perfectly baked cake on a platter after dinner, seeing a smile bloom on Nana’s face as she witnessed a very peculiar and yet somehow comforting sight: me, the reluctant baker, and my dad, the resident chef, slicing into the chocolate cake she had prepared for us since we were both kids. I picked up the box.
On Christmas morning, my dad did not assume his usual spot in the armchair watching sports on TV before 2 o’clock rolled around and the pressure to prepare the honey-baked ham set in. Instead, he was next to me on the floor as we waited for our haphazard chocolate cake to bake, wondering if we had made our near fatal mistake on step two or three. Disaster nearly struck when the parchment paper we had used to cover the pans caught on fire moments before, but we had quickly averted the chaos with open windows and prayers to God that my mother wouldn’t smell the smoke. My dad crouched down in front of the oven to be sure the cake behaved itself. I plopped down next to him and sighed.
“Now we know for next time,” he said.
“Of course, next time.”
Sure, I had messed up on the first crack and wasted an egg. My dad felt flustered when it came to the “gradual mixing in” of the dry versus wet ingredients. And yes, we had almost started a fire. Somehow, though, it all came together a few hours later when a rich brown cake emerged from the oven.
When the time came to cut the cake, we gave the first slice to Nana. The satisfied smile on her fair, wrinkled face was all we needed to know that we’d done well. As I bit into my slice, it tasted slightly soft and unusually creamy. That must have been the toothpick I had mistakenly used to test just one side of the cake, resulting in a half-baked center. It wasn’t perfect, but there would be another chance to get it right. For now, it was good enough.