My mother turned 90 years old last week. Born in 1930 in England, as a teenager she had bombs dropped on her during WW2. She would scurry to the dug-out shelter in the back garden, carrying her quilt with her in the night. The bombs always came at night. The worst ones were the “buzz bombs” that you’d hear buzzing from quite a far distance away, and then the silence when their tiny motor stopped. That’s when you knew they were dropping near you, that silence. My mom still has night terrors from those days, and she won’t talk about the war much, except in snippets. It’s like a view from a fast-moving train. Images from her past slip past in a blur of words filled with vibrant images that vanish when she diverts the conversation to pretty flowers or what’s for lunch.
Taken over time, it’s possible to put her war-torn early life together. Her childhood studying at a Convent school where she was taught useful things like French, sewing, and drawing by the nuns. Not being able to find shoes that fit just as she was growing fast, resulting in painful bunions, and having to cut the toes out of the tops of them. Walking down a street one day that was full of shops, and the next day was rubble. Finding bits of still-warm shrapnel on her doorstep. Happy memories get scattered in too, bursts of sunshine in this speeding landscape. The luxury of getting more than one egg a week per person or the taste of chocolate for the first time in years. It’s always in tiny blinks though. I’ve found it impossible to get long cohesive stories from her. I think she’d just rather not remember.
We got her to talking a little bit over cake. My mom left school at fourteen. Her dad wanted her to work at the family pub, “The Duck in the Pond,” but washing glasses and dumping ash trays wasn’t for her. She lasted as a shop girl for exactly half of a day. Instead, she decided to become an ice skater and took two buses and walked a little over five miles to take lessons every day. She excelled and was hired by the touring company of Holiday on Ice at eighteen. Mom toured the world as a featured skater for over a decade. Here is a clip, she is one of the ensemble skaters in this Sonja Henie TV show:
Mom met Dad when she booked the prestigious American tour, which practiced its new show in a small town in Iowa. He was part of the Chamber of Commerce which threw a reception for the skaters. He fell for her hard, and invited her out to a steak dinner, which was a treat for Mom on skater’s wages. A few months later he proposed over the phone while the show was in Toledo. “These phone calls are getting too damn expensive, why don’t you come marry me?” Mom thought about it, and got off the show train in St Paul, and they got married. Still are.
As we celebrated her birthday, over a lemon raspberry cake I baked (I am sharing that recipe with you below), I asked her what words of wisdom she had on her 90th birthday. She crinkled her nose, and then with a half-smile said, “Don’t count.” She’s hilarious. Her vote for best invention since she’s been born – not the internet, or a television in every home, or even Velcro. The automatic washing machine and dryer were her surprise pick. Another story flashed out as the reason for that choice. As a girl it was her chore to hand-agitate their clothes, and then use a mangle to wring them out. A terrible job, especially in winter, with woolen clothing and freezing temperatures, Mom said it was a hard job turning the crank, and it was done in their dank, grotty basement. Her face clouded, and the memory became visceral — the heaviness of those damp clothes in her hands, the drips of wet down her arms, the smell of the basement. She cut off the memory then, and politely asked if we wouldn’t want more cake. As I looked at my Mom, deflecting as usual, I saw all of it — her as a young girl in the basement, huddling in the bomb shelter, spinning on the ice, getting off the train to go make a life with a man she barely knew in a country not her own — all those moments and adventures all in one person. It’s astonishing what a person can get up to in ninety years. I’m glad I get to call her my beautiful Mom.
The lemon raspberry birthday cake was tangy, rich, and delicious. It’s from bakerbynature.com. Three things about this recipe – the first is that although the author claims to be able to make this in an hour, it took me three and a half. Second, she gave a great tip about making your own cake flour, as finding any sort of flour has been challenging of late. For every cup of flour, simply remove 2 tablespoons of flour, replace them with cornstarch, and mix well. Voila! Cake Flour. Third, tossing the raspberries in flour before adding them to the batter assured that they did not just sink to the bottom of my pan. I used parchment instead of oiling my pans, and it worked great. I did not use lemon extract, but it was delightfully lemon-y all the same. I’d make this again. Here is the link for you: https://bakerbynature.com/lemon-raspberry-cake/cookbook-print/37660/#