Today I baked up a blackberry jam cake — a triple layer one, coated in caramel, and dusted in roasted pecans. And for some nutty reason, it reminded me of my grandmother.
Not because she used to bake blackberry jam cake. (She didn’t.) Nor because she loved to bake at all. (She didn’t.) There was only one cake she ever made, and she made it every fall for Thanksgiving — a German Chocolate Layer Cake, triple-stacked to heaven and beyond. It defied natural laws.
Baking my own triple layer cake this morning somehow conjured up my grandmother’s spirit. Out of nowhere, a warm fragrant memory slipped in — a peppery whiff of Scotch snuff amid baking layers — and I was instantly transported back. Back into the warm half-circle spotlight of her bifocals, where she peered up at me with love and adoration… and then demanded I write down a select few of her stories.
Yup. Demanded. And Grandma always gets her way — even from beyond the grave. (Compromise was never her middle name.)
And she really was quite the storyteller — I like to think that’s where I get my passion for words — and her tales were always tall. As impossibly tall as her German Chocolate Layer Cake. She told some doozies, but there was always truth in the pudding, er, batter… batter thick and sweet and loaded with flavor.
Her stories infused every room in her small house. They found you in every corner. You couldn’t escape them. Through the darkness of night, she was sitting on your mattress while you slept, telling you a story. Through the closed bathroom door, you were sitting on the toilet while you shat, she was telling you a story. No exaggeration.
Her stories were a never-ending narrative. I’d heard them a thousand times. I thought I could recite them backwards. They were a constant. Like a beating heart. Always there. Always.
Until they weren’t.
I took them for granted. I tuned them out. I never wrote them down. I really wish I’d recorded them, old cassette ribbon winding like stretched caramel from one receptacle to another to help me transcribe her words from one era into another, today. Alas, I did not.
But this past summer, my family celebrated her oldest son — my Uncle Pal’s — 80th birthday. My two aunts and my father were there, too, rounding out her initial genetic contribution to this world.
The four sat atop a green, overstuffed sofa and held court, flipping through old pictures and regaling the second and third generations with Grandma’s tales of our Appalachian roots.
Most of the stories I recalled immediately… their familiar cadence returning to me like skip rope chants learned in my childhood:
My grandma the buxom beauty — her breasts swelling so large when she contracted mumps at twelve that they never returned to what she considered a respectable size. She and her sister Margaret would mash them tightly in scarves, trying to achieve the ideal body image of her age — flat-chested flapper girl — to no avail.
My grandma the axe murderer — her one and only victim, a Harley Hog my dad bought knowing she hated them. Her brother had almost died on one; her son would not have the same opportunity. The Hog died instead, a quick, violent death from hatchet-strike to the fuel tank. Dad wept as his full-fendered baby girl bled out in front of him… the original chopped Harley.
My grandma, the exile — sent in her early twenties to country music legend Mama Maybelle Carter’s house, her childhood friend and neighbor. My great grandfather sent her away to keep the clambering boys away from the self-proclaimed prettiest girl in five Virginia counties. (Humility was also not her middle name.) Grandma spent an entire summer dancing the Charleston, little June Carter running between her flashing legs while Mama Maybelle scratched her guitar.
Keeping Grandma away from the boys worked for a while, but she finally managed to run off and marry the love of her life at the ripe old age of 25 — an old maid by Appalachian standards. Grandpa was years younger than she was, also unheard of in that time period. (I guess I get that from her, too.)
My aunts and uncle also told us a few tales I’d maybe heard, but had long since forgotten.
Like the seven-foot tall distant relative named Pleasant who was so small when he was born they could fit his head in a tea cup, and who slept in a Singer sewing machine drawer next to his parents’ bed. Pleasant grew up to be large and in charge, and was famous for once throwing a man out a second-story speak easy.
I also heard about an ancestor who, at 98-years young, could stand and do a somersault in the air. Backwards. That’s a back tuck, by the way. Cheerleaders drool for that kind of skill. He could do it at 98. Unfortunately, no one remembered his name.
But a whole lot of other names were remembered in my uncle’s living room this past July — names summoned from my grandmother’s looping cursive, scrawled in her black-papered memory book. Names like Viney and Velma, Tom and Tate, Willie and Chapman, and Emmy and Spencer, and Pleasant, of course. (I kind of wish I could have another kid, simply so I could name him or her Pleasant. No, scratch that. I’ll leave that up to my girls…)
Those names, written in Grandma’s looping penmanship, lassoed us all and pulled us back — back to our childhoods and beyond. Back to the crags and coal of the Virginia mountains. Back to the looping, sprawling deep-settled roots of our family tree.
The tree itself juts high and strong these days, with limbs spread far and wide. From London to Phoenix, her descendants are scattered like leaves in haphazard drifts of color and contrast in a beautiful, autumnal haze. We, indeed, have a glorious family tree. And her stories — our stories — deserve to be told.
* * *
Yes, today I baked up a blackberry jam cake — a triple layer one, coated in caramel, and dusted with roasted pecans. And for some nutty reason, it conjured my grandma, who channelled my fingers and hijacked my blog — to write about an Appalachian beauty with a penchant for layer cake and a story or two thousand to tell.
My guess is, she isn’t quite done with me yet.
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