The cake mixes were 4 for a dollar and that was a good thing. I wasn’t sure how many it would take to make our wedding cake. I was new at this, starting to teach myself how to make food for people I loved. Some folks have fond recollections of making meat loaf with Mom, or learning the secrets of perfect pastry in a farmhouse kitchen somewhere in the blissful past with a Grandma old and wrinkled and warm. I’d had none of that – food was important in our family, but it was an afterthought, not an offering.
I was in college – a girl of the first generation in my family to have such a gift and privilege. As far as food was concerned, I’d been trained to set and clear the table (my brother had no such duties – he was confined to the lawn mower) – but I was never invited into the steam, sputtering oil, and billowing clouds of flour that made up the mysterious world of cooking. It must have been regarded as beneath me. My job was to study, get good grades, practice the piano, and marry well. “Make something better of yourself!” seemed to be the message. Don’t make sandwiches!
But here I was – 20 years old, preparing to get married against my father’s wishes, living with a girlfriend in a firetrap apartment in a rickety old house – about to declare my independence and launch my life into a trajectory that would forever after be out of kilter with “what we expected.” But I was elated. I was going to be me.
Steve and I had been crazy in love since high school. We were old enough now, nearly adults, and so eager to find our own way. We had around $300 between us – money left over from summer jobs – so we bought Steve a new set of clothes, got a case of Andre’s pink champagne and a box of kitchen dixie cups, scored 5 dozen daisies from a confused florist, and with what was left over, an off-the-rack wedding dress for me from a fancy department store in Kansas City. I didn’t know you had to order the dress ahead of time, but the lady took pity on me and sold me one of the ones you try on – a floor model, not too badly defiled with other girls’ makeup and BO. We wrote some vows (mostly lifted from Gibran’s The Prophet) and found a campus minister willing to preside. Danforth Chapel was free at 5pm on January 20th – Steve’s 21st birthday. We were set.
The cake mix and a dozen eggs set me back about $3. I didn’t have any cake pans but by asking around my apartment house I came up with 4 frying pans of different sizes. It was deep January and so cold there wasn’t enough gas in the old house to bring my oven over 200 degrees, so progress was slow but steady. When the four larger layers of something like white cake were done I baked a small top layer in a saucepan. I remembered seeing my mother make frosting out of milk and butter and powdered sugar so I blended them as best as I could and slathered the cake together. I had a small figurine of Winnie the Pooh so I put him on top. Since it was Steve’s birthday 21 candles seemed appropriate – and we could sing! And just for extra dazzle, I scattered a package of small paper American flags on toothpicks up and down the sides. After all, we’d recently watched the Vietnam Draft Lottery on TV and it felt important to express our patriotism. Our country was at war. Steve got a high number – 275, I think – but friends who would attend our wedding were not so lucky. One already had enlisted in the National Guard. The other was talking about Canada. But on this day, at that moment, the war, our lives, and all our “ever afters” were still ahead. And we weren’t afraid of any of it.
I spent an awfully long time – too many years – being ashamed of that cake. Not ashamed of its appearance, but sad that our wedding had made my father so unhappy he refused to attend. I had defied him and was told I had broken his heart. That beat went on. Years later, when my mom lived with us, she’d sometimes speak wistfully of the fact that they’d just bought a lovely new home and she’d hoped to have our wedding reception there. Too bad, she’d say, too bad you couldn’t wait. It would have been a lovely party.
It took me 30 years to one day suddenly become giddily proud of that cake – I made it myself, I marveled to me. I MADE MY OWN WEDDING CAKE! That cake was the first meal Steve and I shared as husband and wife. It was the start of our 51-year banquet we called “our life together,” a jolly run at making something out of nothing. We liked to do that. And we were pretty good at it.
The cake must have tasted okay. There wasn’t any left, and there was no wine left over either. That January day, those who attended wished us well, and we returned the same good wishes to them. Looking back, I can see it was our Last Supper as students, as children, as friends. It was a communion of sorts. The sacred elements were wonky white cake and cheap pink wine in dixie cups. Soon we would all “go forth” to new lives, personal challenges, and uncertain futures. But just think: my cake fueled us all for the journey. I am so grateful.