Today is my birthday. I made a cake to celebrate. It’s a very special cake you see. Not because of some secret ingredient or a particular filling, not because of a gourmet chocolate icing or pretty swirls. Today is not only my birthday, it’s my 45th birthday. That’s an important milestone for me as my own mother died when she was 45. I miss her so much. It’s almost 22 years and I still can’t think about her without sobbing. This is a special year for me making it to her age and still being here. Here with all 4 kids I bore that she never had the chance to meet. Here, cigarette free for the last 20 years because I vowed I wouldn’t let it kill me too.
So I baked this cake for her, in her memory. To remind me of her, how special she was to me, and how I longed for her every time I had a parenting question or wanted to know about things I had done as a child.
So if you’re willing to endure my blubbering through this blog post I’d be honored if you read along. If not, I completely understand, the recipe can be found at the end.
First, let me make it clear that I lost my mother to heart disease, not cancer. But I still lost her. People lose loved ones all the time to illness and it doesn’t matter what took them away, the only thing that remains is that hole in your heart. It hurts my heart knowing that people are leaving this earth before their time.
We came here from England in 1969, I was a mere tot at only 2 years of age. This photo was taken on Christmas Day in 1969. I’m the little girl in the white coat, my older brother is wearing the dark coat with the hood, and my mother is holding my younger brother. The other two children were our first friends in America.
My father was back in England gathering our life together, so we took this picture to send to him and wish him a Merry Christmas.
My mom was a beautiful person. Not only on the outside, but on the inside too. She was tiny, 5’4″, a full 5 inches shorter than me. I miss her smile and her glow, she was so full of love and happiness.
When she was 39, she suffered a heart attack in a convenience store parking lot. I’ll never forget walking into the Intensive Care Unit and seeing her lying there, tubes everywhere. I was 17 then, a senior in high school. I was so scared, I couldn’t imagine life going on without her. It wasn’t until she was transferred to a recovery room that I found out she was also 5 months pregnant. A triple bypass was performed and the baby was fine. Baby “Johnathon” was a “surprise” that she and her boyfriend had not expected. With her illness she feared she wouldn’t be around very long, so she made the difficult decision to give him up for adoption. I looked into his big, blue saucer eyes through the nursery window one last time. I never saw him again. I only have a few snapshots of him to remember him by.
As time went on there was a minor heart attack, and another, and an angioplasty to widen her blood vessels and prevent the blockage. Over the next few years I began working in the corporate world and didn’t have as much time for my mom. She would call and ask when we could get together and I would often have a reason why I couldn’t. We lived over an hour from each other and I worked full time. I didn’t see my mom as often as I should have and I wish I could do that all over again.
It was my 21st birthday, so we got together to celebrate. My brothers, my sister in law, my boyfriend (now husband) and my mom. We had a lot of fun and it was great to get together and celebrate! By now my mom was a grandma already as my older brother had a daughter from his first marriage in Germany while he was in the service. Unfortunately though that little girl, Jennifer, was across the ocean and my mom was unable to embrace her grandchild.
It wasn’t long after that I became pregnant for the first time. I was elated and the first person I told was my mom. A few weeks later I miscarried and lost that baby. I was devastated but she was there to comfort me and assure me that there must have been a reason. A few months later I was pregnant again, so happy to soon be a parent. But alas, it wasn’t meant to be as I miscarried a second time. Again, my mother was there for me, to comfort me and tell me everything was going to be alright.
September 7, 1990. It was a beautiful, clear day. Not a cloud in the sky. The sun was beaming, traffic was surprisingly light, and I made it home from work in record time. I stepped inside to a ringing telephone. It was my brother, telling me that mom was gone. I dropped to my knees and began to sob uncontrollably. I have never experienced such sorrow and heartache in my entire life. How could this be? I had just talked to her on the phone the day before, how could she be gone?
She had experienced two major surgeries and 6 heart attacks in the last 6 years. She was invincible I thought. I truly believed in all my 23 year old naivety that she would never die. But she did. And she was gone. Stripped from my life. I would never hear her beautiful English accent again or see her lovely smile. Touch her soft face or hug her petite frame. That was it. It was over. Her life was over and she was no longer of this earth.
She was 45 years old when she was welcomed into Heaven’s gates.
September 8, 1990. Through puffy, tear drenched eyes I looked out the window as my husband drove us to her apartment. It was time to go through her possessions and meet with my brothers. Time to decide what to do with her things, who would take what. My mother didn’t have worldy possessions, she had a few trinkets, clothes I would never fit into, and your average apartment full of furniture.
As I looked through her room, sobbing at everything I touched or turned up, I found a letter in her lingerie drawer. Through tears and a torturous ache I’d never felt in my heart before, I opened the envelope addressed to me and my two brothers.
This letter tormented me for a very long time. It wasn’t until I’d been a mother myself for many years that I realized that it doesn’t matter how good of a mom you really are, you will always find fault in yourself.
“I hope you will forgive me for not being the best mom in the world.”
Oh mom, don’t you see? You WERE the best mom in the world. You loved me, you comforted me, you provided for me. Being a good mom is not measured by the material possessions you give to your children, it’s measured by the love and guidance that you provide. The knowledge that you instill in your children to help them become kind, responsible adults.
One day, out of the clear blue sky you were torn from the pages of my life, just like that. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I couldn’t kiss you one last time or hug you ever again. There were no more chances. I missed out on that and ignored the warning signs. So naive. That day will be forever ingrained in my mind.
I cried for a long time. I mourned and grieved and blamed myself for not seeing her more often. In my head I would hear the pleading in her voice over the phone asking when I would be coming to visit, I can still hear it all these years later. I was so angry with myself for selfishly choosing not to make the time. And then one day it was just too late. I missed the opportunity train and I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive myself for that. I’ve tried, but I still haven’t been able to.
When I was a little girl, every birthday my mom would make me a yellow cake. It’s my favorite. I’d rather have classic yellow cake with chocolate frosting over any other cake. Ever. She would frost it with chocolate, pipe on white stars and write a happy birthday message. I started looking for pictures I could share. I remember one in particular, my 6th birthday, because of the photograph that I’d seen that had captured that happy day in time. Sadly, I couldn’t find it. Even sadder, I discovered that I have very few pictures of my mom in my possession.
So instead I’m sharing pictures of the cake I made for me and my mom. I baked this cake in honor of my life and of hers. I am celebrating today that while my kids have never met her, I have been able to keep her memory alive with stories and the few photos I have. I have been able to build a picture in my kids’ minds of their grandmother and how much she would have adored them had she be given the chance.
I also hope to spread the message that it’s important to relish the time that we do have together and not to take that time for granted.
Make time in your busy schedule to visit with your family before that opportunity is gone forever. Pencil them in if you must. Just make sure to do it. Don’t carry a guilt with you like I do.
Death is an inevitable part of life. But heart disease, cancer and other fatal illnesses take too many people far too soon. I loved my mother while she was here, and I will love her forever.
Her passing has left a hole in my heart that can never be filled. I can only hope that I have honored her life, created a vision of her for my children, and become the woman that she hoped I would be.
I love you mom. Rest in peace. I will see again someday.
Classic Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting
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- 2 1/4 cups cake flour
- 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 3/4 cup unsalted butter
- 3 large eggs
- 1 large egg yolk
- 3/4 cup milk
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
- 6 ounces good-quality semisweet chocolate chopped
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
- 1 tablespoon light corn syrup
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease 2 9-inch round cake pans then line with parchment paper circles. The grease will help hold the parchment in place as well as help you remove the cake when done.
- In a medium bowl, stir or whisk together the cake flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
- Add extracts to the milk in measuring cup or bowl. Set aside.
- With mixer on medium speed, beat butter until creamy. Gradually add in sugar until incorporated. Add eggs and yolk one at a time until incorporated. Turn off mixer and scrape sides of bowl.
- With mixer on low speed, gradually add half of the dry ingredients, then half of the milk mixture. Mix in remaining dry and wet ingredients and mix until it all comes together. Scrape down sides if needed. Beat on medium speed for 2 minutes to aerate the batter.
- Pour batter into prepared cake pans and bake for 22-32 minutes, or until cake tester comes out clean and top springs back to your touch.
- Cool in pan on wire rack for 10 minutes then remove from pans and cool completely.
For the frosting:
- Melt the chopped chocolate and butter in a good-sized bowl either in the microwave or suspended over a pan of simmering water. Cool.
- Place powdered sugar into the food processor and blitz to remove lumps. Add remaining frosting ingredients and process until smooth.
- Spoon about 1/3 of the frosting onto the center of the cake-half and spread with a knife or spatula until you cover the top of it evenly, leaving about 1/2" from the edges. Set the other cake on top, right side up, pressing gently to sandwich the 2 together.
- Spoon another 1/3 of the frosting onto the top of the cake. Spread the sides of the cake smooth then spread the frosting on top in a swirly, textured way.
- Hint: For my swirled top, I hold the icing spatula over the top outside edge and turn the plate as I go, working my way into the center.