I suspect she will never be the same.
The road held humid secrets of the night before it and the sky was a blackish blue, the same color Richie’s veins habitually carried before the accident.
But then in an unfathomable twist of fate, while darkness turned to dawn, her son was hit by a Jeep Grand Cherokee and the break of day began with one less person.
One less son.
One less smile to fill Judy’s heart and so it froze and her eyes have turned cold, gray, and hard, eyes that normally flowed with warmth like rich butterscotch one drizzles on their ice cream with glee.
That was gone and I suspect she will never be the same.
There is no sense to such a senseless act.
There is no sense to a child, all of sixteen, being taken away from his world, which, by all accounts, was one filled with thrill and adventure.
I visited Judy in her home and it was adorned proudly with photographs detailing all of her son’s explosiveness and zest.
An image of a young child, all of seven or eight, comfortably propped on a huge motorbike bathed in crusted mud.
Another of the same child, a year older now, sporting a huge fish and an even bigger grin.
Another image stops me and begs me nearer: it is a close-up of Richie sporting a wildly long and bleached-blonde Mohawk.
He is probably eleven in that one, and, where the hairdo could easily serve as the centerpiece of that image, it is not.
It is the warmth and promise of Richie’s smile that has brought me closer.
It is the sparkle of his eyes that demanded me to stop. And think.
And look closely.
‘I am Richie’, it spoke confidently and fearlessly.
And then, if you look deeply into those eyes there is a spark of Judy there, always watching.
Death is an awkward visitor in our lives, the type that always manages to show up and we are never sure what to do with.
It seems Death has made a bit too many unwarranted visits in my life lately and I feel a bit befuddled and drained from it all.
But Richie’s passing seems to have touched me even further.
There are pictures everywhere, you see.
pictures. So many memories.
And the promise of a life that remains unkept.
And Judy’s eyes that have hardened and I wonder how they will see life as sweet again.
We all deal with grief in our own personal way. Mine, of course, is through the kitchen.
It is the turf in which I feel most comfortable, where I know my way around best and no one can bother me.
For Richie I made a cake.
I beat the sugar and butter for a long, long time.
It needed time and care, just as a small child does.
I didn’t want to rush this cake. I wanted it to be just right.
Some cakes call for a more impersonal approach:
dump all the ingredients in one big frosty hello and beat the crap out of them for 3 minutes, dump them in their respective pans and bake them and that is the end of that.
I love those cakes. They are convenient, fast, and good, but for today, it didn’t feel right.
I wanted to savor making this cake, carefully divvy its contents and gently introduce them to make a grand batter.
Like the young life cut short, I wanted to nurture this cake.
Lulu, my hot red mixer, understood. She churned diligently and produced the fluffiest butter/sugar mixture just for me as I stood numbly watching her paddle go round and round.
Things work just as I intend in my kitchen, and that soothes me today.
Once the cakes are baked and cooled, I begin to assemble them, first carefully slicing them into thin layers then dousing them with simple sugar to seal the moisture, then adding the raspberry preserves and finally, the whipped cream topping.
It feels just right to make this cake on this day.
As I bake it, I can’t seem to shake the images from the collage of photographs at Judy’s house.
Images of youth and hope and adventure churn into a sad loss under the hum of Lulu.
Still, I know Richie would think this the perfect cake for his mom and the thought of that gives me solace.
I spin the final layer of frosting, making sure to have my cake spatula at the perfect angle so as not to create any imperfections.
I carefully mark the pieces using the back of a bread knife and go about creating the final touches with a French tip and some fresh berries.
I turn and pipe and assemble as if this cake were my practical test for Le Grand Diplome.
All the while I think of this boy that I never knew who has died, and I think of his mother, who has touched my life and that of my children with all her spunk and creativity and fun.
I love her for that and for teaching them that thinking out of the box is always cool.
I remember the look of delight in my daughter’s eyes every time she got to do another messy hands-on project with Ms. Judy, or my son’s fascination with the cookbook projects she spearheaded.
During the years my children where with Ms. Judy, her energy and innovation was a current fixture in our home and it has grown and transcended all these years.
The cake is done and is indeed perfect.
I know she will never be the same, how can she?
She has lost her son.
But I bring her the cake anyway.
It is round and sweet and filled with richness.
She places it on the table, next to Richie’s photographs and I know he is smiling somewhere and already I feel better.
Raspberry Vanilla Cake with Whipped Topping
(Chef Gian Flores, J&W)
For the Cake:
3 cups flour
1 Tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons butter, softened
5 large eggs
1 cup seedless raspberry jam
*made by taking equal parts of water and sugar and boiling down for five minutes
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9" cake pans.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt.
In a separate bowl, combine milk and vanilla.
Using an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, 1 at a time, and beat well.
On low speed, add flour mixture alternating with milk mixture. Mix until fully incorporated.
Divide batter equally between 2 cake pans and bake for 30 -40 minutes.
Cool 10 minutes in pan, then invert them onto a cake rack. Cool completely before assembling. Each cake pan makes 1 cake.
Slice each cake into three thin layers. Brush each layer with simple sugar, then add 5 tablespoons of jam and spread thinly. Top with whipped cream. Place layer on top and repeat with next layer.
Cover cake with whipped topping. Add nuts and berries as decoration.
Makes 2 cakes