Mom’s Creamy Coconut Cake Recipe
by Laura Kendall
Over dinner the night before your mom’s birthday she will tell you she bought ingredients for coconut cake, but she’d rather you help her sort things at her deceased brother’s house. Listen to her wistful tone; watch her eyes fall toward her plate. Realize she was planning to bake her own cake. Know she has already sacrificed too much.
Suggest your father bake the cake. Watch him look up from his left-over pizza in surprise, or terror, as he chews a bite of crust too long. Set the temperature of your face to challenge him. Listen as he begrudgingly agrees, as he warns he cannot bake with anyone else around. You’ve never seen your father bake anything; chuckle at the very idea.
Rise the next morning after your mother has left. Interrupt your father’s Google searches to remind him about the cake. “Your mother didn’t leave a recipe” he will say, as though it’s a viable excuse. Sigh audibly and Google “coconut cake.” Find the recipe he is least likely to mess up. Creamy Coconut Cake: just five ingredients. Cross your fingers.
Feign interest (you are always doing this, though it’s not reciprocated) as your father talks. He’s never mentioned it before, but he claims to have dyspraxia, a disorder that affects spatial awareness. This is not the first disorder he’s claimed for himself. “Normal people can stir without looking,” he says, “but if I look away from the bowl, I could be stirring the air for all I know.” Tell him he’s simply clumsy, but yield when he gets argumentative. Don’t let him see you stifle a laugh. Remember your mother is alone at her dead brother’s house.
Head to the kitchen for the dry ingredients. Pull a box of white cake mix from the cupboard above the breadbox and a can of sweetened condensed milk from the cabinet under the microwave. Unbury a bag of coconut from the extra refrigerator. Place the ingredients next to the coconut milk already on the counter. Look for Cool Whip. When you cannot find any, move the carton of whipping cream to the front of the refrigerator.
Check the recipe again. Pull out a 9x13 pan and place it on the counter. Your father will need a straw to poke holes in the cake. Rifle through drawers until you find a neon blue bendy straw. Lay it next to the pan.
As you leave the house, remind your father to start baking—that he will need to preheat the oven—that the cake will need to cool in the refrigerator. Doubt he will do this.
Help your mother sort blankets and towels in your uncle’s linen closet. Rifle through boxes of old comic books, finding copies so old their asking price is just ten cents; watch your mother’s eyes widen with excitement. Smile with her. When your mother’s phone rings hours later listen to her end of the conversation. “Use a beater and a cold bowl—put it in the freezer for a few minutes if you have to.” Wonder why your father is just now whipping the cream. Wonder how your mother’s patience hasn’t dissolved.
As afternoon reaches toward evening, return to your parents’ house. When you get there, watch amazed as your father pulls the pan out of the old refrigerator and places it in front of your mother. Dig the number-shaped candles into the cream, making small furrows in the snow. As is your family tradition, sing the Happy Birthday Song—all three verses. Your mother will not stand for skipped verses. Then clap your hands and sing “Sto Lat,” the traditional Polish song that holds your mother’s breath in her mouth until its final line, “Niech żyje nam!”
Watch your mother blow out the candles—wicks nearly drowned. Watch her cut the cake, passing snow-white squares across her vinyl table cloth before placing one small paper plate in front of her. Your father has already started eating, so remind him he was supposed to wait. Watch him stare into his cake, still chewing, while the fork hits your mother’s mouth and her eyes close in contentment. Take the first creamy-sweet bite of your own cake. Feel guilty that there are no presents, but tell yourself she doesn’t care. Convince yourself the time you spent sorting was enough. Smile, because despite everything, she is happy; wish you could be pleased in such small ways.