Choking down cupcakes and guilt

May 14th, 2019  |  Published in Uncategorized, What we savor

My grandmother (right) and her sister dressed up for a dance. Photo: Jean Deitsch.

It’s nearly 7 p.m. on the Monday after Easter, and JetBlue’s terminal at West Palm Beach airport is packed. Toddlers scurry past strangers’ legs, stare over seat-backs and toss around stuffed animals while their parents halfheartedly try to contain them. Teens stare intently at phones or blankly into space. Snowbirds headed back north for the summer line up in wheelchairs by the gate. Over by the convenience store, tethered by charging cell phones, my younger sister and I sigh as the gate attendant announces another 30-minute delay to our departure to New York City.

We’d just eaten a disappointing airport meal of chewy mushroom flatbread and lukewarm minestrone soup. My mind wandered to in-flight snacks of potato chips, popcorn, or maybe chocolate chip cookies. Anything chocolate would be nice, I thought – except maybe the cupcakes my grandmother had baked.

Four days earlier, my grandparents made the hour-and-a-half drive from their trailer park on Lake Okeechobee to my parents’ home in Palm Beach Gardens. As always, my grandmother arrived bearing baked goods, and I mentally prepared myself to gulp down whatever dried out, questionable mess she offered – would it be the starchy peanut butter rollups, the chunky sugar cookies or maybe the foamy raspberry mini-cakes? She always baked enough for a small army and never took requests, confident that whatever she brought would be gobbled up enthusiastically. Even in our mid-twenties, none of us had the heart to come clean.

My sister threw me a look – something between amusement and fear — as we caught a glimpse of my grandmother’s tray: chocolate cupcakes coated in lumpy coconut frosting, with a dollop of suspicious, not-quite-orange goo plopped in the center. When my grandmother urged my sister and me to take one, I gritted my teeth, smiled, and took a big bite while my sister looked on in barely-masked horror.

The cake itself was a little dry, but edible. The frosting didn’t quite taste like coconut, despite the razor-sharp flakes encrusted on top, but again, I would live. With relief, I took another bite, right into the greyish-orange goo at the center.

 “Is that lemon?” I asked myself. “No, too sweet. Maybe caramel? Caramel shouldn’t be sour…should it?”

“Grandma, it’s delicious!” I declared, swallowing hard. “What’s that stuff at the center?”

She smiled, and I noticed that her beautiful but gaunt face looked thinner than ever, her cheeks concaved and her temples hollowed out.

“It’s a carrot!” she laughed, throwing her hands up in giddy defeat. “Or it was supposed to be. I got the recipe on the internet – it’s supposed to be a little carrot sticking up out of the dirt. But the cream didn’t harden, so there you go.”

My grandmother was a notorious beauty in her youth, prone to dying her hair various shades of blonde, brunette or auburn and never without painted nails. Occasionally, when my four siblings weren’t around, she’d show me pictures of her and my grandpa dressed up for dancing or grilling burgers in swimsuits at the beach. Sometimes, the beaming woman in the photos was hard to reconcile with the somewhat severe woman I’d known growing up, the one who wouldn’t let us leave the dinner table until we’d finished every drop of lukewarm baked beans, canned veggies and unsalted potato chips she’d piled on our plate next to boiled hot dogs. “If you don’t finish your dinner, no dessert!” she’d bark. Little did she know, that was exactly what we were hoping for.

“Isn’t that something?” my grandpa said, nodding to the tray of cupcakes with his arms crossed and hands stuffed under his armpits. “She baked those cupcakes for you kids. I’m not allowed to have any. Pffft!” He shook his head, and my grandmother rolled her eyes.

After my sister forced down a cupcake, we both insisted on saving the rest for our other three siblings, who hadn’t arrived yet. But after my grandparents left, the cupcakes sat on the counter for days, untouched. Then, on Easter Sunday, my grandpa called my mom in a panic, yelling at her to drive up to the Okeechobee Hospital – my grandmother was gravely ill, he said.

My mother drove up to the hospital right after church, insisting that my grandmother probably just had a bug and that my siblings, father and I should still go to Easter brunch. “Grandma hates to be crowded,” my mother explained.

About 24 hours later, as my sister and I stood by the airport convenience store charging our phones, my mom called to tell us she’d be staying with my grandma indefinitely. It looks like colon cancer, she said, her voice cracking slightly.

After we hung up, my sister and I stood in silence while the gate attendants announced delay after delay. My mind drifted to food, and I nudged my sister’s arm.

“We didn’t eat the rest of grandma’s cupcakes. They just sat on the counter until Mom threw them out.”

I gulped, trying to shake the image of the cupcakes in the trash — surrounded by eggshells, coffee grinds and dirty napkins — out of my head.

My sister looked at me, eyes widened and welling. “Why would you say that?”

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