I want to be able to work and I want to be able to write. I can’t do either, but I can make my Mom’s Strawberry Frosted cupcakes.
These are the cupcakes she made for our birthdays when we three girls were little. They are the prettiest cupcakes in the world: pale pink sweet fluffy cream with dots of speckled deep red strawberry. Imagine being a little girl and getting those on your birthday! They are like pink tutus made out of magical silky soft fabric: pink tutus that smell as good as your mother and taste like love.
I want to bathe in my mother’s perfume, and smell the kitchen on those Sunday afternoons when she would make roast beef with Yorkshire pudding. I want to hide in her closet with the bottoms of her dresses tickling my face, and I want to be enveloped by her arms in the most delicious hug in the world.
But all I can do is bake the cupcakes and remember the way she would say, “Oh, Smudgery” when I most needed to hear it. I need to hear it now, Mom.
I am about to tell you the most un-cool thing in the world: I had a happy childhood. I know, I know. I must be suppressing something terrible, right? But I loved baking cookies after school with my Mom, and I loved the way she made me feel like the most interesting, smart, insightful, talented and beautiful child on earth.
As a mother, I can look at what she gave me and marvel that she managed to make my sisters and me each feel that special—but never came close to spoiling us. We had chores, and a job chart to delineate them, and my mother was a task master about it. When we were teens, our boyfriends would have to sit and wait for us in the den while she inspected the pots and pans to be sure they were cleaned to her very high standards. It was mortifying when we had to re-scrub them and keep the boys waiting, but I thank her for it now. She taught me how to set standards and live up to them: perhaps not about sparkling pans, but always about attention to detail and striving for the best.
But I am supposed to be writing about Strawberry Frosted cupcakes, and I have digressed.
I made the cupcakes you see in the photo above with my daughter, Rachel. We made four dozen of them this past Sunday morning to serve to friends and family who were coming that afternoon to pay their condolences.
On Sunday, when I was numbed with shock and couldn’t think what to do next, my Rachel would tell me. Perhaps I looked ashamed, or maybe just lost, because she occasionally said, “It’s okay not to know, Mom. You just lost your mother”. But even though sweet 24-year old Rachel lost her soul mate– the one person in whom she could confide about her frustrations with me and the rest of the world– she understood that I had lost my mother. And she gently guided me through that morning; we made cupcakes while my son Zak and (husband) Ebo set tables and chairs around the rooms, put up a giant pot of coffee and set out platters of cookies. And I, who can throw together dinner for 20 in my sleep, had no idea how to organize the tasks to get the table set and the food laid out. But the three of them answered the doorbell all morning long, and seemed to know just what to do with the deliveries of fruit and cookies and cakes and even dinner. They set out the platters my friends ordered, and soon caring people streamed in.
For the record, I wasn’t supposed to lose my mother yet. She and my Dad were on the third day of their three and a half month cruise around the world: they were at their first port of call (the island of Dominica) when a tour bus hit her. She was flown by a Lear jet outfitted like a hospital (aka medi-vac) to Yale New Haven Hospital (an institution staffed by angels, gods and goddesses) where they did their very best to save her. My sisters and I met my Dad in the hospital just after they landed; every three hours or so a doctor would give us an update. This went on for 36 hours.
Finally she was stable and the trauma doctors proposed a course of treatment. The big questions were whether they could save her leg and if she would ever walk again.
For ten days, my sisters and I rallied around taking care of Dad and Mom and their luggage and the myriad of details that consumed our brains. We lived from surgery to surgery, holding our breath through six procedures in the operating room.
And then one glorious day, the surgeon came out from the OR to tell us he had every reason to believe Mom would walk again. It would take some real work on her part, he said, but clearly a woman of her age who embarked on a 112-day cruise around the world has the gumption it would take to get on her feet again.
My Dad and I fist-bumped. We grinned. We used his iPad to message everyone, and we celebrated, though with some restraint. After all, it wasn’t like it would be smooth sailing. But finally—finally, after all these long, sleepless nights and days of fear, we had reason to believe the world would re-align.
I spent the afternoon with my (finally conscious!) mother. We talked and laughed; she teased me and told me stories about the people on the ship; she fretted about her belongings and her hero for these last 57 years, my father. We talked some more until she was finally too tired to keep her eyes opened; I headed back home that night to see my husband and kids and get clean clothes.
And then a black cloud laden with shards of ice and torrential driving rains made its way over our heads; infection was taking over her body. I raced back to New Haven.
Two days later, my mother, the indomitable Jane Nunes Vas Perry, died.
My father, sisters and I shuffled through the dank cave of funeral arrangements and caskets and phone calls. We wrote eulogies and shared pain; we lived on troubled sleep. At some point through all this, I began to think about those Strawberry Frosted cupcakes. We trudged through the funeral day and subsequent shivas* and finally, last Saturday night after dinner, we wound our way home.
It has been a great comfort to me to hear from friends near and far; friends of my mother’s and friends of mine who appreciated my mother’s lively spirit, sharp intellect, compassion and wit. Every email, visit, note and phone call I received from friends and colleagues through this has touched me with the knowledge of how fortunate I am.
But I would trade it all for just one more year with my mother—for just one last opportunity to bake those beautiful cupcakes with her again.
Cupcakes with Strawberry Frosting
Cup Cakes (Crinkle Cup Recipe)
makes 18 cupcakes
1/2 cup (1/4 pound) butter at room temperature
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups cake flour, (such as Swan’s), sifted
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup milk
- Preheat oven to 375F. Line 18 cupcake tins with paper liners. (Fill remaining cups with 1/2-inch water).
- Cream butter; add sugar and cream well; add eggs one at a time; beat mixture well. Add sifted flour and baking powder and milk alternatively to batter; add vanilla.
- Fill crinkle cup liners abut halfway with batter; bake 20-25 minutes until a toothpick stuck in the center of the cupcake is clean. Let cool completely before icing.
frosts 18 cupcakes
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, softened at room temperature
4 ounces cream cheese, softened at room temperature
1 3/4 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
5-6 strawberries, coarsely chopped in 1/2-inch pieces
1. Cream the butter and cream cheese until lightl and fluffy; add the sugar and cream again. Add the lemon juice and vanilla; cream until thoroughly combined. Add the strawberries and mix on low speed until they are mashed in 1/4-inch pieces and the frosting is a beautiful shade of pink.
*Shiva is the Jewish tradition of staying home in the week following a funeral as friends, neighbors, acquaintances and relatives visit to pay their condolences.