Christmas Cake (10 page)

Louise shook her head. “She can just go home and we'll take care of her, get her body strong and give her time to get better; and then they can put the portacath somewhere else and she can take the treatments through January and be better by spring.”

Beatrice slid her chair closer to Louise. She reached out and took
both of her friend's hands in hers. She looked her squarely in the eyes. “She is not going to be better by spring, Louise. The cancer has spread in her liver and is probably in other places as well.”

Jessie sat up and joined Beatrice. “Margaret needs us now more than ever,” she said. “But she doesn't need us in that way of denial and avoidance. She needs us to be okay and to let her know that we will support her and care for her no matter what she chooses to do. She needs to know that she can make a decision about what she wants to do with the rest of her life without worrying about us.”

“I'm not okay,” Louise said, the tears welling in her eyes. “Do you know that?” she asked. “I'm not okay.”

Jessie nodded. “I know,” she responded. “I'm not okay yet either.” She reached down in her purse and brought out tissues for all three of them. “But I'm working on it,” she added. “I'm working on it because I know that's what Margaret needs the most.”

Louise nodded, knowing that what her friend was saying was true. She had known it for some time. “Okay, I'll try, but I can't promise you anything.”

Beatrice leaned across the table and patted Louise on the hand. “I thought the same thing when you came over and brought the invention to me. But now look how much better I am.”

“Bea,” Louise said as she took a tissue from Jessie and wiped her eyes. “It's intervention, not invention. And I'm glad your hormones are making you feel better but I'm afraid it's going to take more than just a patch on my butt to help me with this.”

“Maybe not a patch,” Beatrice answered. “Maybe more like a kick.” And she reached over with a wink and took the last cracker from Louise.



Fran's Fresh Coconut Cake

½ cup butter

½ cup shortening

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon lemon extract

cups sugar

3½ cups flour

1½ teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

1 cup milk

5 eggs


In a large mixing bowl, cream butter, shortening, vanilla, and lemon extract. Sift together dry ingredients. Combine flour mixture, milk, and eggs with shortening, about one third at a time, saving 2 eggs until last to add to batter. Bake in 3 greased and floured 9-inch pans at 325 degrees for 30 minutes or until done.




2 cups sugar

½ cup boiling water

1 cup quartered marshmallows

2 egg whites

teaspoon baking powder

pinch salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 fresh coconut, grated


Cook sugar and water until it reaches a temperature of 245 degrees. Add marshmallows and stir until they are melted. Remove from heat. Beat egg whites until stiff; then pour sugar mixture into whites, beating as you pour. Continue beating, adding baking powder, salt, and vanilla until stiff enough to spread on cake. Spread icing on layers, then add grated coconut between each layer. Repeat for top and sides.

hank you, Frances, this is a lovely surprise and it's my favorite.” Margaret took the cake from her neighbor.

She could see that it was coconut, and she knew how good Frances Martin's coconut cakes were. In fact, she had told Louise to ask Frances for the recipe to put into the cookbook. She thought coconut cake was a perfect Christmas cake, much better than some of the entries that had been submitted. “Please, come in, it's so cold out there.” She held open the door.

“I know a whole cake is a lot for just one person.” Frances walked in. “But you can freeze it for later.” The woman paused, thinking about how to rephrase what she was suggesting. “Or, um, you can just share it with the people who have been staying with you.”

She stood just inside the door, her back up against the wall. She knew that hospice was now in charge of Margaret's care. She had seen the nurses and other staff members coming and going from her neighbor's house.

The woman appeared awkward and uncomfortable. She and Margaret had been neighbors for more than twenty years, going in and out of each other's houses a million times; but now the neighbor appeared as if she didn't know how even to talk to her old friend.

She had heard the gossip about Margaret's condition and she had kept putting off a visit since Margaret had come home from the hospital. Finally, having stayed away for more than a couple of weeks and knowing that she was leaving that afternoon for the entire month of December to be with her family in Florida, and after getting the call from Louise about the recipe, Frances had baked a coconut cake and gone to see her neighbor.

Once she was there, she felt very much out of place. Secretly, she had hoped that someone else would answer the door and that she wouldn't have to see Margaret. But once her neighbor answered the door, she realized that she was going to have to stay a few minutes and act sociable.

“Let me take your coat, Frances.” Margaret placed the cake on the table by the door and reached for the woman's coat.

“Oh, okay, thank you,” and she slipped out of her thick jacket, still standing close to the door. She watched Margaret as she hung the coat in the closet. She could tell that her neighbor had lost more weight in the last few weeks. She looked frail and her skin had a yellow cast to it. That would be because of the liver involvement, Frances thought.

“I guess they're calling for some bad weather this evening,” she said as a means to conversation.

“That's what they just said on the morning report,” Margaret responded. She was moving very slowly and was demonstrating some difficulty in hanging the coat. Frances wasn't sure how to offer assistance.

“Would you like some coffee?” Margaret asked. She was able to get the coat hung, and she closed the closet door and picked up the cake to take into the kitchen.

“Yes, that would be nice. Here.” Frances reached out. “Let me take that in there for you.”

Margaret nodded and the two women headed out of the front room. Margaret walked slowly and tentatively as her neighbor followed behind.

“I've missed seeing you,” Margaret noted as she gestured toward the counter for a place for Frances to set the cake and then pulled out two mugs from the dish drain and started fixing their drinks. “I thought you might have already gone on your trip.”

“No, I'm, uh…I've been busy with my volunteering and I, um, just haven't gotten around to visit like I used to. I leave this afternoon. Do you want me to help you with that?” She was standing behind her neighbor and she could see that Margaret was weak. Frances fidgeted with the sleeves on her blouse.

Margaret knew that her neighbor was uncomfortable. She had seen this reaction quite often since she had come home from the hospital. Many of her church friends and neighbors had stayed away at first, and then once they started visiting, they seemed more like strangers than friends.

She wasn't sure what news was being shared about her but she was certainly aware that everyone was acting differently around her. She guessed that they all thought she was dying in a couple of days; and maybe she was, she didn't know. All she knew since coming home from the hospital and discontinuing the treatments was that she didn't feel that great but she certainly didn't feel like she was dying.

It didn't concern her that much, however. She understood that
hearing that a friend or acquaintance was terminal made everyone uncomfortable. In the past, she had acted the same way around her friends who had gotten a similar prognosis. It was awkward, she knew, to stand so close to death.

“It's fine, Fran,” she said as she walked around her neighbor and set the mugs on the table.

Frances followed her, and then remained standing at the table as Margaret went back and got the coffeepot.

“So, tell me about your Christmas plans,” Margaret said. She sat down at the table and then nodded toward Frances, inviting her to join her.

“I'll be with my son, Jimmy, and his wife. I think the three kids will come for part of the time. Jimmy wasn't sure. You know how teenagers are.” She smiled. “They finally bought their own place on the water in Boca Raton, in some fancy high-rise. We used to always rent something.”

Margaret nodded. She reached across her and took a packet of sugar from a small bowl in the center of the table. She put it in her coffee and stirred.

“I guess on Christmas Day, we'll probably go out to dinner, maybe take a boat ride, if it's nice.” Frances took a sip of her coffee and still fidgeted a bit in her seat.

Margaret pointed to the sugar and little pitcher of milk, and Frances shook her head. She liked her coffee black.

“A boat ride?” Margaret asked. “Does Jimmy have a boat down there too?”

Frances nodded. “One of those pontoon boats, party boats, they call them,” she explained.

Margaret nodded as if she understood. “Well, taking a boat ride for Christmas. That sounds unique, doesn't it?”

Frances raised her eyebrows. “I know. I actually prefer snow and having a fire in the fireplace, drinking hot cider.” She paused. “But Florida is nice. I don't have to pack much since you don't need a coat or scarves or gloves.” She smiled.

“What about you, Margaret?” she asked. “Do you have special plans?” Then her face turned red as if she had asked something too personal. “I'm sorry,” she said quickly. She almost dropped her cup and spilled a bit on the table. Then she jumped up and hurried over to the sink to get a dishtowel to clean it. “I'm so sorry,” she said again as she rushed back to the table.

Margaret stayed seated and tended to the spill.

“It's okay, Frances. Don't worry about it. I have some napkins right here,” she said as she wiped up the coffee. “It's fine, sit down,” she added. “I feel like you're hovering.”

Frances sat down at the table. She was distraught.

“There's nothing wrong with you asking me about my holidays,” Margaret said softly. “I have cancer but that doesn't mean I can't make plans for Christmas.”

Tears welled in the other woman's eyes. “I just don't know what to say to you,” she confessed. She dropped her face away from Margaret. She placed her hands in her lap. “I lied earlier. I wasn't too busy to visit. I stayed away on purpose because I don't know what to say. I'm just so sorry,” she confessed.

Margaret smiled and nodded. “It's fine,” she said reassuringly. “You're not the only one. It seems like folks find out that you're dying and they act like you're suddenly contagious or something.”

“Oh no,” Frances said, lifting her face and shaking her head, “I don't think that. That's not what I mean.” She seemed more upset.

“It's okay, Fran,” Margaret reached over and patted her neighbor on the hand and then took a sip from her coffee. “I know that this is hard for everybody else too.”

Frances nodded and sat back in her chair. She seemed to relax a bit now that she had made her confession. The two women sat in silence for a few minutes and Frances took a few deep breaths. She had resigned herself to staying.

“So, tell me, what do you like about Florida?” Margaret asked, trying to ease the tension that had arisen between the two old friends.

Frances seemed surprised by the question. She shrugged her shoulders and considered how to answer. “I don't know. The truth is I don't really like it,” she said. She reached out for her coffee cup again. She got the pot and poured another cup.

“I think going there in December just became a habit after Morris died,” she noted, referring to her husband who had passed away almost eight years before.

“Jimmy hated the thought of his mother being alone during the holidays and he didn't want to come back here.” She drank some coffee. “He always wanted to be somewhere warm, so he was the one who started arranging this little trip.”

Margaret nodded. She remembered her neighbor's son. He was grown when Frances and Morris moved in, but she had seen him visiting on a number of occasions.

“At first we would go for just a week and then it became two weeks and now it's the whole month.” She sighed.

“I think for the first couple of years I was so numb I would have
gone along with any idea he suggested, and now, I guess, it's just what we do. I don't think too much about it anymore. I know it pleases Jimmy to have us together, and it's nice to be with everybody.” She set her cup down. “I guess I just go because that's what everybody expects. The truth is that I do it for him. I think it's good for him.”

“I guess a mother's job is never done, is it?” Margaret asked. She crossed her legs under the table. Her belly was hurting a little and she was trying to find a comfortable sitting position.

A car passed on the street in front of the house. Both women glanced out the window to see if anybody else was driving up the driveway. The two friends looked at each other and smiled.

“You didn't lose much hair this time,” Frances noted. She seemed more like her old self now talking to Margaret.

“No, I don't think I got enough of the chemicals in my system before they had to stop,” Margaret explained. “I'm glad not to have to take any more of those.” She ran her fingers through her short salt-and-pepper-colored hair. “And now I guess I'll die with my own hair.”

Frances turned away. She took another sip of her coffee.

“Will you put up a tree?” Frances asked, trying to change the subject. She was more comfortable with her neighbor; but she did not want to talk about death, Margaret's or anybody else's.

Margaret seemed confused at first and then realized what her neighbor was asking. “Oh,” she replied. “I think the girls are planning to bring one over this week,” she replied. “Jessie and Lou and Bea,” she added. “I heard them talking about it. I think they think I should have one.”

And then Margaret considered her answer. “Well, there, you see, looks like we're doing our holidays the same way, aren't we? We're letting somebody else decide our celebration for us.”

Frances nodded with a bit of uncertainty. She wasn't really following what Margaret was saying. “Don't you want a tree?” she asked.

Margaret took in a breath and thought about the question. “No, not really,” she said, shaking her head. “I never liked cutting down a tree to put in my house for three weeks and then tossing it in the garbage. I always felt like I was killing something for my own pleasure. And I hate those artificial ones.” Then she hesitated and turned back to her neighbor. “What about you?” she asked. “Do you have a tree in Florida?”

Frances scrunched up her face. “It's silver,” she answered. “One of those fancy aluminum ones that sell for two hundred dollars, one of the kids bought it a couple of years ago. I never liked them.”

“Do you want to go to Florida?”

Frances shook her head. “No,” she replied honestly. “To be truthful, I'd rather stay here and decorate the house and go to the church pageant. I just love those. And I wish I could wear my favorite Christmas sweaters. I have four,” she noted. “And I never get to wear them.” She paused.

“And I like to bake, and Carolyn, that's Jimmy's wife,” she said, as a side note to Margaret, “Carolyn doesn't have any cookware in the condo. She said Florida is for vacationing and vacationing is for eating out.” Frances slumped a bit in her chair. She shrugged. “But in spite of that, I really love being with Jimmy and his kids. I love having family with me on Christmas Eve.”

Margaret made a face at her neighbor. “So you go to Florida for the family, for Jimmy. There's nothing wrong with that. It sounds like something a good mother would do.” She put her elbows on the table and leaned her face into her hands.

Frances considered what Margaret was getting at. The two women
sat in silence for a while. They listened to the traffic and the sounds of the December morning.

“When I was real little my mother used to start making Christmas presents in the summer. She always wanted it to be special for all of us. She would knit scarves for her five children and make my sisters and me dolls and get our dad to carve my brothers little guns or whistles or something.” Margaret sat back in her chair. She hadn't thought of these things in years.

“For the longest time, I didn't know what she was doing in July and August. And when I asked her why she was knitting in the hot summer she'd always say, ‘Oh, I'm thinking about Santa Claus and all that he has to do for next Christmas. I'm worried that he might need some help, and nobody helps Santa like a mother!' Margaret smiled. “She never let us know how poor we were or what we didn't have. She only wanted the best for her children.”

Frances blew out a breath and took her final sip of her coffee. “Yeah, my mother was like that too. She always tried to keep us from knowing how hard her life was or how much she was suffering. She would have done anything for us children, just to make sure that we were protected and safe. So I guess that's why instead of baking and decorating for Jimmy and the children, now I go on a boat ride and eat at a hotel buffet. But it doesn't really matter where we are or what we're doing, I love knowing that I'm helping make happy memories for Christmas.”

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