Noreen Hernandez-will finally receive her Bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in Creative Writing in December ’17 from Northeastern Illinois University. Her non-fiction work has been previously published in peoplesworld.org and beckysarwate.com. She recently left a career in banking to pursue her writing goals and other adventures. She lives and flourishes as a life-long resident of Chicago, Illinois.
The Easter Miracle
On the drive home after Palm Sunday mass we—my sisters, Mary, Joan, and I—listened while Dad began his campaign to banish Mimaw’s Easter Lamb Cake from the holiday sweet table. Every year she picked up the cake from the bake shop section of the neighborhood Piggly Wiggly. The grainy frosting tasted like sweet greasy Crisco which sometimes helped the dry pound cake from getting stuck in your throat. Normally, Ma held to the ‘only one glass of soda with your meal rule’, but she understood it took at least two glasses to swallow the cake. She brewed a large urn of coffee for the grown-ups, and we enjoyed the excuse to drink more soda. Maybe the extra cup of coffee wasn’t enough of a treat for him, because every Easter Dad tried to convince Ma to serve a different cake.
We lived for her treats. She baked her luscious German chocolate cake for our birthdays, and Dad blew out his candles on a towering, triple-layer, cream cheese-frosted, carrot cake. Her magic rivaled any bakery in the area, and we wondered why Mimaw insisted on carrying the dessert torch every Easter.
Dad opened the conversation with a casual lob, an attempt to distract Ma from his true intent.
“I can’t believe next week is Easter. The years are going by faster and faster, aren’t they May?”
“Uh-huh. They sure are.”
Dad didn’t hear her practiced, but casual tone. We recognized it though, and watched the familiar game play out from our vantage point in the back seat. In an attempt to appear casual, Dad replied with a loud, but clearly fake yawn.
We silently signaled to each other. Mary answered my nudge with a sidelong glance while she smoothed her hair, and Joan replied by pursing her lips and slightly nodding her head. Oblivious to his tactical misstep; he carried on.
“That Palm Sunday mass seems like it gets longer and longer each year. How many people fainted this time, May? Two? Three? I don’t know why we can’t sit down instead of standing up for the entire Gospel, or at least shorten the story up a bit. Don’t give me that look, May. I don’t think it’s blasphemy to edit the Bible. Listen, it makes sense. The congregation knows the story. ‘Jesus Triumphantly Enters Jerusalem’. Any person who regularly studies their Catechism knows this. I don’t understand why it’s repeated verbatim year after year.”
Ma’s turn to yawn; a real yawn.
“C’mon May, you know me. I’m able to stand for the whole shebang. I’m only thinking of the seniors. Year after year pretending to listen to the same story go on and on and on. It’s not right. One of them will hit their head on the pew and get hurt. Pastor Paul needs to look into this. Just a little editing can’t hurt. It’s the same familiar story for Chrissakes, it’s not like there’s a new episode or something.”
Ma watched Dad squirm a bit. “You’ve got a point, Rich.” But our giggles broke her concentration. “Just what is going on back there?”
During Dad’s diatribe Mary scrunched down, so they wouldn’t detect her in the rear-view mirror. She silently imitated Dad by mouthing every word right along with him, and even expertly mirrored his driving motions of steering with the left hand and pointing with the right.
Right on cue, Ma yelled at us to keep the noise down, “…before you give your father a headache and cause an accident.” We wondered how Ma kept up the tradition every year, or did she really have no idea what Mary was up to? Hard to tell, but Mary cracked us up again by whispering, “Wait for it, wait for it…”
“What’s on the menu for dinner next week?” Dad asked.
Mary remained scrunched down, and mimed him word for word. Joan and I almost died. Joan slapped her hand over her mouth to imprison her laughter. But it escaped as a projectile snot rocket, which hit the back of the front car seat. We died again. Ma turned to say something to us, but gave up. Ignoring the riot in the back seat, she assured Dad there were no changes to the traditional Easter dinner menu; baked ham, Aunt Sarah’s sweet potatoes topped with broiled marshmallows, Aunt June’s famous red Jell-O mold, green beans and bacon prepared from a now-forgotten relative’s recipe, biscuits Ma always made sure were baked just like Dad’s late mom, Grandma Esther baked them, and Mimaw, and only Mimaw brought the Easter Lamb Cake.
“May, how about this year you take care of dessert. Not that it matters to me one way or another, but I’m only thinking of the other guests. They deserve a nice dessert to top off the wonderful spread you lay out. A dessert should extend and wind down the celebration at the same time.”
“Rich, you know my mom always brings her lamb cake, it’s tradition.”
“Tradition May? It’s not even her cake. It’s a God-awful, dry, factory-made Piggly-Wiggly cake.”
“C’mon hon, you aren’t all that fussy about your sweets. You’d eat a whole box of Little Debbie’s for dinner if I let you. What’s your problem? So, what if she brings the cake?”
“I can get store-bought cake anytime. You don’t bake every day, and I’m not saying you should. It’s too much trouble, but a special occasion warrants a special dessert. One that will leave people with a good taste in their mouths. Wouldn’t it be nice for once to enjoy a nice cup of coffee with a slice of your carrot cake, instead of needing a cup of coffee to choke down that damn lamb cake?”
“She’s my mother I can’t hurt her feelings.”
“Impossible to hurt what she does not possess…”
“What did you say?”
“I said it must be almost impossible for her to pay for the cake. She doesn’t…uh possess the funds. It must be tough for her. Being on Social Security now?”
“Please talk to her?”
“How? You know how she is. She only talks at people. Besides, I have enough to do this week without dealing with her. It’s easier to just let her bring the cake. Are you girls okay back there?”
Our silence alarmed Ma more than our noisy laughter. She amazed people with her ability to ignore the everyday loudness of squeals and arguments that surrounded us.
Friends and family always remarked, “How do you keep from going crazy, May?” or “I wish I had an ounce of your patience, hon.” This led to comments on what a good mom she was, or how lucky we were that the angels gave us to the right mother. Everyone spoke highly of her child-rearing skills. Well, everyone except Mimaw.
“I swear May, those brats drive me crazy. When are you going to teach them to behave?”
Ma tried to explain to her that we were only playing, but Mimaw responded with her rules on the necessity of discipline.
“Any mother who allows commotion shirks her duty to society. Forget the college fund May. Mark my words, you won’t need it with these idiots. You’ll be paying their bail instead.
Ma ignored her because she understood problems flourished in silence. If you could hear children they weren’t getting into too much trouble. That’s why she abruptly turned around in the car. For once we weren’t hiding in sneaky silence. We’d been stunned. Ma normally shut the cake argument down before it went on this long.
Dad seized the opportunity. “Just call her, May. I understand she’s proud, but you’ll be giving her an out if you tell her we’ll take care of dessert. She’ll act upset, but deep down she’ll appreciate not having the financial burden of buying dessert for everyone.”
Ma dropped her blank stare and looked softly at Dad. She turned away for a moment and looked out the passenger window. She straightened up, and suddenly seemed more relaxed than she usually did around the holiday.
“Okay, hon, I’ll call her tomorrow. And just what is going on back there? You girls are way too quiet.”
Our silent sister radar filled the spaces between us in the back seat.
As soon as Dad parked the car, we ran straight to the backyard to figure out what just happened, and why Dad hated the tradition of the Easter Lamb cake. Mary thought it was the frosting; swirls of sweet and fluffy buttercream. She noticed most of the grown-ups scraped the icing off on their plates.
“Why do they do that? I think the best piece is the butt,” I said, “hardly any cake and all icing.”
“It’s hard to explain, it’s just an adult thing to do,” Mary explained, “you’ll get it a couple of years.”
Mary understands more grown-up stuff now. She’s only three years older than me, but I passed our bedroom a while back and heard Ma talking to her. Mary was crying.
“You’re not crazy hon, your feelings are completely normal. Soon you’ll notice some changes, but don’t worry about any of it. I’m here to explain it all to you,” Ma said.
They started talking about cycles, not bicycles, something else I still don’t understand. Mary felt better after talking to Ma, but I hope I never get a cycle if it changes my feelings about frosting.
I reminded Mary and Joan that Dad always ate two pieces of birthday cake and didn’t scrape off the excess frosting. Mary looked confused when I asked her if Dad’s love of frosting had anything to do with becoming an adult and cycles. Joan changed the subject. She thought the lamb’s creepy eyes bothered him. No, I proved Dad possessed a very high tolerance for creepy eyes. When we visited Mimaw, he always made fun of the picture of Spying Jesus. We named it Spying Jesus because no matter where you stood it seemed like Jesus’ eyes followed you. Dad liked to sneak up next to it and yell “Boo”. Mimaw sent him to Hell every time he did this, but we laughed and relaxed a little while we sat stiffly on her brocade sofa
“Hey Mary, what’s brocade?”
“You ever notice how Mimaw never says ‘my sofa’, but says ‘my brocade sofa’? What’s brocade?”
“I asked Dad once, he said Mimaw has a need to proclaim she has the best sofa.”
Before we reached a conclusion about Dad’s aversion to lamb cake, or why Ma agreed to broach the subject with Mimaw, we were called in for lunch.
There wasn’t time the following week for any mystery solving. Ma called Mimaw, and convinced her not the bring the lamb cake. She promised Dad there would only be German Chocolate and carrot cake for dessert. We helped her clean the house, and she helped us pick out dresses and hats. She promised us if we stayed out of her way while she baked there would be time to color eggs. Easter Sunday finally arrived. It was the only Sunday we looked forward to attending church services because we could show off our new outfits. Mary was especially proud that year because Ma agreed it was time for her to graduate from a wide brimmed bonnet and tights to a pillbox hat and pantyhose. Dad smiled and called her Jackie Kennedy when she came out of her room.
Ma gave Dad the last-minute rundown.
“After church, just drop us off, and head over to Mimaw’s. I’ll call her to let her know you’re on the way. And no stopping for gas or cigarettes, you know she’ll be waiting outside on the front porch for you.”
“No problem, hon.” Usually he sounded like a beaten down man, but today he was almost perky. He was still Mimaw’s chauffeur, but he was through choking down her offering. During Mass his Alleluias and Amens inspired the congregation to lift their voices even higher. Pastor Paul clasped Dad’s hand with both of his after the service.
“Amen, Brother Rich. I heard the voice of our Risen Lord in your hearty responses and you filled our small church with blessings. Your happiness inspired the whole congregations to partake in His goodness.”
“Uh, thanks,” Dad mumbled. Ma saved him from more theological compliments. She squeezed Dad’s hand, and thanked Pastor Paul for a lovely service.
“You’ll have to excuse us, Pastor. Rich still has to pick up my mother, and I have a ham to take out of the oven.”
After we were out of earshot, Ma let out a laugh.
“I swear to God, Rich, I didn’t realize cake could lift your spirits to such heights.”
Dad slid behind the wheel, and looked serious for a moment.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, May. I know you love me, and everything…but this week, I listened to you stand up to Mimaw, and watched you sing while you bake. It’s…I don’t know how to say this right…May, you take such good care of things. You listen to Mimaw, handle the kids, the house. You’re the most popular neighbor around here. Jeez, even those Christian crones at church can’t gossip about you. People feel like they matter when they’re around you. And now, I feel like I matter.”
The silence in the car lasted all the way home. Not an uncomfortable, I’m-not-talking-to-you-after-a-fight silent. Or an I’m-so-bored grumpy silent. Or an invisible, if-I-stay-real-quiet-no-one-will-know-I’m-here silent. No, it was a perfect, my-heart-is-too-full-to-hold-anymore-goodness kind of quiet. Ma scooched over next to Dad, and laid her head on his shoulder. They held the pose the whole drive home. We sat back, and, I swear to God-no lie, the three of us held hands. No hidden hand spit or squeeze the fingers either. A perfect ride home.
Dad dropped us off, and before long the aunts, uncles, and cousins poured into our home. The perfect chaos of our noisy family replaced the perfect quiet we felt after mass. The uncles helped us serve whiskey sours to the women, and beers to the men. We refilled the bowls of nuts and chips, while Ma and the aunts moved between the kitchen and the dining room. Right before Dad and Mimaw were due, Ma told us to pick up the empty glasses and bottles. It was our favorite job because we could sneak the whiskey-sour marinated cherries from the bottom of the glasses before Ma or one of the aunts dumped the ice and washed them. The front door slammed. My cue to take Mimaw’s coat.
“Now make sure you hang it up, Audrey. Don’t just lay it on the bed,” Mimaw said.
“She knows what to do,” Dad replied with his head down.
“I’m just making sure I don’t carry everyone’s lint home with me.”
“I said, she knows what to do.”
In thirty seconds Mimaw sucked the perfect out of the gathering. The women scurried into the kitchen. The men grabbed another beer, not to be sociable, but because they knew they needed something to get through the next couple of hours with Mimaw. I noticed the package Dad carried when he pushed past me on his way to the kitchen.
“And watch how you’re holding the cake, Rich. We can’t have a decapitated lamb at the table. It’ll be all your fault though. There is no extra frosting for repairs. So. You. Be. Careful.” She raised her voice on each word because he didn’t answer with his usual ‘Uh-huh.’
He stomped into the kitchen and yelled, “Everybody out. Everybody except you, May.”
Ma and the aunts froze. Dad never yelled. He complained, grumbled, talked under his breath, ignored, rolled his eyes, sighed, hung his head, straightened up, looked away, but he never yelled. He opened his mouth, and before another word came out the aunts left to pour themselves another whiskey sour in the living room. Ma faced Dad alone.
At that moment, we hated Mimaw because she made our Dad yell. Mary clenched her hands. Jan’s eyes teared up, and I felt sick. Mary cracked open the kitchen door so we could peek in. We held hands to stay strong while we spied on them
“You told me, May. You promised,” he pointed towards the package.
“What are you talking about? Oh no! Hon, I swear. I told her. Look, I even baked both cakes for you.”
“It doesn’t matter,” and before Ma could speak, he turned and walked out the back door into the yard.
“Why are you girls crowded around the door? Get out of my way, so I can get this dinner started.” Mimaw barged into the kitchen just as the back door slammed shut. “Everybody is standing around like it’s a funeral with no body. Why do I always have to take charge? I swear there wouldn’t even be a ham on the table if I didn’t order it for you, May. I pray he didn’t wreck the lamb cake. You should have seen the way he grabbed it from me. No thank-you, no nothing. And May, he didn’t speak one word to me on the whole drive over here. Not even a Happy Easter or a how-do-you-do. Do I ever bring up my friend, Adelaide? No! How she receives an Easter Lily every year from her son-in-law? No, I swallow my pride in the name of family peace. I try so hard. I even remember to bring the cake without being asked.”
“I told you not to bring it.”
“That’s silly. Why would I allow you to break our tradition? I bring the Easter Lamb cake every year.” She glanced at Ma’s cakes resting proudly on the kitchen table. “You have too much dessert. You’ll have to give those to your neighbors.”
“I decided to serve a different cake this year.”
Mimaw smirked, “Hon, stop being silly, and help me with these green beans. By the way, Mary is too young for pantyhose. People will get the impression she’s a whore. I don’t know what you’re thinking sometimes. I said, help me with these green beans, May. Get a move on. Don’t look at me that way. At least I’m concerned about Mary’s reputation. Spend less time baking, and more time inspecting your daughter’s wardrobe. You know I’m right.”
Dad came in from the yard, and I swear if we didn’t see this with our own eyes we wouldn’t have believed it. In fact, we debated for weeks what really happened. Joan decided it was a drunken hallucination from too many whiskey-sour marinated cherries. Mary believed the door wasn’t open wide enough to give us enough perspective on the event. I know what I saw.
Ma glanced up when she heard Dad come in the back door. She stood at the kitchen counter and carefully unwrapped the package to reveal the Easter Lamb cake in all its fluffy white-frosted splendor.
“Pay attention to what you’re doing there, May. I can’t repair any mishaps.”
“Don’t worry, I am paying attention.”
On my honor, no matter what Mary says, I was not drunk on maraschino cherries. I know what I saw. For a moment, Ma and Dad silently looked at each other as if nothing else mattered. Then Ma turned away and placed the lamb cake on its special platter. Slowly, but with a focus I hope I never witness again, she picked up the carving knife held it over her head, and slashed it through the lamb’s neck. Mimaw’s eyes looked as wide as the creepy pair of jelly bean eyes staring up at Ma from the kitchen floor. For good measure, she smashed the head into a pulp with one stomp of her patent leather pump. Ma looked back at Dad.
“Rich, you and the girls get dinner on the table while I clean up.”
We stopped spying, and rushed into the kitchen to help.
“Here Audrey, take the biscuits. Mary, you grab the Jell-O mold. Oh, here Joan, God forbid we forget the sweet potatoes. Rich, you start carving the ham.”
Mimaw regained her voice, “I’ll do that. May, he’s using the wrong knife, and he’ll ruin the slices.”
But we were all too busy to pay attention to her. Mimaw pouted and tried protesting with silence, but it didn’t matter. Dinner was delicious, and Ma still let us have two glasses of soda with our desert even though we didn’t need it.
“It’s tradition after all,” Ma said.