The picture is of Kathleen Russell of Walnut Grove, Alabama, from the 1931 Glomerata of Auburn University. You might have known her as Kathleen Miller, married to Ed Miller of Gadsden, Alabama. I knew her as Mother.
She died on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, died in her sleep at age ninety-two, which is why I’m thinking about her in the holiday season. I hesitate to tell her age—she always said a woman who would tell her age would tell anything—but her age says something about her health and spunk. The health ran out; the spunk never did.
One time she’d had an arduous trip home from London, flights delayed nearly a day. Dead tired, she heard the phone ringing as she turned the key in the lock. “Liberace? In Birmingham? In an hour? Sure, I can go.”
I can still see her fishing from the creek bank and frying up enough bream to feed a crowd at the 5W. I wish I’d seen a lesson one of her former home ec students told me about, when during the Depression she brought a live chicken to class to teach how to kill it and dress it.
She would like the photo I’ve chosen, when she was a beauty at Auburn. President of Pan-Hellenic also. And pinned to Shug Jordan. Shug was making a name for himself on the football field then. Now the legendary coach, the entire stadium is named for him.
A few days ago, Claire, my ten-year-old granddaughter and I spent an afternoon baking goodies for Thanksgiving. It reminded me of all the times I cooked with Mother when I was growing up.
We always made a coconut cake with lemon cheese filling and iced with divinity. It took all day and dirtied every dish in the kitchen.
I remember Mother hammering a nail into a coconut in three places to let the milk drain out. Then she’d whack the coconut until the nut split. We’d take the white meat out in chunks, then grate it into thin slivers for the icing. My job then was to grate several spoonsful of lemon peel. I always got tiny cuts on my fingers from the grater.
In the meantime, Mother was creaming the eggs and sugar, getting ready to fold in the dry ingredients, separating egg whites and yellows, the whites for the divinity and the yolks for my lemon cheese filling. A different bowl for each, spoons, spatulas, dishes, dishes, dishes.
The cakes were divine. She made enough to give as Christmas gifts and a tradition was begun, one that required eventually Divine Intervention. The list grew as she grew older, so that she organized a baking crew—Doris Morgan, Jane Skipper, and Pam Deru. Jane said she’d never experienced a drill sergeant before, but that mother could bark out orders, all the while motioning with the electric beater at full speed, sending missiles of white icing all over the walls and ceiling and the crew.
With help from the crew, she put out about twenty cakes each holiday. Wrapped them in foil and froze them to later tie up with a red bow and ship through the U.S. mail. At first the cakes were tall and beautiful, but the years took a toll on the cakes as well as Mother. They began to break apart or lean like the Tower of Pisa. Nothing could deter Mother from baking them or mailing them, despite the obvious lack of refrigeration.
Once she sent one to Frank III in Seattle, but it went to the wrong address and was returned to sender. She put another wrapping over it and this time took the same cake, punched and pummeled, more a trapezoid than a cube, to Fed Ex for a second trip across country. Frank III thought he spied penicillin growing on it so he recycled it in his garden without ever telling his grandmother.
We hoped others would be as vigilant, or Divine Intervention would take over.
I still have the recipe for the coconut cake but now it’s Frank III who bakes it. I have no doubt Mother was smiling in heaven when Claire helped me bake goodies.