Apple Cake: Winifred Mumbles

It’s my birthday. Think I might be seventy-eight. Hard to keep track of things like that. There was that kerfuffle over calendars, some folks demanding a clean slate. As if the year number could erase history. As if anything could clean up this mess. But if it makes them feel better, it also doesn’t hurt much, setting a new year one. And I guess the last year one was sort of arbitrary anyway. I was born before year one. We’re in seventy-two. I think. Not exactly written down anywhere. So I can’t be certain. Not much certain anyway.

Used to be something, birthdays. Mama made apple cake. Even in the wandering years. Amazing that we could always find apples. Flour could be tricky. Some years, I think we stayed put for the growing season just so she could bake a cake. Corn. Wheat. Rye. Rice once. Only once. Rice flour is like quartz sand. For all that rice is a soft grain. But no good with apples. Haven’t had rice in decades. They grow it down in the valley sometimes, I hear. Never bothered with it. Corn is good enough for me. 

With age comes nostalgia. Which is also amazing. Why reminisce when yesterday is over and good riddance? Because it’s my yesterday? Not even sure of my yesterdays. I remember cake. I remember Mama’s hands covered in dough. Dough monster, she used to say, waggling eyebrows and sticky fingers at tiny me. Before year one. Probably. Think we came here not long after that.

Is that a memory or just a guess? They used to write so much more, back before year one, or rather in between the year ones. And even then they couldn’t remember enough of the past to know what to expect from the future. I sift through my past to give the tea leaves a break. But there are so few precedents. Hard to make any predictions. Can’t even be certain of what was. Except the cake. I know the cake was real.

Should bake one for myself. Share it with the hens.

Not much wheat flour left though. Awkward time to be born, between the equinox and the solstice. Don’t know what Mama ate in those last weeks. Summer harvest, fall abundance. Then a whole lot of not much. Said she ate acorn flour. Would explain why I’m such a bitter old bat. Well preserved in the womb already. Tanned. But there were apples. Wherever she went.

Things to be grateful for: those who plant apple trees for the future.

Apples, acorns, hickory nuts. Some years it was little more than a griddle cake. But there was a song. Anyway, I remember the existence of a song. Not the song itself. Was simple and stupid, like the best things. It was important to the cake. Ritualizing cake. And there was a wish. Got to make one wish each year. But never share it. Part of the charm, I suppose. There’s power in secrets. That’s why nuts have shells after all.

Don’t remember most of the wishes. They were scattered across the plains like dandelion fluff. Secrets dropped along the way. Though we never followed that trail back. We found here. And from then, the wish is always the same — that we never be forced to wander, that there always is flour, eggs even. And piñon nuts. And all right here, just waiting to be cake in the waning year.

Haven’t made a cake in years. Nostalgia does not seem to help remember what day it is. So as the days grow short, I tend to forget which is which. Don’t know why I remembered today.  Is there a significance to that? Mama didn’t believe in omens. She believed in apple trees and hard work. Perseverance. Pretty much just that. But sometimes I think there are strings underneath the days, tying it all together. Pull a bit here and something two hundred years away in any direction will quiver. Feel the resonance with the things you haven’t seen. Yet. And then you remember what hasn’t happened as it is happening. Wonder if apple trees feel that in their roots? A shiver of what is to come, to know whether to put all that effort into apples or to just make a few. Or none. Sometimes there is just no reason except that there are no apples. Wishes notwithstanding.

But now that I’m remembering, maybe I’ll bake that cake. Should be able to get more flour by the solstice. Valley is covered in nodding green. Some of that has to be wheat. Or rye. But I’d prefer wheat. Can’t grow it up here though. Even if I had the space. Don’t have the water. Don’t have rights to the water. Don’t have a nice level place to dump water either. Not big enough for wheat anyway. Well, maybe one cake’s worth, but that’s a lot of work for one cake. Not even Mama would have countenanced giving over than much time and effort and water and soil for just one cake. Not even a ritualized cake with a song I can’t remember.

I remember the year one cake. Everybody was one year old on their birthday that year. Was a tiresome joke by the time it got to my second first birthday. Yes, yes, yes, very funny, said tiny wise old owl, well-tanned me. Now let’s get to the wish and the cake please. But it was a good year. There was enough flour. Enough to keep the bread culture going. Enough to eat well right through the in-between times. After the solstice. After the equinox. When not much is coming out of the earth, not much hangs on branch and vine. Not much. But most years it’s still enough.

Cause for amazement: in all this dearth, we are rarely hungry.

But the second first birthday cake was wheat flour ground fine. A crumb so light it was like spring breezes, sweet and satisfying. Haven’t had many like that in all these more than seventy-two years. Maybe renaming the time was auspicious. Interesting that they do that and then the harvest is good. But can’t be any relationship. Except those hidden strings. All those strings weaving the world together in miraculous synchronicity. Maybe because we just happen to be looking. And when we don’t, then the miracles cease to appear. There never was another cake like that one though. Maybe that’s just nostalgia burnishing the what was into something finer, something more worthy of being remembered. Memory must be sorted and sifted. There is such a lot that can’t fit. What’s left has to be worthy of the spot, I suppose. So we paint our memories in fine flour and apple cake. And Mama.

And song.

There is something to that ritualizing. It holds the memories better. It makes more times that are worthy of preserving. Sets apart this special time from the daily rounds. An exclamation mark on the moment. Here! Here! Here! Remember me! Song keeps the memory. Even when you can’t remember the damn words. You can remember the feeling. The warmth. The scent of baking. The cold air as Mama comes in the back door from gathering. The anticipation of apples. Just hum the tune and it all bubbles up from wherever it is memories go when unremembered. 

I still have my rituals. The day-markers. The time-keepers and memory-crafters. I know it is my birthday because I watched the second full moon after the equinox rise yesterday evening. No fanfare to my rituals, but they work nonetheless. And I know that song. It has no words for me to forget. No words. Just wonder.

Like memory. 

I think I will bake that cake. And sing myself a song. And make a wish to keep nut-shell secret.

Though it’s not too secret. It’s always the same wish. That I go on for a while longer in this beautiful world, in this beautiful place. I’ve no wish for wandering. My memories are clear on that. Even so many decades removed. I’m not made for the ambling life. Don’t think anyone is. We do like to know where the next meal is coming from, after all. Can’t know that when you step off into the unknown.

Also, I prefer my own bed. Like most good garden beings.

Memory is hazy on many things. There is gauze over even the color of Mama’s hair. But I feel those quivers of past and future best when I am rooted here. When I have the scents of autumns washing over me. When I hear the canyon winds dancing through the apple branches. Even when I sweep the sand from my doorstep. Maybe especially then. And all those other mundane tasks that add up to a life well lived. Embodied memories.

Dancing through the years. From year one to year one to year one. With apple cake and song to mark the way points.

Many happy returns of the day, they say. Many happy returns. And many unvarnished memories of enough. Enough to be content.

Now, I wonder if there are any late-season eggs…

©Elizabeth Anker 2021