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Friday, November 19, 2010

Apricot upside-down cake (best eaten with your toes)

Tomorrow, November 20th, 2010, is my friend Ginny’s 90th birthday. I discovered this fact two Wednesdays ago when I was conducting my last collaborative inquiry session for this year at Mary’s Woods, a continuing care retirement community. I read “A Legacy Tale: Part 3,” which felt like a keenly appropriate choice for our last session together, given that in it I tell the story of my friend Fred’s final physical decline at this time last year, as a way into telling the tale of how my relationship with Fred continues in the present, though he is no longer alive, he’s gone back to the stars. Any way, as almost always happens in my current writing projects, I mention food, and my friend Ginny happens to be cut from the same cloth as I am: she loves to talk about, cook, and eat beautiful food. And so, after the pause that happens after I’ve finished reading to my old friends at Mary’s Woods, Ginny mentioned that her 90th birthday was coming up and that her family wanted to throw a big party for her. And knowing their matriarch, they knew she’d have strong opinions about the food to be served at the birthday party. So, she told her grown-up children that she wants a bunch of different kinds of classy finger-foods and her most favorite cake ever for her birthday celebration.

Ginny’s favorite cake ever is a bit unique: upside-down apricot. As she knows best how to make it, she’ll be making her own birthday cake, thank you very much! Her twin six-year-old great-granddaughters, upon hearing about the fact that Ginny wants an apricot upside-down cake, asked what on earth such a cake is, as they are accustomed to the usual chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, etc. The Great Grandmother informed them, “Well, an upside-down cake is a cake you eat while standing on your head!” One of her great-granddaughters became very concerned that if she stood on her head to eat cake, Ginny would fall and break a bone, as she’s already suffered nine broken bones in her later years. The other great-granddaughter thought eating cake upside-down was the coolest, funniest thing she’s ever heard, and it is now her favorite story, which she tells anyone who will listen. She’s also prone to slightly embellishing the story; not only must one stand on one’s head to eat apricot upside-down cake, one must eat it with one’s toes!

In the Oregonian, the Sunday before last, a photo of twenty-year-old Ginny was published on the page that has obituaries, wedding and anniversary announcements, and birthday tributes. Ginny’s kids found the photo after much searching and sent it to the newspaper and asked that it be published to mark their mother’s 90th birthday. At our inquiry session, after she talked about the apricot upside-down cake, Ginny talked in a way I found very interesting about her feelings in reaction to seeing the photo. Before our eyes, she critically reflected upon the fact that she recognizes that girl whom she used to be, the lovely girl in the photo, she remembers how she felt 70 years ago – the quality of her energy, her joy, her zest for life, how funny she was. All those years ago, long before having children, caring for a spouse after his stroke, single motherhood after he died, re-careering to become a teacher, remarrying, become a widow once again, and relocating from her own home to Mary’s Woods. What Ginny engaged in before us was less reminiscence about the past, more marveling at who she is in the present, the quality of her energy now, what brings her joy now, the centrality of humor in her life as an almost-90-year-old; her 20-year-old self is a foil for her current self, almost a visitor from the past here to tell her secrets about who she is now, and what the future might hold. At one point in her narrative, Ginny admitted to us that she thinks quite a bit, especially as she’s falling asleep at night alone in bed, about how she probably has only a few years ahead of her—or, rather, she says, fewer years to live than she’s already lived. She tries to describe how her experience of her daily life is shaped by this profound recognition of her own temporality and mortality, but she says she’s still pondering all of it and will get back to us after she thinks awhile longer. And celebrates her 90th birthday.

Happy birthday, lovely Ginny.

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