My family copes with my sister’s murder in various degrees.
For example, I make my brain numb for almost a year with merlot, cabernet, pinot noir, Mary Oliver, and Jesus. I can’t walk or breathe after the execution, but I can write. This is my sanity, my death, my new universe.
This is my escape from the darkest dark.
We do whatever we do to stay alive. We must keep walking, sleeping, awakening, smearing on red lipstick, and pretend we are breathing.
My mother bakes cakes with buttermilk.
She bakes chocolate cakes with old-fashioned cocoa icing, rhubarb-strawberry cakes, vanilla cakes spilling over in powdered sugar, and pumpkin cakes covered with Philadelphia cream cheese. Nothing she creates comes from a box.
“Sweetheart, did you know I can bake four or five cakes from just half a gallon of buttermilk?” She says.
When I walk into my mother’s house on Seaver Avenue & 95th— the aroma of cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, and brown sugar fills air like a resurrection. These scents are soothing, familiar, but at the same time, her tears. She passes slices of cake out to visitors and family on crimson china like kisses.
“Here, have some cake, you’ll feel better.” She says. What she doesn’t say is, “Please, eat this, and I’ll feel better.”
We used to open the front door after school to those same smells, that same abundant love. My stay-at-home mother is in her avocado-green kitchen baking cinnamon buns, or chocolate chip cookies, or her famous cakes with fluffy white and chocolate frostings. She is relentlessly contented, reachable, and exactly where she wants to be. It takes me several years of judgment and arrogance to realize this fulfilled, simple life was another form of feminism.
I have a dream that my sister walks through my mother’s kitchen door as if nothing has happened, sits down at the table and asks for a piece of cake…
“Where have you been,” I ask. “I’ve been looking for you.”
“Right here,” she says.
But she is gone. Gone. Three bullets. Then gone.
And we are desperately trying to hold on to what remains. A flower left out. An empty chair.
We do what we do to survive.
My mother bakes cakes with buttermilk. This is her mourning, her church, her daily hymn.
This is how her hands talk and breathe, how her polished fingers grasp what is needed to measure, stir, crack eggs, and fold loss into her stainless steel bowls.
Nobody said life would be easy.
But I’m here to tell you life can still be miraculously beautiful.
Lemon tulips still bloom. Spring still begins. Poetry still rises.
…And my mother still bakes cakes with buttermilk.
—Help for Domestic Abuse:
CALL the National Domestic Abuse Hotline TODAY: 1-800-799-7233