These are the last gray days of what may be our last full thousand years--so maybe we should celebrate them as such. But they dog us so, these final few gray days; relentless in their severity and creative in their oppression, not content to merely breathe their deep sadness on us, they whine incessantly until we have become drenched with gray and even our skin turns cloud-colored and sotted as with a pastel charcoal. The wisest of our tribe observed long ago how even-handed our weather is, noting "the sun shines on all, on both rich and poor; and the rain, when it rains, it rains on us all." I notice that I'm not the only one who has grown mighty tired of this last bit of gray. In our beds and on our streets--whether we live in a palace, or among beggars--all of us are quietly tormented in our cloudy heads. This last winter of the last thousand years threw itself mightily on the rest of our land as well, but in my mind, their tempests were equals to our torment, because all we had to speak of was gray. Even our floods are gray. When mud pushes us off our hill into the ravine, it is only because the earth beneath us is as saturated with gray as the weeping firmament above.
The season changed last week--the last week of gray in this, the last of the last thousand years. The calendar announced that it was the first day of spring, and suddenly, as if on cue, the days changed as well. At least two of them did. Then the rain returned. At first it felt natural and sort of right. It warmed a little, and was partly sunny then partly cloudy, but then today? Today took such a turn for the worse. It was like the onset of bad news, like when what you know turns out to be much worse than what you've heard. This unending, plodding, immense gray, is now cold. The worms won't leave their holes and the birds stand there and chirp at the ground, sodden and complaining.
I called my grandma Rosia, my Chicago grandmother, who could tell us all a thing or 40 about gray days.
I tell her, "They gettin' to me, all these damned time rainy days."
"You know I don't like to hear that cussin'," she corrects.
"I don't mean it like that," I relent, "but I been here, for what, 20 years now, and it's gettin to me. I feel like I should do something about this rain."
"Ain't nothin you can do about rain. Besides gettin' out its way, ain't nothing nobody can do about the weather, so the first thing you should do is quit complaining about it. I know I ain't never been there, but does it really rain as much as they say?" she asks.
"Not in the way you thinking of. Most often there's no lightning and thunder, or even that much wind. Except lately, there's been more of all that than usual. I think I could take it better if the weather was worse. If it stormed like it does in the midwest; or if I thought the sky was mad, or at least temperamental. But it's not either. These days are stuck beneath expression like a three-month-old whine of gray," I continue complaining.
"Well, you know what I think you should do? Wait a minute..." She pauses to consider how much advice to give. "Did you call just to chat or did you want to visit awhile?"
Rosia is always very considerate of how one spends their time with her, particularly on the telephone. She hates spending money just to talk, and will never call me just to chat. Subsequently, she never calls.
"I'd rather visit a bit, if that's okay with you."
"Then let me go turn off my cabbage first." As she goes off, I think I can smell her cabbage being smothered in a cast iron skillet of boiling water, crowded with red onions, a chopped-up slab of thick-cut bacon, and spotted with tiny, lethal daggers of fresh scarlet chili peppers. When she returns I tell her the cabbage smells good. This makes her laugh.
"When's the last time you had you some cabbage?" And then, "Do those people eat cabbage out there?"
As if I live on some other planet.
She goes on, "Don't get mad when I ask you that. I know that different peoples gets used to different kinds of things. There's things out there y'all eat we prolly don't eat here."
"That's kind of true," I answer, "but we do have the same things out here y'all got back there."
"I was thinking that if you think my cabbage smells so good, then you should go out and make you some." I agree, and she continues as if cabbage was the thing I had called to get advice on.
"I ain't saying there's anything specifically about cabbage that'll make you feel good, except I do know that cabbage is good for you. And if you put things that are good for you inside you, you're bound to feel better. Just like I ain't gonna say that the rain ain't that bad where you live, but you know I don't believe in letting the weather--that you cannot control--get the better of your feelings."
I don't recall hearing Rosia complain even once about the weather, and Chicago has the most brutal weather of any city in these here United States. Rosia has survived recent winters where the temperature has dipped 20 degrees below zero. Add the unblocked wind that frequently slams into the city at gale force, and the wind chill can dip to a hellish 60 degrees below. More than once her power has gone out under these conditions. Last year she was snowbound inside her apartment for three days without heat, light, or electricity. In the summer, the temperature can soar to over 100 degrees with, inexplicably, no wind in sight. The homicide rate rises sharply during these months, but Rosia's temperament always remains the same. She fully realizes the senselessness of hating those things she cannot change, and she bears those things with 80 years' accumulation of enviable grace.
She interrupts my silent admiration: "Go ahead and make you some cabbage then, if you can get the stuff to make it. Do you still cook ?... You know you cook better than your mama. Nobody that can cook better than they mama should be unhappy on any day. I remember when you used to cook dinner and bake cakes. Can you still bake a cake?"
It's been years, more than a decade--no, more than two decades since I last baked a cake. I been so busy with having adventures and seeing sights. In the last 20 years I've been across the ocean, climbed mountains, cleaned toilets, walked with a million men, loved five or six of them, kept five or six more warm. I've fried a nation of chickens, learned to eat with sticks, regurgitated peyote, and witnessed marvels it will take two additional lifetimes to tell about--yet I have all but forgotten how to bake a cake.
"Time's once was when I was a girl," my grandmother reminisces, "cake-baking was all the extra fun we could have. Nowadays with radio and TV and movies and all the things that young peoples find time to go out and do, I still like to bake a cake. Even though ain't nobody in this house but me and my cousin Andrew, from time to time I like to throw a cake together, just for fun."
"Shoot--" I begin.
"Watch that cussin'!" she warns prematurely.
"All's I said was shoot...," I continue. "S'been so long since I baked a cake, I'm not sure I remember how."
"Hold on then while I get that recipe for you; it'll make you feel better."
In my heart's eye, I can see her rustling through a drawer in a cabinet made of tin, strong enough to hold tea-blushed cups, dessert spices, and rock sugar, along with a few recipes she has saved and used through the years. On her way back to the phone, she pauses in front of her skillet of cabbage, and pinches a bite to give her the strength to finish our visit.
"You'll remember how to make this cake once I tell you what's innit. It's a German Chocolate Cake, your favorite, three layers. Hardly nobody goes through the business it takes to make a three-layer cake.
"You should have most of these ingredients for the cake on hand, although you'll prolly need to go out and buy you a block of sweetened baking chocolate, about as long as your palm and a forefinger thick. Get you two cups of flour, and not that heavy hippie kind with the twigs and seeds innit. Get some cake flour. You'll need a teaspoon of baking soda, and not from that box you keep in the back of the Frigidaire to keep the stink down. Use that stuff and your cake'll end up smelling like stinky Frigidaire. Get a quarter teaspoon of salt, and mix that together with the flour and baking soda and set it aside.
"Next, melt you that chocolate in about a half cup of water. Don't melt it too hot or fast or else you'll burn it and ruin it, and that chocolate is too expensive for you to be running out and getting more. When you done that, set that aside and let it cool.
"You should prolly heat your oven up to 350 degrees. While that's heating up, get you two sticks of soft butter. Don't be cheap and use margarine, cause this ain't no cheap cake. If you ain't baked one in twenny years, you should have enough money saved up to afford you some real butter. Put your butter in a large bowl with two cups of sugar and beat them together until they get fluffy. Then get you four eggs. I like to think of my eggs as the sunshine I add to the earthy cake stuff. Separate the yolks from the whites, like you'd separate the sun from the clouds. Don't get none of the yolks in the whites, 'cause you gonna use them whites later, and even the teeniest bit of yolk in them whites'll ruin 'em. Add the yolks one at a time to the fluffy butter and sugar, fluffing them up every time you add one. Then add your chocolate to the mixture along with a teaspoon of vanilla. Set that aside for a moment, and grease you up your three cake pans.
"Then you get you a cup of buttermilk and start adding your flour to the egg/butter/chocolate mixture, alternating with your buttermilk. Don't add this last part too fast. You want to keep beating your mixture up, making it smooth. When you've added the last of it, set that aside and go get them egg whites. Clean your beaters real good and dry them. Then beat them whites in a bowl until they look like clouds--or snowy mountain peaks, if you tired of that cloud business. Then, ever so gently, stir that in with the other stuff. Gently mix it in, breaking them peaks as reluctantly as possible. Then, gently again, pour this batter into your pans, and put 'em into your hot oven.
"After 30 minutes your cake should be done. It should be springy to the touch in the middle. Take it out the oven and let cool for about 10 minutes. Separate the cakes from the sides of the pans with a dull knife. Let it cool completely before you fool with it any further.
"Now, your icing is made from pecans and coconut... and sugar and egg yolks and...."
"My roommate is deathly allergic to nuts," I warn.
"Then he ain't got no business eating no German Chocolate Cake."
"And neither do I," I add, "particularly a whole three-layer one all by myself."
"Well what you could do is just make a regular chocolate frosting, or leave the nuts and coconut out of it. Sometimes I cheats and buys me some store-bought frosting. But then half the time I end up pinching so much of it out the can, I have to buy another can for the cake. But in the end I get so busy mixing and preparing that I get jolted back to my normal self. I've filled up one more day with something good for myself and somebody else. And that's one more day I'm closer to the rest of my life in Paradise."