Nana had been dreaming about sponge cake.
She arrived at the rest home the week before Christmas, lifted into her room from the huge jaws of the ambulance gurney that brought her, and she looked afraid, her blue eyes wide with distress. There seemed to be the feeling that she had ended up there before her time, if that is possible at 91.
I have always wondered if old people are as scared of dying as the young. It's not an easy question to ask. I figure this is perhaps one of the consolations of ageing; that you come to accept death but it seems more likely that because you have collected more things, more children, more grandchildren, more great-grandchildren, it gets harder to let them go. Then again, a long life means endings that play over and over. Nana held on to her newspaper subscription for the death notices more than the news and most days she would know someone as she read through the list, shaking her head and tut-tutting, as if to say, "What a waste it all is."
On that day as she arrived to the bed that would house her for the last act, Nana was afraid to be landing there and so were we, afraid of what it meant. We were all afraid of what was ahead of her, be it the hospital food she would have to eat after a lifetime of good cooking, hearing the cries from dementia patients in the surrounding rooms, or her end. Probably all of it. If she were smaller she would have clung to us. She called it a jail and we all tried to jolly her out of her scepticism. "But look at the tranquil view!" In jail, we said, you can't leave if you want to. In truth, Nana couldn't leave even though she wanted to, her body couldn't even get her to the dining room to eat her meals with company.
Mum had spent days preparing her room with great care. She had sent me on missions to get matching pillows and blankets, the right colour tinsel to decorate for Christmas.
Photos had been pinned to the wall, a small fridge loaded with custard and fruit and juice boxes and wine. We made sure the television was turned on as she arrived, hoping that the constant beeping from emergency buttons would be drowned out by her beloved sport channel. But Nana didn't notice any of that, she looked to be in a state of shock. A skinny old woman wandered in with her arms outstretched and touched each of our faces saying, "Oh, so beautiful, so beautiful." Dad took her hand to walk her back to the room and on the way out, she stopped in front of my mum. "This is my wife," he said to her.
"No," she replied, "there are plenty more," and on she shuffled, back to her room, staring intensely through everything.
As we were about to leave that night, we asked Nana if we could get her anything and she closed her eyes and she smiled and said, "I've been dreaming about sponge cake."
It's hard to see someone you love so vulnerable and if she had said, "I have been dreaming about a rare kind of seafood that can only be found in Japan" I would have gone across continents to source it for her immediately, so a sponge seemed utterly feasible.
Baking for someone is a kind of relief. When we do it because the recipient has weathered something — some kind of loss, or arrival, baking is something tangible we can offer up in a time of need. When my son was born in August, the Tupperware containers full of food that arrived humbly on our doorstep were so useful and given with such kindness in a way that speaks of an era that's passed, that it still chokes me up to think of it.
Nana was that kind of baker, always doing it for others. She was that kind of woman.
She was a utilitarian baker, too. She liked to fill people up with food. She was real happy when those at her table had a full plate and ate the lot of it. As kids, when we came home from school, the pantry was never without tins of her baking. They weren't always culinary delights, but they were always there. She was born of a time that had to make do, and never came to grips with her grandkids meeting at cafes to buy coffee and cake, she would shake her head, "What, are you made of money?" When we would all call from across the world on OEs to say hello to Nana, she would sound impatient to get us off the phone, anxious about the phone bill. "Save your money!" she would say, as though talking to her was a waste of it. But we all missed being away from her and it was a comfort to hear her voice.
I remember Nana's sponge cake from my sunny youth, melting on the tongue, getting one generous slice each before it was gone. A fully devoured cake is one that has been consumed in celebration and sponge cakes charged full of cream were just the thing. At first, I think she had mixed feelings about my decision to master her piece de resistance. I told her that I had taken home her two tins and she seemed irritated, telling me to make sure I took them back, so she could use them when she came home. I had wanted to make them to cheer her up, as a reassurance that she would live on through even the simplest of things, that we would make her recipes and think of her in delight for the rest of our days. But how could there not have been some grief in her knowing cakes would be eaten for celebrations in the future she would not be part of?
Someone asked her one day at the rest home how she liked it there. "I feel rage at my body that is hard to accept," she said. She wanted to be able to keep going. Once, she pulled the sheets back from her bed and made to leave, "Come on," she said, "let's get out of here," and I wished with everything I could take her with me.
Eight sponges in as many weeks
Instead, I went home and I baked, eight sponges in as many weeks. The first one didn't make it past the kitchen sink, where I shoved most of it down the waste disposer — even the dog wasn't interested — and I spent hours that night on YouTube watching cooking demonstrations about beating egg whites to form stiff peaks. It was surprisingly addictive.
I prepared for the next sponge as though running a race. Speed is key, or so the research suggested. A hot oven. Eggs beaten just so. I read and reread the instructions so that no time would be wasted, felt nervous just before I started. For Nana, I wanted to get it right.
The second attempt was presentable. I hammed it up with a bottle of whipped cream and sat it on a pretty plate and carried it to the rest home, past the old people's rooms full of black and white pictures of their wedding days, pictures of their grandchildren, pictures of their young selves in short shorts with long legs and soft hair on holidays, at parties, anniversaries, when they were out there in the world; past the man who sat with his wife all day stroking her neck, bending over to feed her each meal with such care and difficulty; past the faded Renoir in the hallway of a jubilant picnic scene; past the old woman who seemed to endlessly be yelling "Help, Help"; past the patients' washing that hung ready to be collected, a T-shirt at the front saying "my favourite party trick is not going".
I arrived with napkins and a knife in a plastic bag and placed the cake on the tray in front of her. She gasped, sat up, her eyes full of tears. "Darling," she said, "You're so good to me." Nana wasn't always one for soft words, but she began reaching out her old hands to be held by her loved ones in her final years, whispering softly about sentimental things.
Something about Nana changed when her grandchildren progressed through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. She mellowed. As a little girl, I remember being scared to move when she babysat; as she sat on the stairs until my brothers and I went to sleep, flaring if we so much as turned on our sides. Sometimes she would pick us up from school and if we were caught dawdling to the car, she would hop out and yell with a European fieriness that denoted her ancestry and hard upbringing, a zeal not often unleashed in the streets of suburban Hamilton. She never had many friends. Not because she wasn't nice, but because she didn't care to, because family was her life.
My sponges soon became a treat between the two of us. I would make the cake, load it up with cream, put it on a pretty plate and present it to her in that little room. She would sit up in bed and eat it like a judge on the panel of a baking show. On those visits, she became master of the kitchen again. She would tell me if the oven needed to be hotter, if I didn't line the edges of the tin properly, if there was too much flour or too little, "I'll show you one day I hope, love. Maybe soon," she said.
My cakes looked brittle, like giant scones, lopsided, dry, sunken in the middle, and always she said they were almost perfect, though I'm sure she was proud to be the undeniable reigning champion. I ordered a giant book called The Cake Bible and when it arrived, I hurried straight to the sponge section. "Heat the eggs," it offered, "work quickly, fold flour gently but thoroughly." I tried all kinds of recipes from old cookbooks, from Alexa Johnston, Al Brown, all with surprising twists and tricks, but always Nana seemed to know when I had deviated from the classic Edmonds variety — the only sponge she approved of.
When I shared my baking missions, friends tried making their own sponges and we conversed at length about oven temperatures and the merits of plain versus high-grade flour. I told Nana I intended to keep making the damn things until I reached some level of mastery and she said, "Careful love, or you'll have a gut before you're 40."
Sometimes, on the worst days when medication had altered her otherwise sharp state of mind, I would visit with a cake and she made no sense.
"Nana, do I use four eggs, or three, boiling water or none?" I would ask while she looked out the window, mildly enquiring about the time of day.
"It's 12 o'clock," I told her.
"Midnight," she asked.
"No, Nana, the middle of the day."
"I can't believe I'm so close to town," she said, "I feel a milllion miles away."
"You're the granddaughter who bakes the cakes," one of the carers said to me as I walked to the car one day. To our family, the staff where Nana stayed were akin to gods; they showed love for someone we truly loved and what more could we ask for? I laughed and told her I tried but had nothing on my nana's cooking. I made a mental note that I would make a sponge to thank them for their astonishing care and drop it in to them in the coming weeks. I knew my nana would like that, filling the tummies of all the people who cared for her.
There was so much to say at the end. I worried about running out of time, I wasn't sure what I needed to know, what I needed her to know.
"Nana, what makes a good mother?" I asked, holding her hand.
"You can never love a baby enough, ever, ever," she said.
My nana lived to see my baby born, she held him in her arms. Each night that passed as she lay in that room, I wondered if she would be there for the next one to sing to him again, to offer advice, to pass the time of day together. Each night I visited, her goodbyes were longer, her last words always "I love you" as I walked out of that room and up the long corridor into the night.
*SHORTLY BEFORE CANVAS WENT TO PRINT, AIMIE'S NANA, AUDREY CRONIN, DIED, WITH HER FAMILY AROUND HER.