Let them bury your big eyes In the secret earth securely, Your thin fingers, and your fair, Soft, indefinite-colored hair,— All of these in some way, surely, From the secret earth shall rise; Not for these I sit and stare, Broken and bereft completely; Your young flesh that sat so neatly On your little bones will sweetly Blossom in the air.
But your voice,—never the rushing Of a river underground, Not the rising of the wind In the trees before the rain, Not the woodcock’s watery call, Not the note the white-throat utters, Not the feet of children pushing Yellow leaves along the gutters In the blue and bitter fall, Shall content my musing mind For the beauty of that sound That in no new way at all Ever will be heard again.
Sweetly through the sappy stalk Of the vigorous weed, Holding all it held before, Cherished by the faithful sun, On and on eternally Shall your altered fluid run, Bud and bloom and go to seed; But your singing days are done; But the music of your talk Never shall the chemistry Of the secret earth restore. All your lovely words are spoken. Once the ivory box is broken, Beats the golden bird no more.
It’s had a hard life. I referred to page 77 repeatedly during my Divinity Phase, when I was eleven. Every rainy weekend—and there were more of them back them—I made divinity. It never set. I knew it wouldn’t, and I didn’t care. I didn’t like divinity all that much, but I enjoyed using the candy thermometer. The divinity always turned out sticky and had to be eaten with a spoon, but it was perfectly good.
Anyway, the highlight of the cookbook appears in the back, written in pencil, under “Additional Recipes”: Tomato Soup Spice Cake.
I grew up hearing the Legend of the Tomato Soup Cake: “Ted [my mother’s uncle Ted Lynn] was always saying, ‘Crys, when are you going to make me a tomato soup cake?’ That was his favorite.” For some reason, maybe because my father was more of a chocolate- and lemon meringue pie addict, I never got a glimpse of the cake. I don’t think I wanted to. I was addicted to Campbell’s tomato soup (cream of, made with milk and mushy with saltine crackers) but cake and tomato soup sounded incompatible (like bleh). I was in my twenties when I finally insisted on seeing what Ted was so crazy about.
Well, Ted was right. For anyone who likes spice cake, this is the one. For anyone who doesn’t like spice cake, this could be a game changer. The layers are velvety. The icing is a candy in itself.
My mother got the recipe from—if I remember correctly—the wife of the Methodist minister in Martindale, Texas, in the late 1930s. Instructions were dictated and lack detail. I’ve inserted a few extra steps in brackets. Some I remember doing myself. My mom might have directed the operation the first time I baked it, or she might have written out a fuller version for me.
And before anyone asks, I have no idea how to define a scant teaspoon.
Tomato Soup Spice Cake
2 cups tomato soup [2 cups canned soup, not the entire two cans]
1 cup melted butter
2 cups sugar
3 eggs – optional
1 handful raisins
2 scant tsp. soda
[A wisp of memory said to dredge raisins in flour before mixing with other ingredients. Specifically, I remember saying, “What does, ‘Dredge raisins mean?'” BUT, on second thought, I believe dredged raisins went into my grandmother’s applesauce cake, not into the tomato soup cake. I hate to make this difficult, but I haven’t baked either since the 1980s.*]
Cream butter and sugar, add 2 scant teaspoons soda to soup and add to sugar and butter mixture.
[Add sifted dry ingredients to wet ingredients and blend.]
Add 3 tsp. vanilla to mixture.
Makes 2 large or 3 medium layers. [For best results, make 3 layers. See “Further instructions from Kathy,” below.]
[Pour into cake pans. Bake. Possibly at 350 degrees.]
1 Phila. cream cheese
? powdered sugar
[The corner of the page is missing, so I don’t know how much powdered sugar and vanilla are called for. Check online, act on experience, or guess. But if the online recipe calls for butter, don’t add it.]
1 C milk
2 C sugar
1 C dates [Pitted dates. And a warning: 1 cup doesn’t sound like enough. In fact, I’m not sure this makes enough icing to cover three layers. If you increase the recipe and have some left over, that will be all right, because the extra can be eaten as candy.]
Boil to soft ball and add dates before taking off.
Add 1 tablespoon butter afterward.
[Another warning: After butter is added, the icing may need to be beaten a bit. I think it does. Fudge and pecan pralines do.]
Further instructions from Kathy:
Now. Thisis what the all the fuss was about.
Make 3 layers.
Make the second “This” icing with milk, sugar, and dates. Ice the tops of layers.
Make the first “This” icing with cream cheese. Ice the sides of the cake.
My experience: Do nottry to slice in wedges. The candy icing hardens/sets and can make slicing difficult.
Instead, bisect the cake—a bread knife and a light touch can help—and then make cuts perpendicular to the cross cut. (The icing might have hardened because I cooked it too long. But I think it’s supposed to set that way. Like divinity does when the humidity is low.)
I’ve seen similar recipes online, but none looks like it would match this beast. Combine three layers of light, velvety cake with two kinds of icing, and the end product is simply devastating.
The Tomato Soup Cake recipe is included in a cookbook published by the Fentress Volunteer Fire Department Auxiliary (or maybe it was the church?) in the 1970s or ’80s. I don’t have my copy any more, so I can’t verify, but one of the ingredients may have been recorded incorrectly. I seem to remember—lots of my memories are wispy these days—using it and coming out with an unexpected result.
According to WorldCat,The Household Searchlight Recipe Book is housed in the collections of the Turpin Library (Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, TX), the Texas Woman’s University Library (Denton, TX), the Marfa Public Library (Marfa, TX), the Alcorn State University Library (Lorman, MS), the Perry Memorial Library (Perryton, TX), and the Conway Springs City Library (Conway Springs, KS).
It receives excellent reviews on Goodreads. Various editions are available on Amazon.
*I haven’t baked much of anything since the 1980s.
The Great Throwing-Away continues. I opened a bin I thought contained photographs but found more paper than photos. Cards. Letters. Newspaper clippings. Little bits of life.
And my mother’s diploma from Martindale High School in Martindale, Texas, which she received May 31, 1935. It’s signed by Chas. E. Lumpkin, Superintendent; Ruby C. Slaughter, Principal; and J. E. Carnes, Secretary of the Board of Trustees. I can’t decipher the school board president’s name.
The diploma was folded inside a little booklet embossed on the outside with the letter M.
I held one corner down with the copy of Twelfth Night she read for an English class at Mary Hardin Baylor College, and the other with a copy of Liz Carpenter’s Ruffles and Flourishes, given to her many years later by Nell Waller, a dear friend.
On the last page of the booklet, there’s a note from the superintendent.
Once upon a time, there were two little moose named Mervin and Leroy. They lived high up in the Teton Mountains.
One day, Mervin called out, “Merrrrrrrrrrrr-vinnnnnnnnnnnnn.”
Leroy heard and called out his window, “Whaaaaaa-aaaaaaaaaaaaaat?”
Mervin said, “Can you come out to plaaaaaaaaaaa-aaaaaaaaaaaaay?”
Leroy and said, “I’ll ask my mo-therrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.”
Both of their mothers said, “Yes, you may,” and bundled them up in long underwear and wool sweaters and mufflers and toboggan caps. Then both mothers said, “You may play on the mountain, but do not go down to the lake and go swimming. It’s too cold to go swimming.”
Mervin and Leroy said they wouldn’t.
So they met at their playground halfway between their houses, and they played and played and played.
Then Mervin said, “I’m bored. Let’s go down to the lake.”
“We can’t,” said Leroy. “Our mothers said not to go there.”
“I know,” said Mervin. “Let’s go down to the lake.”
So they trotted down the path. When they got to the lake, Mervin said, “Let’s go swimming.”
“But our mothers said not to,” said Leroy.
“It’s okay,” said Mervin. “We won’t tell them.”
“But we didn’t bring our bathing suits,” said Leroy.”
“C’mon,” said Mervin.
They took off their clothes and hung them on a bush and ran into the water.
They played and played and played. Then Mervin said, “I’m cold. And it’s time for supper. We’d better go home.”
They got out of the lake and ran to the bush where they’d left their clothes. But their clothes weren’t there.
“This is the wrong bush,” said Mervin. So they ran to the next bush, but their clothes weren’t there. They ran to another bush. Their clothes weren’t there either. They ran to bush after bush but couldn’t find their clothes anywhere.
That’s because while they were swimming, a great big bear came by and stole their clothes!
“I’m freezing,” said Leroy. His teeth were chattering so fast he could hardly talk.
Mervin said his feet were like blocks of ice.
Then they heard their mothers calling. “Merrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr-vinnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. Leeeeeee-royyyyyyyyyyyyyyy.”
“I think we’re in trouble,” Mervin. “Hide.”
They scuttled behind a bush. But their mothers were very smart and found them right off.
Mervin and Leroy were shivering and shaking. They were so cold they were turning blue.
Their mothers took them home and put them in their beds and stacked blankets and quilts on top of them, and put hot bricks in the beds to warm their feet.
But Mervin and Leroy had gotten so cold they caught pea-neumonia, and the doctor came and give them penicillin shots.
They had to stay in bed for a whole month before they got well.
And after they got well, they always did as their mothers told them, and never went to the lake when they weren’t supposed to, and never, ever hung their clothes on a bush where a bear might steal them.
Z Moral: Little moose who engage in risky behavior might end up being caught by a bear and sold to greedy animal hunters and sold to a zoo.
Mother Moral: You can probably figure this one out for yourself.
“The Story of Mervin and Leroy” is one of the tales my mother told me at nap time. I didn’t want to take naps but she did, so, once she got me on the bed, Scheherazade-like, she roped me in with plots–what happened next? – what happened next? – what happened next?–to keep me there till I fell asleep. She made things up as she went. Other impromptu offerings were “Rob and Nell Bluebird” and “Frances and Henry Redbird”–some readers will recognize the inspirations–but “Mervin and Leroy” was my favorite.
You can imagine my emotions when, in my teens, I was watching the afternoon movie and saw on the screen the words, “Directed by Mervyn LeRoy.”
“Motherrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr,” I said.
She said, “Uh-huh.”
I have never quite gotten over it.
Zither: from James Thurber’s “The Night the Ghost Got In”:
A young James Thurber hears noises downstairs, but when he investigates and sees nothing, he decided there’s a ghost. His mother throws a shoe through the neighbor’s window and shouts to him to call the police. The police come.
“Police were all over the place; doors were yanked open, drawers were yanked open, windows were shot up and pulled down, furniture fell with dull thumps. A half-dozen policemen emerged out of the darkness of the front hallway upstairs. They began to ransack the floor: pulled beds away from walls, tore clothes off hooks in the closets, pulled suitcases and boxes off shelves. One of them found an old zitherthat Roy had won in a pool tournament. “Looky here, Joe,” he said, strumming it with a big paw. The cop named Joe took it and turned it over. “What is it?” he asked me. “It’s an old zither our guinea pig used to sleep on,” I said. It was true that a pet guinea pig we once had would never sleep anywhere except on the zither, but I should never have said so. Joe and the other cop looked at me a long time. They put the zither back on a shelf.”
Martindale High School (Martindale, Texas) girls’ basketball team, 1935. My mother, Crystal Barrow is front row, center, holding the basketball. In those days, players were allowed to dribble the ball once before handing it off.
Tennis was her game. Lucyle Dauchy Meadows, my father’s cousin, told me, “When your mother and your aunt Mary Veazey played doubles, nobody in the county could beat them.”
Today would have been my mother’s ninety-eighth birthday. On last May 1, my father would have been one hundred.
When I take the time to really think about that, it’s mind-boggling. I can’t imagine them at those ages.
Mother used to tell a story about my great-aunt Lydia’s sixtieth birthday. Lydia, her mother, her two younger sisters, and two of her nieces–my mother and her youngest sister, who was generally referred to as “that cute little Betty,”*–went to dinner to celebrate.
Back home, my great-grandmother put on her nightgown and got into the big four-poster bed in Lydia’s downstairs bedroom. The other women sat around her and did what they always did when they got together–talked and laughed. No topic was off limits and everything was funny. A quiet child could learn a lot in those sessions.
That night, my great-grandmother, whom the younger ones called Grannygirl, sat propped against her pillows, old but still the quintessential sharp-witted (and sharp-tongued) Southern belle. While the others talked, she said nothing.
Finally, looking into the distance, such as it was, she uttered a single sentence: “Lydia, you’re sixty.” Her tone was contemplative, but it also carried an undertone of surprise.
In the silence that followed, Lydia said yes, she was.
A few minutes later, still gazing somewhere above her descendants’ heads, Grannygirl broke in again. “Lydia, you’re sixty.”
Again, Lydia agreed she was.
Another few minutes passed and Grannygirl said it once more: “Lydia, you’re sixty.”
Obviously having heard enough on that topic, Lydia responded, a bit sharply, “Well, Mother what does that make you?”
End of conversation.
I thought of that story because, like Grannygirl trying to get used to having a sixty-year-old daughter, I can’t quite get used to the idea of my parents at the century mark. At the same time, I believe, were they alive today, they would not have changed. I know, however, that to them, I would be radically different.
I wish they could have attended my wedding. I wish they could know my husband. I wish they could read this blog and my fiction. I wish they could read the pieces I’ve published. I wish they could know that, though I miss them terribly, I’m secure and happy.
One thing I’m certain of: If my parents had been here to celebrate my birthday a few years ago, we would have gone out to dinner, and then we would have come home and changed into more comfortable clothes. And then, while we sat in the living room talking about anything and everything, my mother would at some point have looked into the distance and said, “Kathy, you’re sixty.”
*Betty was short, had red hair and a sweet Irish face, and was drop-dead funny. She was everybody’s favorite, her nieces and nephews adored her, and she left us much too soon.
My grandparents, Mary and Marshall Barrow, had four children. My grandfather had been certain that each prospective baby would be a boy, but he ended up instead with four daughters.
One evening shortly before his death in the spring of 1940, he was lying in bed, listening to a radio broadcast of news of war in Europe. He knew the United States would eventually be drawn into the fighting.
Turning to my grandmother, he said, “I’ve lived to see the day when I’m grateful that all my boys are girls.”
*My aunt Barbara found this photograph with my grandmother’s face cut out, so she pasted one in from another photo.
My mother told a story about the first time she hosted Thanksgiving dinner in her own home. She’d laid out the china and the crystal and the sterling and the silver gravy boat my grandmother insisted every married woman must have (even when the married woman was going to live near an oil field where the silver would immediately turn black.)
Finished with the table, she indulged in whimsy. She went outside and picked some purple wildflowers she thought particularly unattractive. (“Ugly” was her exact word.) She arranged them and placed them on the table.
When my grandmother arrived, Mother said, “What do you think of my centerpiece?”
My grandmother, missing the humor, replied, “Well, dear, I think you did as well as can be expected, considering what you had to work with.”
That line entered the Waller Book of Familiar Quotations. We used it for every achievement: making pies, mowing the lawn, climbing on top of the house to turn the TV antenna, explaining first semester grades from college: I did as well as can be expected, considering what I have to work with.
I wish my parents could read that story. I wish they could see other things I’ve written. They would laugh at Miss Pinksie Craigo whacking her cane against a chair, and Mr. Archie Parsons using his favorite (marginally) un-blasphemous expletive, and Aunt Lydia…Oh my, I can just imagine them reading about Aunt Lydia.
Some old ladies are worth more than an ode. Some, however, are marked 75% off–too good to resist.
My parents were generous. They gave me language and laughter. I think they would approve of the way I’m using them. They would be pleased to know I’m trying.
If I could ask, I believe they would also grant permission: We gave you words. Use them as you will. No secrets. No holding back.
With such a blessing, a writer doesn’t have to be ruthless or to rob anyone.
She just has to do as well as can be expected, considering what she has to work with.