Mourning My Mother with Lemon Cake

Alexis McCowan's mother Yan wasn't the world's best baker, but she cooked with love and adventure.

Illustration of the writer, her mother, and a lemon layer cake
Photo: Meredith Digital Design

My mother strolled through grocery store aisles in comfy nurse clogs and bootcut jeans, no matter the season. This place was her wonderland. Jumpy toddler in tow, she read every nutritional detail, then grabbed ingredients from left to right. Oreos, lemons, off-brand cake mix, gummy worms, without having the slightest idea what she would make next.

As a child, I observed my mother, Yan, at each step of the cake making process. I stood in a wooden chair when I was too short to see what she was concocting on the table. My eyes were glued to her round eggshell-colored bowl. She was a wizard in her kitchen lair and her cakes were her hand-crafted potions, secret to everyone but her daughter, who she never shied from showing her process. I watched her add sugar, slightly softened butter, milk, flour, and a special ingredient of her choice—normally something on sale.

MAKE: Our Best Lemon Cakes

I observed her as the mixer did the heavy lifting for her, until the day the mixer broke, and then she whipped ingredients together with a little elbow grease. "Oh my stars," she would say as she rolled her mahogany eyes. My mom was a relentless fighter and she never gave up, especially not on her cakes. She taught me that each part of the cake making process was unique and designed to make everything look, taste and feel better in the end.

Her cakes didn't always come out perfectly. Sometimes she would go off and do other tasks as her treats baked in the oven—like talking to my grandma about the latest Rocky Mount Newspaper as she waited. She had a tendency to get distracted by the gossip of the day.

She traveled with the wind and always kept it fresh. 

As the smoke infiltrated her nostrils she said, "Hold on mama, I think my cake is burning." She pulled the cake out and let out a huge sigh. Then said, "Well Lexi-Mae there goes our cake." She laughed it off and tossed it in the trash. Lighthearted she was. Never thought twice about the things that went wrong because she traveled with the wind and always kept it fresh.

MAKE: Lemon Pudding Cake

My mother was nowhere near the greatest baker but she had something not a lot of people have: gumption. She was fearless and resourceful, and her spontaneous treats were an example of that. My mother always had a trick up her sleeve. One year she decided to make a cake for a family event. Not an ordinary cake, a dirt cake. Vanilla pudding, heavy whipping cream, cold milk, and Oreos crumbled to her liking, layered with mischief and love. If you think it sounds silly, she did her job.

My aunts and uncles sang, "Yan, what in the world is that?"

She responded with a slick smile, "Try it and see."

Last month I decided to bake a cake. A birthday cake for myself. Lemon cake with cream cheese frosting.

I grabbed my reusable tote and headed to the grocery store. I scanned the aisles with my teal Crocs and my mom's bootcut jeans. Grabbed my ingredients. Vanilla extract, honey, oat milk (it's a new age and I have to use healthier milk) and lemons.

Lemons are my key ingredient. My mom loved lemons. Lemon pound cake, lemon tea, lemon water. She was an admirer of the sunkissed fruit, which is why I made a zesty lemon cake.

I walked in my front door, left behind the bustling streets of Washington, DC, entered into my empty, peaceful row home. Everything seemed quiet without my mom's vibrant voice filling the space.

I spread my ingredients on the marble kitchen counter, pulled out measuring cups, and scrolled to the recipe on my laptop. I read over it for a moment and decided against following the recipe. My mom's spirit guided me through the process. I closed my laptop and proceeded.

You don't need this recipe. Sometimes you just go for it and ask questions later.

My mom says, "You don't need this recipe. Sometimes you just go for it and ask questions later."

That's what I want to do for the rest of my time on this earth. Go for it. Try that curry recipe that I never thought I could ace. Take a dance class even though I haven't touched a ballet slipper since high school. Write although it feels like my world is crumbling with every letter I add to this document while simultaneously helping tape me back together.

I packaged the cake up and I will cut it on my birthday.

This will be the first cake that I will eat without sharing a piece with my mother. This year marks great loss, life defining accomplishments, and plenty of assorted cakes.

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