by Vivian Rinaldo
part 1 of 2
Cat was in the garden. Nannie called him Cat because that’s what he was. She didn’t hold with giving animals people-names. Nannie could hear him squalling at the birds who so deftly avoided his clawless front paws.
Chuckling softly, Nannie tied an apron around her ample waist and began setting out the ingredients to make a stack cake. She guarded the recipe jealously; it had been her grandmother’s and not an easy one to replicate. She had kept it only in her memory until her memory started to go, then she wrote it down and put it in her coffee canister. She prayed every night she wouldn’t forget where she’d hidden it. She looked around her sunny yellow kitchen and breathed a prayer of thanks that she could still find it when she needed it.
Her children, scattered out over the state, didn’t like her living alone now, and they strenuously objected to her cooking; they were afraid she’d forget the stove was on and burn the house down around her. She got one meal a day from Meals on Wheels, but the rest of the time they wanted her to eat cereal for breakfast every morning, and a sandwich of some kind each evening for supper. She was not willing to give up cooking for herself, but she taped up notes all over the kitchen saying, “Check the stove” to pacify them.
Nannie sighed and began mixing the ingredients for the stack cake. Her son had disconnected the gas stove, so she wasn’t able to cook with it anymore. He said he was scared she’d turn it on, forget to light it (it was very old, and she had to light each burner with a match), and die from gas.
Nannie was indignant, but she knew arguing that issue was a battle she could never win, and she was terrified her children would have her ruled incompetent and send her to an old age home, so she held her tongue. She wondered how long it would be before they refused to let her cook at all. For the time being they were willing to let her continue to use the toaster oven. It had a timer, so even if she burned something, it would eventually shut itself off.
She couldn’t drive; she had never learned how, and she was at the mercy of her daughter Darcy, who lived in a small town just west of her own. She hated having to ask Darcy to drive her to the Piggly Wiggly every Saturday; Darcy always made her call and ask, saying she didn’t want to waste a trip if Nannie didn’t really need anything that week. Nannie thought her daughter just enjoyed being in control of everything. Darcy was the only child who lived close enough to Nannie to help her, and Nannie didn’t dare antagonize her.
Quietly, while the cake was cooling, she made her grocery list. Milk, eggs, Arm & Hammer baking soda, yeast, baking powder, Eagle brand condensed milk, some ripe bananas, vanilla wafers. For a moment she considered what other items she might need that she’d forgotten. Finally, she rose and went to the pantry.
Opening the door, she saw rows of gleaming Mason jars filled with the vegetables and fruits she had canned the summer before. She dusted them regularly and enjoyed some nearly every day. She was careful not to use them up too quickly, because there would be no more.
With no stove to cook on, she could no longer can anything, and the few things she still raised in her small garden had to be eaten quickly before they rotted on the ground. She’d used to give away cans of food to her neighbors, but the neighborhood had changed, and she didn’t really know anyone there any more.
When the timer on the toaster oven went off, Nannie took the cake out and placed it on a rack to cool. Back to the list: new potatoes, salt substitute (which she thought tasted like tinfoil, but was forced to buy because her children worried about her blood pressure), oleo (she preferred real butter, but Darcy insisted on the fake kind with less cholesterol and fat), Crisco, and vanilla pudding.
Putting the list down on the table, she went back to the cooling rack, took the cake and began slicing it crosswise into half-inch layers. Once this was done, she pulled out a jar of apple butter (one of the few things she could not make for herself), and began layering cake slices with apple butter between them.
When she had all the layers stacked neatly and had spread the final layer of apple butter on top for garnish, she stepped back to see her handiwork. Beautiful, she thought, licking a smear of apple butter off her thumb. She got out the waxed paper and wrapped it carefully around the sides and bottom of the cake. She left the top uncovered for the “frosting” to get solid, and she put the entire cake in the fridge to keep for visitors.
She didn’t have many visitors, except for the Meals On Wheels lady, who had so many deliveries to make she didn’t have much time to chat. The preacher came by a couple of times a month to see her; she appreciated that more, because she lived so far out in the county he had to drive a good while to come. His visits usually only lasted an hour, but he always called to let her know he was coming, and she always had boiled coffee and cake or muffins for him when he arrived.
The preacher was getting on in years now, too, and the congregation had voted to retire him. They had already brought in a new younger preacher who was getting to know the church and its members, and they had given the old preacher six months to prepare for his retirement. She was afraid that after he was gone, she’d really be alone. She didn’t much cotton to the new preacher; she’d met him once, and he seemed to be in a great hurry. Even when he was sitting in her parlor, his movements told her that it was a mere courtesy call, and that he would much rather be somewhere else.
Her phone rang, but she ignored it. It was one of those cell phones with the great big numbers, and she still wasn’t too comfortable with a phone that didn’t have a cord. Mostly she figured it was somebody trying to sell her something or ask her research questions or some other tripe, and she just didn’t have time for that. She still had to clean up her kitchen and do her Bible reading.
Everything seemed to take her so much longer lately; she tired easily and had to sit down often, even when she was just standing at the sink, washing dishes. Sometimes her heart pained her a bit, but she didn’t tell the children that. She knew if she did, they’d pack her off to the old age home right away.
Now she sat down at her kitchen table for a rest, and while she was resting, it occurred to her that the preacher might have told her he’d visit today. She wasn’t sure she was remembering that right, and it worried her. But she had the stack cake ready, and she could make some instant coffee if he came by. She did need to change clothes, though; she had flour and baking powder all over her apron and some on her housedress.
She got up to head toward the bedroom; suddenly, she felt weak and dizzy and was afraid she might faint. She sat back down abruptly and was surprised when she broke out in a cold sweat. “Why, the Lord have mercy... what on earth is wrong with me?”
When the symptoms gradually went away, she relaxed and breathed a sigh of relief. “Well...” she said out loud. “Whatever it was, it’s gone now.” She rose from the chair, started toward the door to the hall and her bedroom, but she suddenly found herself short of breath and so tired... so tired. As she slid down the wall to the floor, she thought she might’ve gotten up out of the chair too quickly; after all, she wasn’t young anymore.
She sat there on the linoleum for a few minutes; as she waited for the weakness and dizziness to pass, she saw a paw reach through the kitty door and feel around, flexing nonexistent claws, a head and then a large ginger-colored body slinked through the opening.
Once all of him was in the house, the cat stood still staring at Nannie sitting on the floor, and if cats could have an expression, Nannie felt sure his was one of surprise. He eased along the wall to his food and water dishes, keeping her in sight, but not making direct eye contact. As he lowered his head to nibble delicately on his dry food, she was sure she was still present in his peripheral vision.
He finished his snack and lapped up a bit of water to cleanse his palate; the ritual of cleaning his face with licked paws began, and he studiously avoided looking at her, but she was sure he was keeping an eye on her.
“Oh, cat, if only you could dial a phone. I think I’m in a mess of trouble here.” Nannie sighed and eased herself down into a prone position on the floor, pressing her hot face against the cool linoleum. She knew she was trembling, and she was disgusted at her weakness. “For heaven’s sake, snap out of it, old woman. The preacher’ll be here in a while, and he’ll see to you.” It frustrated and frightened her that she wasn’t sure if he was really coming that day or not.
She flattened herself out on her back and folded her arms under her head for a cushion. The shortness of breath and weakness were just as real, but the dizziness had abated a little. “I’ll just rest here for a minute, and I’ll be fine. I just overdid, cooking in this hot kitchen.” The kitchen wasn’t especially hot, and she was shaking with cold, but she refused to pay attention to that.
“Maybe I just need to rest a bit. I did scrub the bathroom this morning.” She looked at the cat for reassurance, but he had decided that his toilet was finished, and she saw the stub of his tail exiting through the kitty door.
Copyright © 2011 by Vivian Rinaldo