My Mom Mom was beautiful. Beautiful in the way women born in the ‘20s were. She was always well-groomed and impeccably dressed while she buzzed about tending to and caring for someone or something. She was the daughter of a rural eastern North Carolina homemaker and farmer and a sister to nine brothers and sisters. Eventually, she met my Pop Pop and became a war-wife and, soon after, a mother. That's half of the story of how I came to be.
In all these stages, as far as I know, she was a God-fearing woman. She sat in the same spot every Sunday at church where her name was inscribed in the hymnals that rested in the pew in front of her. She never missed a Sunday at church, or a Wednesday, or a Friday for that matter.
Before any church bazaar (as we call church fundraisers in the South), she would hole up in her kitchen and make hundreds of cheese straws and a dozen of her famous carrot cakes. She was a one-woman operation who’d mix and bake up confections for months before an event. And her hard work paid off when people literally lined up for one of these beauties. It won a blue ribbon at the North Carolina State Fair one year and graced church cookbooks as "Neva Tee's Carrot Cake." In a life she gave so generously to others, it was, undeniably, hers.
I never got to taste a cake that she baked herself because I didn’t touch carrot cake when I was a kid. Like every child, I couldn’t really conceptualize carrots in a sweet cake. I inherited her original recipe card before I got married and now, the cake is one of my absolute favorites.
My Mom Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease when I was seven. The evolution of that despicable disease started with a complete sea change of her being. Stage one, she turned from the sweetest, gentlest, most loving and giving woman to an agitated, fidgety shell of herself. Stage two, she began heating Tupperware containers on the stovetop and my family had no choice but to house her in an assisted living facility.
She lived there for a brief time as her memory continued to slip—though I remember it more as a slide. Each visit, she resembled my Mom Mom less and less. After she fell and broke her hip, she was admitted into a nursing home where she lived out her days in a shared bedroom, curled up in a feeble, withering ball, watching fuzzy television and living in a world none of those who loved her knew.
Towards the final stage of this evolution, her sweet spirit prevailed. She beamed when you walked into her room, even though she didn’t know who you were. You could tell she loved you by the smile on her face and the notable energy she released into the unknown world around her. It was a light that brightened even more when she tasted her very own carrot cake, which we, her family, smuggled into the nursing home on more than one occasion.
Though I've never eaten a slice of carrot cake she prepared, I feel a strong sense of nostalgia when I bake this cake. Is it her recognizable handwriting on the recipe card? Is it knowing she followed these exact same steps that I follow today? Is it because I watched her make it before?
I don’t know if anyone has ever hypothesized or written about the correlation between nostalgia and a haunting, but I would bet that the two are synonymous, or at least closely connected. A haunting is uninvited. So maybe that means nostalgia is when we invite the ghost into ourselves.
In any case, we’ll call this a happy haunting, tied to memories and experiences with my grandmother that I didn’t know existed in my subconscious. I like to think my Mom Mom and I are sharing a moment together in my kitchen each time I bake Neva Tee's Carrot Cake.
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 cup vegetable oil (such as Crisco)
- 4 eggs
- 2 teaspoons vanilla, divided
- 2 cups self-rising flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 3 cups grated carrots
- 3 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
- 1 stick of butter, room temperature
- 1 cup chopped pecans
- 8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
What recipe connects you with family members who've passed away? Share with us in the comments below.