On my last birthday, my mother called me from Bangkok to give me her blessings — something she’d always done. Inexplicably, as I ended the conversation by telling her that I loved her, tears started flowing and continued on and off for hours afterward. And I couldn’t understand where the emotion came from. It was as if I knew.
Mom passed on peacefully two days later.
The room is full of you! — As I came in
And closed the door behind me, all at once
A something in the air, intangible,
Yet stiff with meaning, struck my senses sick.
One of the most difficult days of my adult life was the day I walked into Mom’s dusty room just a few weeks ago to collect her things and gathered up all the important documents which she left behind. I’d been dreading that moment and it took all the strength I had to do what I needed to do.
There is your book, just as you laid it down,
Face to the table, — I cannot believe
That you are gone! — Just then it seemed to me
You must be here. I almost laughed to think
How like reality the dream had been;
Yet knew before I laughed, and so was still.
That book, outspread, just as you laid it down!
Perhaps you thought, “I wonder what comes next,
And whether this or this will be the end”;
So rose, and left it, thinking to return.
The room had been left undisturbed since she was gone. Her diary was still laid open on her desk showing an unfinished journal entry. On her nightstand was a framed photograph of Dad looking so handsome in his full uniform. Right next to it was a picture of my brother and me, when we were little, sitting on a big rock under a chompu tree, making monkey faces.
You are not here. I know that you are gone,
And will not ever enter here again.
And yet it seems to me, if I should speak,
Your silent step must wake across the hall;
If I should turn my head, that your sweet eyes
Would kiss me from the door.
Mom’s unfinished crochet project sat on top of the dresser, collecting dust. In her desk drawers were stacks of notes and letters I’d written her since I started learning how to pick up a pencil and write. Somewhere in there was a box full of postcards Dad sent home when he traveled the world over as an officer pilot. Then sitting quietly on the coffee table was a tiny ceramic urn with intricate gold designs and pearl inlays.
There she was. My mother. In an urn.
Perhaps that chair, when you arose and passed
Out of the room, rocked silently a while
Ere it again was still. When you were gone
Forever from the room, perhaps that chair,
Stirred by your movement, rocked a little while,
Silently, to and fro . . . **
As knots started forming in my throat, my vision fell on something that made me smile. Nestled between two teak wood armoires was a stack of old cookbooks. Even from across the room, I recognized them immediately. When I was a kid, Mom made friends with some American missionaries who lived and worked in Bangkok. When these Americans finished their term and got ready to return to the States, she noticed they had this strange custom of laying miscellaneous items on the front lawn and sold them to whoever passed by for very little money.
“It’s amazing,” chirped Mom, “this American thing called a yard sale!”
And so we went to not one, but several yard sales, bringing home truckloads of cookbooks. Good Housekeeping. Betty Crocker. Better Homes and Gardens. The Frugal Gourmet. You name it, we got it. What we had the most fun with, though, was all the cheaply-made, pictureless church cookbooks. The quality of the recipes found in these modest-looking cookbooks, we noticed, often exceeded that of the recipes found in monthly American magazines. So whenever we saw one at a yard sale, we grabbed it in a purely nondenominational fashion — Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist; it mattered not. (Admittedly, we found the Mennonite recipes kicked butts. Yeah.)
Fascinated by the description, one of the first recipes Mom tried was this old-fashioned hot fudge pudding cake. A cake that forms a crust on top with pool of thick chocolate sauce underneath? It seemed so strange that we had to find out what the end result would look and taste like.
The way the cake was supposed to be made went against everything we knew about how to make cakes. It was extremely easy, but I remember us cringing the whole way through, thinking this would definitely fail.
It didn’t. The pudding cake turned out exactly as the recipe described. It wasn’t the most beautiful cake you’ve ever seen, mind you. But the aroma of the bubbling chocolaty goo wafted through the entire house making the mandatory 10-minute wait post-bake feel like an eternity to us. But oh, the wait was worth it. My mother took one bite, closed her eyes, and thanked the Christian God.
In attempting to recreate this cake, I have taken the liberty of adding an Asian twist to it. Coconut milk is used in lieu of cow’s milk and coconut or palm sugar is used in place of brown sugar. A very tiny bit of five-spice powder is added to the batter for that je ne sais quoi which everybody seems to like. I love the original, but this version is just as delicious — in a different way.
Once the oven is preheated to 350° F, I make the batter by whisking together 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup granulated sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1/8 teaspoon of five-spice powder (optional), and 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder. To the flour mixture, I whisk in 2/3 cup of coconut milk, 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract (or coconut extract), and 2 tablespoons of melted butter.Once the mixture forms a thick, cohesive mass, I spread the batter onto the bottom of an ungreased 8×8 glass or porcelain baking pan. One cup of finely grated coconut or palm sugar is sprinkled evenly all over the surface of the batter, followed by 1/4 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder. Then 1 1/2 cups of boiling water is poured on top of everything.
The cake is baked for exactly 30 minutes. At the end of the baking time, you’ll see that a crust has formed on the top with a pool of gooey sauce bubbling underneath. The cake needs to rest at room temperature for 10 minutes to allow the sauce to thicken up to pudding consistency before serving.
This post is affectionately dedicated to my mother — a cookbook addict who could have been spotted several years ago rifling through piles of old American cookbooks at yard sales with a funny-looking girl with pigtails (often dressed in a one-piece A-line mini-dress and a pair of junior cowboy boots) in tow.
**Interim by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1982-1950)