There’s an old picture of me in the Worcester Telegram that, to me at least, has always been apocryphal. I know the date that it was published—January 30, 1979—but I don’t have any memory of the day the photo was taken. I was too young to remember, even though I look a little older than my 19 months (all that hair!).
The article, “From Russia with Recipes,” is about my mother, a recent immigrant and aspiring caterer who was working on making a name for herself baking elaborate sweet and savory pastries and new-to-her American dishes—stuffed mushrooms, apple pie—that challenged her and delighted the people who got to eat them.
There she is in the photo, propping up a glistening cabbage pie that she had made just for the shoot. There’s my older sister next to us, looking off to the side, androgynous with a striped turtleneck and short, disheveled hair.
I look a little disheveled, too. I have my eye on the prize: A huge cake, a regal Torte Nord topped with raspberries, its sides paved with crushed cookies.
“Mrs. Gershenson monitors her family’s sugar intake carefully,” writes the author, Marcia O. Burg. “For a tasting session of Russian recipes, however, she sidestepped an everyday prudent diet to create a Torte Nord, a superb multi-layered torte resplendent with custard and chocolate. Strictly a festive-occasion concoction, it’s of Scandinavian descent, she said, though indigenous to Leningrad.”
The cake is enormous even by grown-up standards, alternating layer after layer of sponge, custard, chocolate cream, and crunchy biscuit. A veritable mountain for a little girl.
I don’t know who that girl is. The photo has always held a mystery. By the time I was old enough to comprehend the clipping—maybe 5, or 6—I had long since learned how to behave. Of course, I wanted to stick my fingers in cakes, but I wasn’t going to do it. I knew there were consequences. But in that photo, I was a feral lover of sugar, a furry ball of id. I did whatever I wanted without fear.
I always admired that girl. As a kid, when I wanted something that was out of my reach, I wheedled, I whined, I even threw tantrums. But I never just took it. I like that the girl in the paper just took the cake. That, to me, is what the story has always been about.
But it’s actually about my mother. Do you remember that moment when you realized your parents are people too? Or, that when your teachers go home at night, they’re actual human beings? They eat in front of the TV, agonize over what to wear, and don’t feel like going to work tomorrow. I didn’t make this realization until high school—and I don’t think I ever fully extended that courtesy to my mom.
My mom taught me everything I know, yet I still take her for granted. Who else would I call to ask—nay, demand—instructions on how to cook whatever, whenever? (Maybe I’m more like the girl with the cake than I realized.) What goes hand in hand with taking my mom for granted is thinking I will always be the baby, she will always be the mom, and will always be there to answer my calls. My mom just turned 70, and in June, I’ll be 40. As much as I hope to put demands on her for decades to come, our ages suggest otherwise. It’s time I get serious about absorbing my mom’s lessons, and being a little less self-absorbed. Learning how to make cake could be a good a place to start.
Gabriella Gershenson is our latest Writer in Residence—please welcome her! She’ll be writing about what she’s learned—and hasn’t yet—from her mother in the coming weeks.