Elena Coscia was the mother of our next-door neighbor, Laura. We went to a dozen family festivities at their house and Elena always brought the cake. Birthday, anniversary, graduation, confirmation, Super Bowl – you name the holiday and you could take it to the bank that there would be a yellow lemon cake there, baked fresh that morning. She made that cake hundreds, maybe thousands of times. It was expected that if Elena was invited, she’d be bringing that cake.
“Oh, you're the lemon cake lady!” I heard people who didn’t know her say, “I gotta get your recipe!” Everybody wanted it.
Living across the street from them for 20 years, I’ve seen with my own eyes the family that Elena and her husband, Frank, raised. Wonderful, warm, always inviting us into their lives to share a celebration. The grandkids loved their grandma, as did her children and all who knew her. She was a permanent fixture in their lives, and ours.
And then she passed away.
She had not been in good health for a while and the last time we saw her; she had just brought that lemon cake to her grandson Joseph’s backyard graduation party. I snapped a photo that day of Laura surveying the dessert table with her mother who was looking directly at her cake, making sure it was perfectly festooned with bright red fresh strawberries. It was. It was also the last time she ever baked that cake.
The day Elena died, as the family gathered to plan the funeral, somebody realized that was the first time anybody could remember that they were all together as a family and there was no lemon cake.
That’s when Laura’s sister, Ann, said “I’ve got to go to Staples…”
Two days later at the funeral, next to the mass cards commemorating Elena’s life, the family placed a stack of freshly printed 4x6 cards bearing something you don’t see at many funerals; a recipe.
Elena’s Lemon Cake, the card read, with exact instructions in the voice of the beloved baker.
That cake, which had been her calling card for so many years, will be baked and shared and loved thousands of more times in the future. It was the ultimate tribute from a family that will never forget her.
A year ago Kathy and I asked Laura if we could include the recipe in "The Happy Cookbook," and she happily said yes (it’s on page 182). To make sure we had the recipe right, I made a test-cake and I called Laura with a question about the icing.
“You made it?" she seemed surprised “Could you take a picture of it?”
I sent a snapshot to her and she wrote back, “Just like it’s supposed to look!”
It dawned on me after I hung up that I couldn’t just email her a picture. Five minutes later I was knocking on her door, holding a cake that was missing three pieces.
I couldn't keep it. It wasn’t our cake, it was her mom’s.
The legacy of the lemon cake.
I bet you’re thinking right now, what will my family remember me for? What’s my lemon cake?
The good news is, you have a lifetime to figure that out.
When you think about it, a family’s history can be really fragile, with significant stories we hope somebody in the next generation will remember and pass on. So how do you keep those memories alive? When it comes to recipes you could got to Staples and print copies of your special dish, or do something this simple: Write down a list of your favorite family recipes and next time you make them, take some pictures with your phone. Then, when you have a couple dozen, make a photo book online at Walgreens or Shutterfly or Apple and print it and send it to your house. That book will become an heirloom and everybody in your family will want a copy.
It’s something you can be proud of because it’s not just directions for how to make your prize pot roast, it’s really about you and your family and the memories of meals that made home, home.
Earlier this week, I went to Laura’s house and gave her an ornament that featured her mom’s lemon cake. I saw a tear in her eye when she realized what it was. And I watched as she walked over and put it on the tree with a little smile. Because to Laura, it’s not just an ornament with a piece of cake, that’s her mom.
Adapted from “The Happy Cookbook” by Steve Doocy and Kathy Doocy. Used with permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.