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I stood in the kitchen mixing the ingredients to our favorite cake; a spice cake made from scratch.  My mom had made this cake for us when we were kids and I'd made it for my kids since they'd been very young.  I continue to make it for them now on special occasions.  I have to really pay attention when I make this cake, because I have often left out an ingredient in the past.  Or I have inadvertently burnt the bottom of the cake or left the freshly baked cake halves in their pans too long after cooking and then not been able to remove them.    A great deal of effort, this cake.  It requires concentration, more than I am typically willing to give.

My thoughts turned to my two children.  They'd be in the car by now, on their way to the airport.  They lived with their mother, my ex-wife, on the other side of the country.  They visit as prescribed by the court order, not a day more.  Since my ex knows that they are the only thing in her possession that I still care about, she uses the visitations as a means to deny me something she knows I hold dear.  She'll slice a day or two off of each visit when she can interpret the order to allow her to get away with it.  But she is right about one thing: I love those two kids.  I am determined to make the most of every moment we spend together.  I wondered if they looked forward to their visits with me.  Turning back to the bowl, I concentrated again on the ingredients.  

birthday boy
We'd be celebrating my son's birthday on this visit.  Hence the cake.  I am trying to instill in them a sense for who we are, for my side of the family.  As a single father, I have to cram all of my intentions into these short visits.  My intentions...what are those exactly?  What is a divorced dad's role in the life of his children?  What are the possibilities?

I pondered these issues and note my own parent's role in my life.  My dad had worked hard during the years I'd spent growing up.  He wasn't always fully present.  And yet he had been there...on weekends, in the evenings.  And somehow, in those moments we shared, he had passed on to me some very valuable lessons.

He'd taught me things that stayed with me.  We'd had sufficient money when I was young, but he wasn't particularly free with it.  I could have most anything I wanted, as long as I could figure out a way to pay for it.  As a result, I'd learned how to work for what I wanted and to appreciate what I had.

Somehow he'd made it clear that he was our safety net, that in times of need, we could count on him to be there for us.  Even when he and I entered our difficult years of separating from each other, I always knew that, if I had to, I could count on him.  As a result, I'd learned about freedom.  I'd learned that I could venture out and take a risk.  I was indirectly encouraged to try the world on for size, because I risked nothing much, other than to have to come home and tell him that I'd failed.  'Home is a place where if you have to go there, they have to take you in,' he would say to us often, but I knew there was more love in the saying of it than those words convey.

Turning back to the bowl in front of me, I checked the list of ingredients once again.  Flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar.  Yep, they were all in the bowl.  Now, sift three times to mix thoroughly....  There are certainly no shortcuts to making this cake.

My father gave me the gift of creating an interesting and fulfilling life.  I chose and crafted the adventure, made my own decisions, tried things that most people never get a chance to try.  I have lived an interesting life.  I've never let myself get trapped in a spot for too long.  And when I have found myself trapped, I've always managed to break free.  Freedom of choice and hard work have served me well.

Some lessons I had to learn on my own.  Nothing had ever been handed to me.  I'd worked for what I had.  At one point I'd found that earning money wasn't what it was all about either.  I let go of earning money and chose instead to work in a field that held more interest for me, was more in tune with who I am.  Would I have dared try that without his encouragement many years before?

My dad was never much of a sports fan and neither am I.  We didn't spend any time tossing balls in the backyard.  Instead, he taught me how to care for land and raise animals.  We'd grown up on rural land where I spent summer days running in the woods, playing in streams, exploring, learning, and experiencing as I ventured out on my own.  Yes, my dad had provided a physical environment that reflected the values he wished to share.  And that environment shaped the person I was to become.

Add to the flour mixture one cup of sour milk and three quarters of a cup of high grade shortening.  (I'd left out the shortening in the past)  Beat for two minutes....

And what of my mother?  What had she imparted to us?  They were very different, my mom and dad.  While my dad had given us the tools for our experience of life, my mother had passed on more subtle lessons.  She taught me the meaning of unconditional love.  And she taught us things like hope and passion, optimism and trust.  She is a good woman who is bound to trust first and only learned skepticism as a result of disappointment.  She'd trust most anyone until they proved unworthy.  As a result, I learned a basic approach that I still employ: a man is as good as his word.  I'll cut any deal on a handshake and anyone can take advantage of me once.  After that, well after that I consider it my fault if it happens again.

My mom was one of those old fashioned moms who made real meals from scratch.  We sat down as a family and ate a meal that she'd made fresh that day.  And at the end of every meal, a home made desert was in store.  A lot of effort went into those meals.  All in all, it was a good life.

Now add three unbeaten eggs and beat for two more minutes.  Grease two cake pans using the shortening.  Sprinkle flour over the shortening until finely coated.  Pour the cake mixture into each pan.  Spread evenly with a spatula.  Bake in a pre-heated oven of 350 degrees for 30 minutes.  Test the cake to see if it is done by inserting a toothpick....

And just how was it that these lessons were handed down?  I can't say that I understand that part.  As near as I can figure, the lessons come from modeling the behavior.  Take another lesson as an example.  The lesson of life-long learning: we didn't sit in front of the TV every Sunday watching football.  It was more the case that we were ever on to something new: raising gamebirds, breeding and racing homing pigeons, flying radio controlled airplanes, building a small outbuilding or pond, planting trees, or searching for just the right target so we could set up a range in our backyard and learn how to properly and safely shoot a rifle.  Change was the constant.  An ever-broadening range of interests was the norm.

The times I remember best from when I was really young were our family vacations.  What experiences!  We'd take long road trips to places we'd never been.  I remember them as great adventures that opened my eyes to other landscapes, other people, and other ways of living.  I can still recall standing at the top of the continental divide in Rocky Mountain National Park and looking out over the great expanse.  Growing up in Illinois, I'd never seen anything like it.

On to the frosting: into two and one half tablespoons of flour gradually blend one half cup of milk, cooking over low heat to a thick paste, stirring constantly.  Set aside and cool to lukewarm.  Meanwhile, cream one half cup of shortening and one half cup of butter with one cup sugar and one quarter teaspoon of salt....

Being a single father, I have given my own experiences a great deal of thought.  I've translated these into a definite set of values that I want to pass on to my children.  When they visit, they spend a great deal of time just being kids.  Still, I am determined to be subtle about how I convey the values that are important to these two individuals who will one day only possess the memories of their youth and will have to create their own lives from those experiences.

Add the lukewarm paste and beat until fluffy.  Fold in one teaspoon of vanilla.  Add finely chopped walnuts if desired....

When mom and dad were newlyweds, they'd lived in an apartment owned by Mrs. Baker.  Mom worked while dad went to college on the GI bill.  Mom had learned the spice cake recipe from Mrs. Baker and it had stuck with the family as one of those cornerstone memories.  A family tradition in the truest of senses, Mrs. Baker's spice cake became my favorite over the course of those years.  For me, it became a symbol of family, of who we are. It reflects for me a sense of those times, of the wholeness and goodness that a child has the right to experience.

This spice cake is made from numerous ingredients that are fashioned into a whole by the mixing and baking process.  Likewise our children are fashioned into young adults as we take our own values and blend them in our own special way to communicate what they need to mature and prosper.  The cake symbolizes that craft, the subtlety, of what I'm trying to pass on to my kids.  I'm taking what my parents gave to me and putting those values into that cake.

Using half of the frosting mix between the two layers of cake, then add powdered sugar to the remainder.  If it gets too thick, add just a little milk....

On this occasion I was successful in my effort.  The cake was baked, the frosting hand painted on, a work of art to look at.  There it stood, fresh and lovely, containing all of the ingredients that Mrs. Baker had intended and all of the values that I hope to impart.  I stood and admired it for a moment before I had to ready myself for the drive to pick up the children.

The rewards due to hard work, a certainty that I am always there for them, unconditional love, a love of the land and animals, a bond to the natural world, trust and integrity, home made meals, and life-long learning: these are the values that I hope to pass on.  Oh I was angry, filled with anguish and remorse when I had to separate from those children.  Leaving them was the hardest thing I have ever done.  And I was disappointed that the dream of family was shattered by incongruent values and experiences between my ex and myself.  Living apart from those children remains the most difficult challenge of my life.  But, I ask you, what can we do about it?  It seems to me that we can either remain in anger or we can reconcile our lives and make the best of it, act deliberately, and choose to give our children the gifts that remain held within that dream of the notion of family.  We can take our stories, values, dreams, and traditions and deliberately pass them along.

As the children and I returned from the airport and entered our home, I watched as their eyes searched discretely for the promised cake.  Yes, there it was.  Dad had delivered as he said he would.  By this time it was late at night and I put them to bed.  But in their dreams they could find comfort and familiarity in being with dad.  They could look forward to the next day, when we would slice into that cake and celebrate not only a birthday, but also our family union, our own traditions.  As I watched them fall asleep and admired their tired faces, I wondered if they would someday grasp the love and the lessons gently crafted into Mrs. Baker's spice cake.


James McMahon lives in Brookside, Utah where he makes spice cake twice each year.  He has a son, Emrys, and a daughter, Jacquie.  This story is dedicated to them, to his mom and dad, and to all of you single parents trying hard to get it right.

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