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A widow and widower in the kitchen

Baking a birthday cake together for the first time.

Gracia Lam

Our friends warned us that when a widow and a widower marry, there is always baggage, but the only place we’ve faced our friends’ warnings is in the kitchen.

My husband, Michael, and I have been united as we’ve tried to help our three sons blown sideways by the death of a parent and been untrained guides as our own elders walk down the mountain.

Regarding our kitchen concerns, left unattended, I’m perfectly happy to eat toast for dinner. It’s true I patched together a cake in the shape of a fire truck for my son’s fourth birthday, the last when his father was alive, but it’s also true when asked his favorite recipe from home for his Second Grade Cookbook, my son declared, “Eggo Waffles.”


Michael and his first wife, Nancy, loved cooking, and when I hear about their meals, it sounds like Marcella Hazan and Pierre Franey were family members. Nancy cooked homemade tomato sauce, samosas, and pesto; Michael prepared his grandmother’s fried chicken, chili, and okra.

Nancy was the designated baker in the family. I learned this the first time Michael courted me with cooking. He made salmon marinated with ginger on the grill, as well as dilled potatoes and asparagus. Along with cooking on the stove, he will cook outdoors standing under an umbrella or in the snow. The meal was delicious, although he could have served an old shoe and I would have swooned. As we ate our last savory bites, Michael said: “There’s ice cream for dessert. I don’t bake. Nancy did the baking.” Fine with me; I was in love with the man, and who doesn’t like ice cream.

For seven years, Nancy’s baking tins, bowls, beaters, sifters, and measuring spoons remained in the drawers, like unused toy soldiers. Michael’s 64th birthday was last fall and perhaps it’s because the lines from the Beatles song “When I’m Sixty-Four” kept running through my head, I realized this was an important event for him.


We were having friends over for dinner to celebrate, and at breakfast, the one meal where it’s deemed appropriate to have toast, I said quietly but with more culinary conviction than ever before, “I’d like to make you a birthday cake.” Michael flinched. “Or we could buy one,” he said. “Or ice cream is fine.”

“It’s time for a cake,” I insisted. “We could make it together. I don’t think Nancy would mind.”

Michael seemed nervous at first, taking out Nancy’s old cookbooks and yellowed handwritten recipes, but I stood my ground. “I think we should bake something new.” I opened my computer and Googled “Easy Cakes” and found a chocolate delight that had lots of cocoa and sugar and sour cream.

We began in an uncommon silence. For a moment, when Michael held Nancy’s sifter, I saw a shadow of sorrow spread across his face, but by the time I was measuring in a quarter teaspoon of vanilla to the batter, we were both beaming. We iced the cake with a dark chocolate glaze. I helped Michael with his grandmother’s fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and sweet carrots. Our friends brought a salad with a subtle walnut vinaigrette.

During dinner, Michael and I smiled at each other across the table. After the candles were lit and we sang “Happy Birthday,’’ Michael sliced the cake and everybody seemed to enjoy it, even me. As we washed the dishes that night, I hummed, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?”


I will never be a great cook or a foodie, I still am a big fan of toast, and we don’t have grandchildren named Vera, Chuck, and Dave, as in the Beatles song. We actually don’t yet have grandchildren, but the toy soldiers are out of the drawers.

Patty Dann is the author of “Mermaids.” Her next book, about writing, will be published in 2016. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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