Deathday Cupcakes

by Sarai Mannolini-Winwood

Looking down at the tray you couldn’t tell what they are meant to be. From side on they could  be coasters. Above they seem to be dark woody brown blobs. Either way what they aren’t, are cupcakes. 

Admittedly cooking has never been my strong suit, but I really didn’t think cupcakes  would be this difficult. 

I slide down onto the cool kitchen tiles with a melodramatic sigh. Thankfully no one  is home to hear this. From here I can see scatters of flour, a little eggshell, and the usual  crumbs from the morning toast. I lean back against the green laminate cupboards and look up  at the little skylight with its etched vines. A lingering smell of burnt flour floats. 

Did you know that in Vietnamese culture a death anniversary banquet honours the deceased person’s favourite foods? That’s what I’d read  anyway. So here I am, trying to bake cupcakes on a weekday. Poorly. 

Anniversaries are hard work. Whether they are birthdays, Christmas, or  deathdays, I’ve become anxious in the lead up. The events themselves are never that  bad but I can’t help but become stressed well in advance. Death anniversaries have become  worse and usually I try to avoid them all together. As if by finding a way to ignore them or  avoid them I can bring back those I’ve lost. I suppose though, grief is seldom about logic. 

I push up off the floor and grab my keys and phone. Leaving the mess and failed cupcakes, I drive to the park. 

The sun glares down with all the force of a sunburnt summer, which means thankfully  not many people are around. I stride across the short grass, which is going yellow in patches

where the old bore sprinkler system doesn’t quite reach. I cross directly to a cluster of  flowering gums in the back corner that must be older than the suburb itself. Our favourite  bench is empty, and I drop down with a groan. I know I’m being very dramatic today, but it  feels appropriate. 

For a while I just drift. Eyes closed. Eyes open. Not thinking. Sweat dripping down  my spine even in the shade, but still I stay. I feel numb, a yawning absence.

A creaking. A shifting of the wood slats under my thighs. A faint scent of lilacs  suddenly in the air. 

I turn and see an old woman levering herself onto the seat. I thought I’d seen her here  before, so I give a polite nod before turning back to look out over the grass to the small man made lake currently abandoned by the ducks. The light blinds as it reflects off the  dark water. “Not much of a breeze,” she says. Her voice is deeper and stronger than I expect. It is the voice of a younger woman. It is also only a statement, so I just nod. “Used to be a much  bigger area of trees when I grew up here.” 

I turn to face her. Normally I would have nodded politely and then gotten up and gone  home. Not wanting to engage, not wanting to make a connection. But today the thought of  going back to the empty house with the cupcakes is a worse option. 

“Really? I did think the park looked lopsided.”

“It is. There was a protest about the age of the gums, so they had to leave some.” She  takes a hanky from her sleeve and wipes her brow. I notice her hand has a slight tremor, but it  does not seem to affect the economy of her movements. 

She catches my eyes this time. Hers are a soft blue with the slight white sheen of  cataracts. I know mine will be a darker green than their usual hazel. It’s how they look after a  crying jag. I could imagine they are also likely bloodshot. Whether it’s this, or something  else she gives me an intense once over, but as she turns back  to face the lake she speaks again. 

“My husband loved this bit of land. I hated it. Not an outdoor person. But I come here  when I want to think about him.” 

I hear both a melancholy and pleasure in her voice. I know my voice doesn’t sound  like that yet. My grief is still too close, too raw, to remember happiness. We sit in silence  listening to the slight rustle of the leaves and the distant screes of circling galas. 

“Did you know that a tradition in Madagascar was to take their dead out of their  tombs and redress them? They would then dance and play music. I’m not sure if they danced  with the dead or for the dead.” I don’t know why I share this, just that it’s stuck in my mind. 

“Humph. Seems like a lot of effort every year for a body.” She shakes her head and I notice the stiff white curls stay fastidiously in place. “My Jack would have none of that  nonsense. He didn’t even want a funeral. But I decided we all needed to say our farewells. He  would have called me a sentimental old fool.” Her lips kick up into a smile and I see  the woman she would have been for her Jack. I look away, embarrassed to catch such a  personal glimpse.

“Do you know how to make cupcakes?” I’m not sure what possesses me to ask. I’m  terrible at asking for help, of leaving myself vulnerable. 

She gives me a slash of side-eye and adjusts the light grey cardigan she wears even in this heat. 

“Don’t you got no family of your own to ask?” Her voice isn’t dismissive, but it’s a  firm question. I remember that tone. It’s the ‘time for the truth’ tone my own Grandma  would hit me with. 

“I do.” I shift uneasily on the seat. 

“If I ask though, they’ll want to know why. I’m just sick of everyone asking me if I’m  okay.” I add the last in a rush and surprise myself at the surge of real anger that follows it. I  know that everyone asks out of genuine care and concern. The answer is no, I’m not okay,  but I’m sick of saying that. Or worse, pretending that I’m okay simply to avoid the question. 

She gives a deciding nod. I am not sure if that means my answer is enough or that she  does know how to make cupcakes. 

“I’ve got a recipe,” she says. “Even Jack liked my cupcakes, and he never had a sweet  tooth.” 

I turn on the bench, hearing the warm wood creak at my movements. How old is this  bench? I’m not sure if I should prompt her to go on. It feels rude to rush her, but I’m getting  hotter as the sun moves firmly overhead. 

“The key is fresh eggs.” 

I swipe open my phone and begin taking notes.

Slowly she goes through the instructions. It’s strange and a little meandering.  Nothing like the neat, clearly laid out recipes online. But I feel like I understand now how to  make the cupcakes, not just how to follow instructions. She doesn’t check any notes or look  at her phone. She has this all stored in her memory. 

“Let them sit for a while and use that time to make the icing. If they are too hot it will  just run off, but if you let them cool too much it won’t seep into the first layer. I always had  to defend the icing from the children. Look away for a moment and you’d find half of it  gone.” She gives a smile both wry and loving, an intricate dancing at the corners of her  mouth. 

“You know any other weird death facts?” She asks at the end. 

“I’ve done a little googling.” I feel I should be embarrassed about this knowledge, but  I don’t. I had hoped one of these acts would help me feel more connected this year. “In the  Philippines, apparently there’s a symbolic burning of belongings of the dead after the first  year.” 

She gives a solemn nod. “Everyone finds a way to remember and mark the passing of  time without their loved ones. It gets easier, and harder, the older you get.” 

She shifts and it seems that she is tiring, so I stand and awkwardly hover next to the  seat not sure what to say now. 

“Off with you now.” She makes a shooing motion, and I can’t help but smile.  “Thank you.” I give a little nod, breathe in a last breath of lilacs, and turn away. 

I cross back over the quiet park. I can imagine a rolling run of bush laid out before  me, and it saddens me that all that is left is this little patch. The air doesn’t smell of gums and  dirt, instead it’s full of melting bitumen and car fumes.

The sun beats down on my head and I feel my hair getting damp and gritty. At the car  I look up again towards our bench, but she isn’t there.

Home is still quiet as I let myself in. Even the birds and bees are resting from the  afternoon sun. In the kitchen I tip out the cupcakes, which make a heavy thunk in the bottom  of the bin and pull out the recipe ingredients. Luckily when I’d stomped out earlier, I had left  the eggs on the bench and as I run a finger over their firm, smooth surface I can feel they are  warm. 

The recipe is simple to follow, and I quickly have a batch in the oven. This time the  cupcakes come out golden brown and shaped like perfect cartoon versions of themselves.  Who would have thought? Even the buttercream icing is straight forward, and  when I clean the spoon with my tongue, delicious. 

Before really thinking about why I’m doing it, I’ve made sweet tea and packed up  half the cupcakes into a container. I know it’s foolish and the old lady is unlikely to be still in  the park, but I felt I had to try and thank her. As I approach the angle of the sun through the gums, glints off a metal bar at  the top of the bench. Stopping with my feet in the kicked-up dirt and my knees pushing  against the warm wood, I lean forward to read the plaque. It’s a little  tarnished and dusty, so I clean it off with the edge of my shirt. 

It reads For Jack and his Edna, who would sit here every day together.

I jerk back and look around, but my eyes return to the plaque. It seems oddly right that on today of all days I’ve had a conversation with a ghost. So, instead of running for my car, I sit down and open up my bag. I pour some tea into the thermos lid, and then tip  a little onto the ground creating three splashes of dusty liquid. I set out  four cupcakes on napkins and lay them out along the seat. Spaced as if ready for my guests.

Feeling foolish, but strangely content, I lift my cupcake and look out over the sprawl of houses and imagine instead a swarth of rolling silver green gum trees. 

“To Edna whose recipe helped me today. To Jack whom she loved. To my love who I miss every day. Happy deathday everyone.” 

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