Aunt Helen’s 30-Day Cake

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Today’s piece is by veteran journalist Desiree Cooper, who describes herself on her “Detroit Snob” website this way: “As the editor of the alternative newsweekly, the Metro Times, and a columnist with the Detroit Free Press for 11 years, Cooper was well-regarded as a compassionate writer who gave voice to the city’s everyday heroes. ​In 2009, she reinvented herself as a blogger, author and content specialist for non-profit organizations.” (And she has the cutest grandson in the world!)

By way of full-disclosure, she says Aunt Helen has never shared her recipe for 30-Day Cake. Desiree put the recipe together after doing some online research, but she hasn’t tried it yet – after all, it takes 30 days to make!

They weren’t born relatives, but circumstances made them sisters: two African American Air Force brides on the small Japanese island of Kyushu in the late 1950’s.

Back then, Helen Jennings was already the mother of four boys. My mother, Barbara, had been struggling with infertility, but was finally expecting her first child (me!). For my mom, it was a gift from God to find a sister who could help her navigate new motherhood when she was so far away from home.

Even after our families left Japan, we remained close friends. Helen’s family settled outside of Baltimore, Maryland. My parents moved to the Virginia Beach area. All my life, “Aunt Helen” has been my godmother and prayer warrior. I was the little girl she never had, and she was my fairy godmother.

Now 85, she’s never missed my birthday (all 55 of them). In between special occasions, a package from Aunt Helen would often appear on my doorstep with surprise finds at unbelievable prices (eventually she had five boys and became an expert at bargain-hunting).

Christmas brought the best gift

But the best gift came at Christmas. That’s when I’d receive one of Aunt Helen’s special “30-day” cakes chock full of coconut, walnuts, pineapples, raisins and so much love.

The cake was made from a starter that she reused over the years, linking each Christmas to the one before. The outcome was a moist, gourmet cousin of the fruitcake–except Aunt Helen’s cakes never lasted long enough to be re-gifted.

Helen and Barbara’s friendship suffered after my mother’s slowly encroaching Alzheimer’s made it difficult to stay connected. These days, they rarely see each other. My mother has become isolated, and as both couples aged, the five-hour drive between their homes may as well have been 500.

Aunt Helen and I continued to communicate when my mother couldn’t, me trying to fill my mother’s shoes as Aunt Helen’s “sister.”

A tragedy and a reunion

This year, Aunt Helen and her husband, Uncle Ollie, lost their home of nearly 60 years to a fire. Aunt Helen has survived cancer. My mother is slipping further into dementia, making it hard to even stay in contact by phone. So my god-brothers and I decided it was time to bring the sisters together again.

On the day of their surprise reunion in Maryland, Aunt Helen’s mouth flew open and the tears flowed as my mother knelt before her and put her head on her sister’s lap. They’d held hands through young womanhood and through mid-life. Now they were back together to support each other through life’s last journey.

Aunt Helen hopes that she’ll be able to move into her new home in February. I check on her now and then, worried that she will sink into despair while she waits. How do you overcome losing your family home, along with all of your treasures, so late in life?

But that’s not my Aunt Helen. She has taught me so much about faith and sisterhood. Even without the convenience of her own kitchen, Aunt Helen baked and sent us our 30-Day cakes in time for Christmas!

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