I recently had my forty ninth birthday, a birthday that has set me to pondering my future as well as my past. Notable for this birthday is for the first time ever I didn’t have a birthday cake. Instead, I bought a piece of my favorite pie (key lime) and a piece of Bruce’s favorite pie (banana cream) for us to celebrate my day. But a silent niggling feeling kept haunting me. I needed a birthday cake with pink roses, the kind I’ve always favored, to make my birthday complete. Of course, the kind of cake I would really like only exists in the past. What I’ve been yearning for is one of Mrs. Jackson’s birthday cakes, the birthday cakes of my childhood , white cake with pink roses and ballerinas dancing on top.
I remember those cakes like I tasted them only yesterday. Back then, I had to have a white cake with white icing and pink roses with a ballerina on top. That was when I still thought there was a chance my sturdy, little girl body would lengthen into a lovely, lithe, small-boned young lady filled with grace. Mama always took me with her to pick up the cake at Mrs. Jackson’s house, and I could smell the buttery sweetness even before the cake was out of the box. Those cakes were little works of edible art, with smooth white icing hardened just slightly so when you bit into a slice of cake, your teeth felt the tiniest break in the sugary icing. Heaven.
My mama always cut that cake especially for me too. Usually when you cut a cake, you make pie shaped wedges, but not with my birthday cake. Mama always cut halfway into the cake and then made a ninety degree cut next so the first piece came from the outside of the cake and was completely covered with icing. That was the piece for the birthday girl. I’ve been an icing fanatic ever since those times when I awaited my coveted slice of Mrs. Jackson’s cakes.
Some years ago Mama bought me a cookbook, a smallish purple book with two bearded irises on the front of it. It is Mrs. Jackson’s recipes. What a treasure it is, filled not only with her recipes but also anecdotes from people in my hometown about what they remember about Mrs. Jackson and also helpful household hints and a short biography of her life. I didn’t know much about Mrs. Jackson until I read that book, but I wish I had. She led quite an exciting life.
Mary Lollie Smith Jackson was born in my hometown of Sandersville in 1900. Her mother died only a year later, so she was raised by her aunt until her father remarried. She attended the same college my mother and Flannery O’Connor did, GSCW, Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville, Georgia. After graduation she moved to New York City to live with her aunt and became a private secretary to the president of a large mortgage company. She met her future husband in New York while he was home on vacation. He was manager of eleven banks in the Dominican Republic. After they wed, they lived a luxurious life in Santo Domingo with servants and a chauffeur and orchids growing wild in her yard! They even moved in the same social circles as the country’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo.
Unfortunately, Mary Lollie’s husband died a premature death at age forty six from lung cancer. She returned to Sandersville in 1946 with her two children where she learned the catering business so she could stay at home and be with them when they needed her. Her business included wedding cakes, birthday cakes, and party refreshments, all to be picked up at her house. She was also an avid gardener raising azaleas, irises, and daffodils. In addition, she was a member of the Sandersville Methodist Church and taught Sunday school there. She provided for her children and was a pillar of the community, and I’m sure is remembered by many children who are now in their forties and fifties.
I remember Mrs. Jackson’s cakes as the stuff of legend. I think I have been searching for just such a cake my whole life in the many white cakes with pink roses I’ve eaten. My southern friend Mary Zimmermann and I often reminisce about our childhood cakes because our birthdays are only four days apart and we both had a special cake that made our birthdays complete. That is what Mrs. Jackson did for me. She baked a cake that held my dreams and aspirations, the promise of another year of happiness and fun and dreams come true. Her cakes were works of edible art, but her cakes also made a little girl believe her ballerina dreams might one day come true.