The Gathering Place
In a rural southern town, neighbors show their love with casseroles, soups and sweets to mark good times and bad.
She cooks meals with compassion to mark life’s major milestones.
Word traveled quickly when there was an illness, birth or death in the small Missouri town where I grew up.
First, the phone would ring. “Hellooooo,” my mother would answer, drawing the greeting out for all it was worth. Listening intently, she’d shake her head up and down or side to side. There would be a somber “Oh, my goodness” or a lilting “How nice.” Then came the words I’d been waiting for: “I’ll bake up a little something for them and take it over this afternoon.”
Every major event had its own recipe. The birth of a baby meant a big casserole with handwritten instructions: “Turn the oven on to 350 and bake for 30 minutes.” On the way to deliver the dish, Mom would say that surely the new daddy could follow those easy directions.
Illness called for homemade chicken noodle soup. Another good cure-all was chicken and dumplings, or slices of roast beef with potatoes, carrots and savory gravy. My mother would always make a big pan of biscuits to take along.
Death required a cake. The hours it took to make a layer cake offered enough time for Mom to tell me all about the departed’s life. The story would stop while the cake baked, to be finished while she iced it.
Another “dear departed” cake was angel food, usually made in the summer months when eggs were plentiful. Mother would carefully wash the bowl and her hand beater—the one with the red wooden handle. Once a bit of egg yolk dropped into the bowl of whites. Mother said that even a tiny speck of yolk could ruin the entire cake. After dipping out as much of the yolk as possible, she went ahead and made the cake. It came out beautiful, tall with a crusty brown top. Along with angel food cake, she would always send a bowl of sweetened sliced strawberries or peaches.
Years passed, and I married. My husband and I had moved to a community near Olympia, Washington. Our new neighbors all worked, and so did we, so there wasn’t time to get acquainted with anyone. One Saturday morning my husband was doing yardwork and noticed the neighbor on the other side of the fence. As they talked, the neighbor mentioned that his wife’s sister had died the week before.
Upon hearing this news, my thoughts immediately went to chocolate cake with icing. I had to make one for them. My cake, made from a boxed mix and with an electric mixer, was not like my mom’s, but the intention was the same. Maybe, in some small way, it could help ease their pain.
My neighbor opened the door, and as I handed the cake to her, I told her I was sorry to hear of her
sister’s passing. She stood looking at me in amazement. “What’s this for?” she finally said.
It was hard to find an answer. I finally came up with, “Maybe if you and your husband have a minute to sit down and have a slice with a cup of coffee, it will make you feel a bit better.”
I was at a loss for more words. My neighbor thanked me, but I left feeling a little embarrassed. The cake was never mentioned between us again.
One morning I woke up with a terrible pain in my right side. My husband rushed me to the emergency room, and soon I was in surgery to have my gallbladder removed. After several days I was able to come home.
Shortly after we arrived, the doorbell rang, and there was my neighbor, holding a loaf of homemade bread, a container of from-scratch chicken noodle soup and an apple pie. With tears welling in my eyes, all I could say was, “Thank you.”
“Thank you!” she said. “I loved what you did for us, and I wanted to return the favor.”
`Every major event had its own recipe. The birth of a baby meant a big casserole. Illness called for homemade chicken noodle soup.❞ —BETH BRISTOW
Beth Bristow made her mother’s chocolate cake for new neighbor Chantel Stoneman (left) to welcome her into the community.
FROSTED CHOCOLATE CAKE