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.


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