I've been baking all afternoon, and most of yesterday, too: lemon cake, banana bread, and flapjacks My oldest son -- who is 18, and towers above me -- just asked, "why have you been cooking so much, mum?" The answer is that a very dear friend of mine died on Friday, and my response to grief is to make cakes. I suppose it's partly practical -- bereavement is exhausting, and people need sweet tea and cake to keep going, so I've been cooking for my friend's family, who live a few houses along the street from me. But on Friday night, I was talking to my friend's mother -- who had just lost her only son that morning, and yet had found the time to buy chocolate for her bereaved grandchildren -- and she told me about a Jewish saying, which is that when someone dies, you should bring round something sweet to feed the family, to take the sour taste of death away.
My father is Jewish, my mother isn't (and they're divorced), and I didn't have a religious upbringing, but perhaps some trace of my Jewish grandmother remains in me, to surface in these circumstances. Or maybe it's something we all do, instinctively: as if in the stirring and tasting of a cake, there is a reminder of the precious sweetness of everyday life.
When my sister was dying of breast cancer -- reluctantly, furiously, unbearably, though she bore her suffering with courage -- she did not lose her taste for lemon cake and chocolate. In fact, she said she needed more of it than before -- that these small things gave her solace, and weere to be treasured, along with the big things in her life (her love for her children and her friends and family).
Usually, I never re-read books that I have written, once they are out in the world -- I feel that they are no longer mine, and instead I entrust them to others, in the hope that they will find kind homes. But today, I have just reached up to the top shelf in my study, and pulled down two of them. Firstly, "Before I Say Goodbye", which is the book that my sister asked me to put together, published a few months after her death, which contains her astonishingly moving writing about her experience of breast cancer, including the columns she wrote for the Observer magazine, which I was editing at the time, and it was just as I remembered -- scattered with references to chocolate cake (including a giant one delivered to the hospice from one of her best friends). And the second book I've looked at is "If The Spirit Moves You", in which I wrote about grieving, and our relationship with the dead.
As it happens, this book begins, "Good Friday in the year 2000. Jesus is dead and so is my sister, and I'm running on a treadmill at the gym, watching MTV with no sound on." It ends a year later, the following Easter, in 2001, when I visited Ruth's grave in Sussex with my husband and two sons.
This is what I wrote at the time -- well, bits of it...
I go to a flower shop and buy pots of white roses and hyacinths -- still living, still sweet scented, not the kind that might wilt the moment you turn and walk away -- to take to Ruth's grave. I also buy a large packet of Easter eggs; the ones that look like speckled birds' eggs, with solid chocolate inside. Her grave is close to the coast, beside an ancient flint church (though to get there, you must first pass a tangle of flyovers and a dual carriageway that leads to a small airport, where light aircraft lift off into the pale grey sky). My sister's headstone is on the far side of the graveyard, sheltered by a hedgerow, where wild flowers grow. She wanted her tumour-ridden body to be burnt first, at a crematorium near here, in the foothills of the South Downs, but to have a headstone in this quiet place -- "Somewhere for you to visit," she said, not long before she died....
On one side of her headstone is a Jewish prayer -- I don't understand the Hebrew -- and on the other side is her name, and her children's, and the dates of her birth and her death. What more can you say in stone? Wisteria is carved onto that side, lavender on the other. She grew wisteria up the front of her house (as I do, too), and lavender in the back garden, like me, like our mother.
The children help me scatter the Easter eggs between the flowers and the headstone. Tom traces his finger around the stone words. It is so cold -- whipped by a sea breeze, almost sleeting. The churchyard is empty apart from the four of us. I'm crying, I can't help it, even though I want to be happy, but no one can see, because the tears are dried on my face by the wind as fast as I can weep them..."
So, there it is again... the reminder that in death, there is still life. And Easter eggs are a symbol of what is born, as well as what is consumed. Or something like that, anyway...