My Aunt Bernice left a legacy that will survive well beyond her many nieces and nephews. My dad said of his sister's gifts that they may well still be around after the next Ice Age. Just in sheer numbers alone, I'm sure he was right.
~ My father was one of fourteen kids raised by my grandparents. Eleven of those had at least two or more children of their own. I have forty-seven first cousins on my father's side of the family alone. My mother's side contributed another eleven. Of those fifty-eight, at last count, there has been one-hundred thiry-six second cousins turned out in the shadows of those West Virginia hills. You would be safe to say that I have more cousins than Jimmy Carter has peanuts!
~ Bernice never forgot a birthday or an anniversary. She kept track of our clan without a computer. Not one of us was ever forgotten when we graduated from High School. No achievement was too insignificant. Right on cue, there she was at the door with one of her prized fruit cakes. Nothing went into her masterpieces unless it was grown naturally from the earth. Dad used to say she mixed eggs with the dirt from her garden. So it came to be, that to this day, her cakes are fondly referred to as Earth Cakes.
~ Seeing one on the table when you came home always caused someone to yell Earth Cake! I understood that in nearly all the homes of my aunts and uncles, there would be a playful enactment of the house being under the siege of an actual earthquake. Someone would grab hold of a doorway and tell everyone to grab something also. Invariably someone would dive under the table for safety.
~ Not many things evoked as many different emotions as Bernice's cakes. There were always the obligatory displays of appreciation in her presence, of course. But once she was gone, a whole phalanx of reactions would come pouring out. Depending on whose house a cake had been delivered, you might see horror. There could be disgust and even nausea. There would be pity targeted at the recipient of the cake. From the youngest of the kids there would be tears, afraid they would be made to eat some of it.
~ If ever there was a reason to dread birthdays, anniversaries, or graduations, it was the pall that one of those cakes would have your name on it! Fortunately over the years, my parents never pulled the old "your mother knows best" of "your father knows best" routines on us. They never made us eat the Earth Cake.
~ There are many family anecdotes surrounding the mystique of Aunt Bernice's cakes. Many of them have become our personal "urban legends." Which were true and which were not became nearly impossible to distinguish through the decades. Nonetheless, seldom was there ever family gatherings that did not feature a sit-around discussions of those cakes.
~ Urban Legends
I did witness one of the cakes falling from the counter onto my mother's big toe. The preacher down the street must have heard the less than Christian cries of pain; if he did he never said anything. Although it wasn't broken, her toe was swollen and bruised. She limped around for months after the Earth Cake had attacked her. My uncle Jack liked to tell everyone that he once used one of the cakes as a stone for his grinder until he could buy a new one. His brother Frank swore that he was still using one as a wheel for his wheel barrow. His son supposedly used one as an anchor for his rowboat. Another cousin said she uses two of them to hold up the badmitton net in her back yard. My Uncle Rex says he has one on his work bench into which he sticks his drill bits and screwdrivers. Another uncle, Max claimed for years that the well in his yard was made entirely from Bernice's cakes. He also said that his wife used one as a doorstop. Aunt Clara said that she planted Petunia seeds in one of hers, and claimed for several years that the flowers came back year after year. Uncle Bill said that his youngest son used a hacksaw to cut off pieces he could use to skip across the pond. I remember my dad asked him how he managed to saw through the thing, because he broke a chisel trying to chip a piece off of it. Aunt Caroline said she put them in her corn patch to keep the crows away. According to her, the crows would break their beaks trying to eat it. Then they would fly away and never return. She said it worked better than that useless scarecrow. Even Bernice's father, my grandfather, got into the act at times. He once said that if the Goodyear company had discovered those cakes, we'd be driving on them instead of rubber. Both my dad and Uncle Jack harvested black walnuts for extra money. Both of them said they used those cakes to crack the shells.
~ So much fun was made of the Earth Cakes, that I suspect there was sibling competition to come up with the best uses they found for those cakes. It seemed that almost every aunt and uncle on any given week had developed a new and clever way to put them to work. I don't know how, but they managed to keep their feelings about the cakes to themselves. It would be many years later before she ever had any inkling of the true popularity of her cakes.
~ The best legend of all, which became the final one, was born nearly forty years later. It was at my father's funeral that Bernice herself came out with an Earth Cake tale of her own. She revealed the fact that she thought her cakes were awful! When she started baking them, it was as a joke. But when she "discovered" that everyone "loved" them, it was then that she stepped up her production of them in earnest. Before she knew it, she was baking them for other important days other than for the holidays. So it was as she and her surviving brothers and sisters gathered around after the funeral to catch up on everyones' lives. In memory of her departed brother, she said what she really thought about those cakes. Who laughed the hardest? Why Bernice, of course! Not only was the joke on her, it was on all of them. She said she was glad that no one ever complained to her. She was glad, too, that she never learned of their clever uses of her cakes. If for any reason over the years she had stopped making them, then that magic gathering at dad's funeral would never have happened. Bidding farewell to my father, the legacy of the Earth Cake, was the string that bound them together.