My son Joe is living away at college, and I decided to bake him a cake for his birthday and mail it to him. I made this decision either because I am a doting mother, or because MS affects the part of my brain that deals with judgement, or because I am a complete doofus, or possibly all three. Afterward, people seemed surprised: “You mailed him a CAKE?” “I never heard of anyone MAILING a cake.” “What ever possessed you to MAIL a CAKE?” But at the time it seemed to me a reasonable and simple thing to do. I knew I had a 9 x 13 baking pan with a snap-on plastic lid; all I would have to do would be to bake the cake, find a box to fit the pan, wrap the box, and take it to the post office. No big deal. And so I began my project with confidence.
I planned ahead. Joe’s birthday is September 9, which, in 2017, fell on a Saturday. I knew that I would be sending his cake via Priority Mail, which promises delivery within 2-3 business days. But Saturday is not technically a “business day,” and I didn’t want my cake languishing in some overheated postal holding area over the weekend, so I really wanted this package in the mail by Wednesday. To ensure this, I would bake the cake Tuesday night.
I don’t know what the phrase “bake a cake” means to you. To me, it had always meant adding eggs and water to some powdery stuff that came out of a plastic bag that came out of a cardboard box that came out of the supermarket. Cakes made “from scratch” came from my mother. But as my son grew up, it became clear that he really loved Nana’s chocolate cake, and since I really love my son, I figured I’d give real baking a try. Now, with the help of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book (copyright 1950), I can make Nana’s chocolate cake too, which is what I did on Tuesday night. When it was finished, I set aside a half a stick of butter to soften overnight for the frosting, and I lay my head on my pillow with these thoughts: “OK, so all I have to do tomorrow is make the frosting, frost the cake, buy a box, wrap it, and mail it. I’ll set my alarm for 7:30. If I don’t shower, I’ll easily be done by noon, and I can shower after my nap.” I slept the peaceful sleep of the innocent and hopeful.
At 7:30 on Wednesday morning, I awoke and went through my morning routine in a leisurely way. I fed the cats, I took my time about reading the paper and drinking my coffee, I unloaded and re-loaded the dishwasher. Still in my PJ’s, I set about making the frosting. Not so easy the first six times, but easy now. I frosted the cake. Also easy. I snapped the plastic lid on the pan. Really easy, even for me. Then I found a tape measure, and I measured the dimensions of the covered pan so I’d know how big a box I would have to buy. I even wrote these dimensions down on a post-it and stuck it on my purse so I wouldn’t forget them. Then I got dressed. So far, so good.
It rained lightly during my trip to Office Depot. The forecast had predicted periods of rain, and in hindsight I’m pretty sure those periods only occurred when I was out of the house. Anyway , I pulled up the hood of my jacket and walked into Office Depot with a light heart, confident in my ability to find a box that would easily accommodate a baking pan 17 inches long, 10 inches wide, and 4 inches high. The first thing to catch my eye in the Packing and Shipping Department was a roll of heavy brown packing paper–a fortuitous find, since what I had at home would never have been enough. I picked up a roll and headed toward the wall where the assembled boxes were on display. I knew exactly what kind of box I needed; packages in exactly the right kind of box had been delivered to my house a million times by Amazon. Had I been less conscientious about recycling, I might have simply plucked The Perfect Box from a pile in my garage. But there were no boxes in my garage at present, and I now found myself facing a selection of cake-mailing options that were either way too small or way too big to suit my needs. I stood there for a full five minutes, trying to stare The Perfect Box into existence. In the end, I was forced to admit that the smallest box I could use measured 21 1/2 x 15 x 12. “Well,” I thought, “I’ll just have to stuff it with crumpled up newspaper.” Out of the corner of my eye I could see a big ol’ bag of packing peanuts. I mean it was right there. But I was focused on getting my too-big box, which I looked for under the assembled display. There was only one left of the size I needed, and the flaps on one end were a bit wrinkled and chewed up. But just a bit–and anyway, what else was I going to do? I couldn’t think of another office supply store that I cared to drive to, and I certainly couldn’t just walk into the post office with only a cake and say, “I’d like to mail this, please.” So I took my roll of brown paper and my slightly chewed-up box to the register, paid my six dollars and change (10% off for the box), and left the store.
The rain stopped just as I pulled my car into my box-less garage. It must have been between 11:00 and 12:00; I’m not sure. As I taped together the flaps to form the bottom of the box, though, I could feel myself crest the peak of wakefulness and begin the downward slide. Here’s how my MS fatigue works: I’m good for about four to five hours after waking, but beyond that, I begin to tire. Slowly but inevitably, I become clumsier, I find it harder to concentrate or focus, I become easily frustrated, and my behavior in general regresses to that of a cranky toddler in need of a nap. While the box began to fill with crumpled up newspaper, I thought longingly of the packing peanuts. I also did some quick(ish) mental math and determined that I really needed to be napping by 1:00 or I would find myself stumbling around like a zombie. But look! Here was a box already half full, and my optimistic self took this as a good sign. I laid down a sheet of aluminum foil in the middle of the paper, and carefully placed the lidded pan on top of it. I bid my cake a silent adieu, laid another protective sheet of foil over it, and finished stuffing the box.
Sealing a cardboard box that has chewed-up edges was a far greater challenge than I had anticipated, and was definitely not worth the $0.37 that I saved in buying it. Not only did the edges of the flaps not line up with each other; the seam itself was somewhat concave. And I was getting tired, and not going about this in the most logical or efficient way. I started by tearing off a long strip of clear 2″ cellophane packing tape from the roll, and adhering 1″ of it to one of the flaps. This endeavor was not successful. The edge of the flap was wavy, and most of the tape didn’t stick. I balled up that piece of tape, threw it aside, and tried again. This time I was careful to make sure the tape stuck better, which required pushing harder, which required both hands. For this reason, the long, dangling length of tape curled back and stuck to itself, so I had to throw that piece away, too. In defiance of all things logical, I was about to make a third attempt when I realized that the end of the tape on the roll had escaped its little red leader tabs and had fallen back onto the roll. I had to scratch with my fingernails to find where the end was, then scratch some more to lift a little bit up, and then it splintered . . . I don’t know how long it took to get the tape sorted out, but it seemed like forever, and I was good and mad at the end of it. I decided that another approach was in order. I stood up and straddled the box, holding it closed with my knees. I used a short length of tape to hold the two flaps precariously together, and I stepped away. Then I grabbed the roll of packing tape and proceeded to create a flat seam where none existed. Crrrrrrt rip stick. Crrrrrrt rip stick. Crrrrrrt rip stick. Strip after strip of packing tape, each overlapping the one before, spanned the center length of the box. When I was done, not only was the seam no longer concave; there was actually a small mound of packing tape running down the middle. I felt compelled to give my son some warning, so I found a Sharpie and wrote right on the box: “This was the last box they had in Office Depot. You will definitely need a case cutter to get through all this tape.” I sighed a heavy sigh, then stood up to move on to the next part of this project: wrapping the box.
As I think I’ve mentioned, I’ve made Nana’s chocolate cake before. I know in both my brain and in my heart that no amount of tossing or jostling will make that cake fall out of its pan, greased and floured though it may be. Nevertheless, I could not shake the vision of this big box turned upside down and, within it, my beautiful cake lying on its frosting in that plastic snap-on lid. I was determined, therefore, to wrap the box without ever turning it upside down. Wrapping a large, unwieldy box in stiff, brown, tightly rolled paper would probably have been difficult under any circumstances, but this maneuver left me feeling as if I had just danced for Cirque de Soleil. I know I worked up a bit of a sweat. I don’t remember exactly how I got the paper under the box, but I do remember sliding the box across the paper as I rolled it out and measured it, and finally turning the box on its side to tape the paper across the bottom. I also remember thinking, “Thank God the cats are not out here trying to ‘help’ me, because at least one of them would surely be dead. I do have scissors.” But I did finally get thing wrapped, addressed, and stowed in the back of my Honda CR-V. All that remained now was a quick trip to the post office.
The street I live on runs parallel to Boulevard of Eagles, so named because that’s where Edison High School is, and Eagles are their mascot. My route to the post office took me, for a short stretch, along Boulevard of Eagles. Did I mention that September 6, 2017 was the first day of school in Edison? It was. I drove to the end of my street, made a right turn, and was about to make another right turn onto Boulevard of Eagles when I happened to glance at the dashboard clock. 2:35. OH NO! The school day had ended at 2:30. I could see the fluorescent yellow vests of the crossing guards, and I knew that at any moment 2,200 high schoolers would come spilling out of every door of that building. They would climb into the cars that lined the Boulevard of Eagles; they would board the (seemingly) hundreds of buses in front of the school; they would halt traffic by trying to cross the street. I did NOT want to drive on Boulevard of Eagles. I quickly hit my left turn signal and went left, and that’s when my MS became a factor.
I knew there must be at least three other ways to get to the post office from where I was, but planning an alternate route while driving was a level of multi-tasking that my brain could simply not perform. Had I thought to pull the car off the road and stop driving, an alternate route would have presented itself to me. But I was beyond tired, and pulling over never occurred to me. I drove in circles for a couple of minutes, then just resigned myself to sitting in traffic. It was a kind of rest, really. I got to just sit and space out for a while. I sang along with my iPod. I adjusted the speed of my intermittent windshield wipers. (It was raining again.) I thought about nothing at all, especially not about boxes or cakes. It took me 15 minutes to travel a quarter of a mile.
I got to the post office without further incident, and mailed a cake to my son. Since my route home was different from my route to, I saw immediately which road I should have taken to get there. “Duh!” I exclaimed, smacking myself on the forehead. As I neared the end of this dreadful adventure–I was practically close enough to hear my pillow calling my name–I knew I had to turn right on one of three roads. My first choice, the easiest and shortest, was also home to the local Catholic grammar school, and I avoided it because I figured today was probably their first day of school too. My second choice, Ovington Rd., involved three speed humps. Speed humps are like speed bumps, only bigger and more deadly to one’s suspension. Plus there were three of them. My last choice was Route 27, a four lane highway that would have meant two traffic lights before reaching my waiting pillow. I turned right on Ovington, and was immediately greeted by a big orange DETOUR sign that directed on up to Route 27 anyway. This was too much for me. I banged my steering wheel with both hands, and burst into tears.
The sun was just beginning to peep out from behind the clouds as I ended my journey. Inside, I dropped my purse, kicked off my shoes, and shuffled slowly toward bed. My eyes were red, and my legs felt weak; I hadn’t showered, I hadn’t eaten, I hadn’t napped. I heard the kitchen door slam. It was my husband the teacher, returning from his first day of school. Surely his day had been as chaotic as mine. But wait– what was that? He was whistling! That son of a bitch! He bounded into our room like a puppy.
“How was your day?” he asked, smiling.
“I tried to mail the cake but the box was too big . . .” and tears began to well up again.
“Oh, honey, you should have waited for me!”
I think he was laughing, but I’m not sure. I was already asleep.