Admire It While You Can ~ Jeffrey Ihlenfeldt

Her father’s hands were all she remembered the evening she got the news—his long fingers, his irregular knuckles, his puckered skin, his cupped and furrowed palms.  They said he had stolen six petits fours with those hands, six tiny iced cakes from the top drawer of a fellow resident, a woman whose children or grandchildren had probably presented them as a gift on her birthday or Mother’s Day.  Why else would she keep such a luxury in such a simple room?

Later that week, Meg slipped the pair of non-stick baking pans she’d picked up at Warden’s Market from the plastic bags and into hot soapy water, just as the instructions insisted.  She washed them and dried them and opened her cookbook.  She had also bought a box of cake mix, thinking at first of using the recipe printed on the back, but she couldn’t bring herself to shortcut something her father would have made from scratch.  Habit, she imagined.  Or ritual.  He’d had a lifetime of it—waking at 3:00 every morning to open the bakery.  She had often gone with him and watched him roll out the dough for croissants and blend the batter for the coffee cakes and shape the crullers and coffee rolls.  She noticed the butter stained cuffs of his once white shirt as he slid the large sheets into the hot oven.

Then he began to forget the oven in his own home, leaving it on overnight after he had removed and served the roast chicken.  Or in the morning, leaving the range top burning after he’d scrambled and eaten his eggs.  This was the first sign—charred remnants of eggs in a sauté pan.  Nothing complicated: butter, salt, a little pepper.  He still remembered the croissants and crullers each morning, but the eggs were troubling, even before he was diagnosed and relocated to Pinewood Greens, a nursing home renamed and rebuilt into what the new owners called a continuing care community.

Meg gathered her ingredients and arranged them on the kitchen counter—the butter, the eggs, the flour, the sour cream.  The sugar, the salt, the lemon.  She had forgotten the almond extract and decided to make do with vanilla instead.  The flour and baking powder clung to the walls of the glass bowl as she sifted it. She coaxed it into the center, and the grains of sprinkled salt settled into the soft mound.

Her sister Jade claimed it was hunger that led their father to prowl the halls of the home for petits fours, but the health care worker insisted it was a symptom of his dementia.

“I’ve seen this many times,” she said.  “So I don’t say it to be cruel.  But residents forget where they’ve come from and where they’re going.  They forget what belongs to them and what belongs to someone else.”

She seemed knowledgeable, so Meg believed her, even though her father’s boundaries had been clear in the past.  He accepted gifts graciously but never expected them.  He responded in conversations but rarely started them.  Still, sincerity registered in the health care worker’s eyes when she spoke of her father’s growing confusion.  Jade doubted it, but she was always correcting people, not due to knowledge about anything in particular, but just for the sake of correcting them.  Even with their father, Meg remembered her correcting facts about her childhood, about her father’s childhood, about the bakery, although she had never shadowed him at work as Meg had and would hardly know more about her father’s past than he knew himself.  Besides, her father never finished eating the petits fours.  That said something.  He had taken a bite out of each one and left the remnants and the tiny papers littered across the woman’s bedspread.

“He’d just finished lunch when he wandered into this woman’s room,” she had explained to Jade.  “How hungry could he have been?”

“Which room?”

“I don’t know, but it wasn’t his.  Two corridors over.”

“In the clinic?” Jade asked.

“The residence.  He just walked into her room, free as you please, and started rummaging through her drawers according to the worker on duty.”

Meg blended the sugar easily into the butter and eggs, but the sour cream thickened the mixture, and her fingers ached as she added the flour and salt and baking powder, little by little.  She scraped down the sides of the bowl with the wooden spoon, and the mixture became more fluid, and the spoon left swirls radiating out from the center.

She wondered if Jade understood anything about their father, about his past, about his present condition.  One time Jade said, “I wonder sometimes if it’s not all that bad to lose memories.  Some of them I mean.”

“It’s not like you’re given a wish list,” Meg told her.  “Some kind of a menu of images from your past—‘oh, I’ll take this one and this one—you can have the rest.’ I don’t think it works that way.”

She spooned the batter into the baking pans.  She twisted off her wedding band and slipped her hand into the oven mitt—over her fingers and her palm, over her discolored wrist.  The scar, dissolving and barely visible, was the result of her father’s oven.  She had carried the fear of the burn for years, and it was the memory of the fear more than the pain itself.  Then, she was more prone to reflection, to memories than her sister, and Meg often wondered about the prominent and the dissolving images from the past, those worth holding onto and those worth surrendering.  High school memories?  Junior and senior years for sure.  Her first marriage?  Maybe.  Her first kiss?  Her first love?  She didn’t think they’d be worth giving up, although she wasn’t sure what value there was in remembering them.  She wondered which memories her father had kept— his first love, his first kiss, his first child—and what shape such a memory might take for him at this stage of his life.  How fleeting, how lasting?  The memory of stealing an old woman’s petits fours wouldn’t be a bad one to let go of, she thought, and she smiled at the idea.  Then she squirmed at the ease with which she fell into ruminating over her father’s memories and images, lost or found in his diminishing condition.  She wondered if she and her sister were so much different.

She creamed the second stick of butter, firmer than the first, in the stainless steel bowl, which was a more difficult task than the recipe indicated, and the muscle in her forearm began to cramp. She suddenly regretted having put the canned frosting back on the market shelf.  Silky the label read.  Smooth and buttery.  Who would have known the difference?  Her father?  She wasn’t sure anymore.  He had only been able to stomach one bite of each of his housemate’s petits fours.  Maybe he recognized the difference between freshly baked and store bought.  The thought encouraged her to persevere with the butter.  She added the vanilla and confectioner’s sugar and blended it with the electric mixer until it was soft and white, thinning it with a splash of milk.  She ran her finger down the mixer blade and licked off the frosting.

“Silky, smooth, and buttery,” she said, quietly laughing to herself, surprised by the sweetness of it.

Wasn’t this the only reason for her attempt at petits fours in the first place?  To somehow stoke her father’s memory for something he truly loved and truly longed for?  It wasn’t for her own benefit, since baking was something she hadn’t practiced since grade school, since her father’s bakery.  Occasionally, she prepared a boxed mix of cupcakes for her daughter’s school functions or rolls of pre-made cookie dough she would slice and decorate with her children on Christmas Eve, but that was barely baking.  Her sister would insist the petits fours were just her way of playing on her father’s favors, but Jade was the competitive one of the two—spending more cash than she could afford for his 78th birthday the previous summer, and the cedar wardrobe the year before, even though he never owned the clothes to fill it.

The strawberry preserves were chunkier than she’d imagined, thicker than in the photo on the recipe page.  She scooped them into a large bowl and then minced them with two knives.  Satisfied, she spread them across a cooled cake.  She pressed the second cake on top of the first.  This was easy enough, but then she had to cut the cake into perfect squares, and the recipe had no photo of this process, probably because no one who wrote these recipes had ever actually made them, was Meg’s guess.  Her father had measured them with a ruler.  She closed her eyes and envisioned the bakery, he standing at the marble prep table, she circling the baker’s rack, then wheeling and spinning it in the empty space in front of the pantry.

“It’s not a toy,” her father cautioned her as he shifted a ball of soft dough from one hand to the other.

She remembered jelly rolls.  Did he slice the cake for jelly rolls?  She tried to picture his petits fours but could only recall the marble slab and the flour and his hands and the brief indentations on the soft balls of dough.  She had helped him that day—carrying the tray, misjudging and burning her wrist on the open oven door.

His recipe for jelly rolls wasn’t the first thing she had forgotten in her life, and in this respect, she identified with her father’s struggle to remember the everyday.  How many times had she circled around the list of her own children’s names—Joey, Cary, Jen—before finally landing on the right one?  Lately, the practice had brought her more fear than amusement even though her children laughed when she would begin the list.  She took note of every pause, every lapse in time between the uncertainty and recognition of a word or a face.  It was difficult not to consider the possibilities of her own mental frailty, of losing grasp of more than just a fleeting name in a moment of exasperation, but of losing her children’s very existence.

“In the end, all you have are your memories,” her father had once told her.

Shrugging off the images, Meg cut the cake into squares, freehand.  Close enough, she thought as she leaned down and examined the edges, and the butter frosting would hide any flaws.

That afternoon, she set the covered platter of petits fours, laid out in concentric circles, onto the back seat of her car and set off for her father’s home.  She followed the map on the back of the brochure but got lost at one of the turns near the facility.  She pulled over and studied the map and the asterisked note beneath it: not drawn to scale.  She punched the address into her GPS.  “Calculating,” the voice said.   She followed the voice the rest of the way there.

Her father was standing outside the door to his room when she arrived, his arms folded across his chest, his feet astride the threshold, a commanding posture that belied any physical or mental weakness.  She guessed he was waiting for her, which could only be a good sign, but he held his pose even as she kissed his cheek.  She tugged on one elbow, and he followed her into the room.

“Don’t mind the mess,” he said.

The sparse furnishings and the empty surfaces left little chance for clutter, but the health care workers advised her to keep her father’s personal items to a minimum to prevent confusion.  On the window ledge sat the small cactus she had brought with her last month.  Two small photos in slim gold frames included most of the family—Meg and Jade, husbands and wives, children and grandchildren, nephews and nieces.  Meg thought it a good idea to have photos as constant reminders of his entire family.  Now, she noticed how difficult it was to make out the small faces in the distance.

Meg pulled a chair over to the bed.  She set the plate of petits fours on his bedspread—a stenciled mountainscape with a river running along banks of rocks and lavender and snowdrops.  Meg was surprised by the detail, even though she had bought it herself but had only seen it folded and stuffed into a gray plastic pouch, a small section of the winter peak revealed through a transparent window in the packaging.  Her father sat at the foot of the bed, and the river flowed beneath him and through the folds to the carpet below.

“How have you been, Dad?” she asked as she inched closer to him and rested her palm on his knee.  He lifted her hand, lowered his face to her palm, and followed the lines closely.  He glanced over at the plate of petits fours.

“Made these yourself,” he said, returning to her hand.  “I can tell just by looking.  Useful hands.  It’s a good thing to have useful hands.”

“I haven’t had much practice lately, but I thought I’d give it a try.  I heard you’ve been craving sweets.”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself.  We do what we can.”

He picked a random cake from the plate.  He bit into it and stared into the center of the remaining half.  Under his breath he counted the layers.  He whispered something, but Meg couldn’t understand the words.  He placed the half-cake back on the plate.

“My daughter never thought it was important to help me in the bakery,” he said.

“Jade?” she asked.

“Jade?” he repeated.

“Your daughter,” she said.

“My daughter never helped me in the bakery.  Didn’t think it was important enough,” he told her as he stared past her.  “Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”

“Do you know who I am?” she asked.

“You make things.  I know that much.  I can tell from your hands,” and he lifted her hand again and traced the ridges in her palm with his fingertips.

“I’m your daughter,” she said.

“If you were my daughter you’d know.  You’d know just what I’m saying.  You’d know why I’m here.”

He took another cake from the plate.  He examined its iced surface, took a bite, and stared into the center as he chewed.

“When my daughter was a little girl, she was in her own world. Didn’t know a cake from a…” and his voice faded.

“What about these?” she said as she picked up a half-eaten petit four.

“Yes, yes.  Don’t mind if I do,” and he took another cake from the plate.  “It’ll be our secret,” he said.  “The flour.”

He bit into it.  He stared into the center.  He swallowed the half-cake.

“My daughter was in her own little world,” he went on.  “Baker’s racks and tin plates and rolling pins.  It was the rolling pins she really liked.”

“I remember,” Meg said.

“If you were there you would remember.  Toys to her.  Rolling and rolling them across the steel table top.  Rolling and rolling.  More toys than tools.”  He set the piece of cake back on the plate.

“It was marble,” Meg said.  “Remember?”

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Pretty sure,” she said.

“Strange.  Don’t remember ever being able to afford marble?  My daughter would remember.  Spent enough time there.”

“I was there nearly every day in the summer,” she said.  “Bread and croissants.”

“Ah, yes. Croissants,” he said.

He looked past the partially drawn drapes to the paper bark maple and the manicured lawn outside his window.

“Then you would know my daughter, too.”

“You have two daughters.  Meg and Jade,” she slowly explained.

He stared into Meg’s eyes, and his lips stiffened with confidence.

“My daughter would know all about that.  You’d have to ask her.  But I never met any… Jade?  Maybe you can bring her along next time.  And my daughter too.”

Meg touched her father’s hand and he, in turn grasped hers.  She had memorized his fingers and his palms, and she could recognize them in the dark.  The touch of his hand calmed her rising sorrow, and she felt a sudden sense of gratitude toward her father despite his inability to recognize her.  At the same time, she felt a growing pity for her sister.  Meg’s existence was at least acknowledged.  The memory of Jade had been reduced to a single utterance.  Less than an utterance—a question.

“What’s this?” he asked as he stared into her hand.  He ran a single finger over her discolored wrist.

“Petits fours,” Meg said.

“You’ve got to be more careful.  Too young for that.”

“It was a long time ago.  Your petits fours.”

He touched the edge of the plate and studied the ring of cakes.  He took a bite from another cake.

“Could be,” he mumbled as he chewed.  He ran his tongue over his lips.

“Could be,” he repeated.  “No.  I haven’t baked them yet,” he said.  “Oh, they have things here that pass for pastry.  You can bet on it.  They have…” and his eyes stared down toward the bedspread as he searched for a word as likely to be embedded in the patterns of rivers and lavender and snowdrops as his own memory.

“What about these?” she asked, touching the plate.

“Perhaps,” he said.  “Perhaps.  But that will be our secret.”

He took another petit four and bit into it.  He rolled the cake slowly over his tongue.

“Wait.  Wait,” he said.

He stared into the center and then placed the remaining half onto his tongue.  He closed his eyes and swallowed.  He smiled.

“Wait.  Wait,” he said.

He stared toward the window.  The sun had dipped beyond the roof of the adjoining building and cast the maple leaves half in light and half in shadow.

“It’s the butter, yes.”

“Yes?” Meg replied

“It’s the preserves, for sure.”

“Strawberry,” she said.

“But the sour cream.  Oh, yes.  The sour cream.”

He quickly retrieved a pen and spiral notebook from his night stand and returned to the bed.  He flipped to a fresh page and began to write.

“Let me do this for you, and then we can go.  Our job here is done.”

He scribbled across the page, quickly at first, and then slowly, deliberately, pausing between each line to turn away and stare into the rivers on his bedspread.

“Try this,” he said, and without looking at the paper, rattled off the recipe.  “Almond extract, orange zest, egg whites, marzipan, oh so slender shavings of white chocolate.”

He looked at Meg.

“That’s what was missing.  White chocolate.  And the orange.”  He smiled and tapped the skin of his forehead with the pen.  “Should have known after the first bite.”

He handed the notebook to Meg.

“Got that?”

“Yes,” Meg said, and she smiled as she looked at the list—her father’s memory of the recipe—and marveled at the quickness with which he recalled what she was just as likely to forget.

“Good,” he said.  “Now I can go home.”

“You need to stay here, Dad,” she told him.  “This is your home.”

He peered at Meg over the rim of his glasses, in more confusion than sadness.

“A man can only do so much,” he said to her.

“You can just rest, Dad.  Resting at home is a good thing, don’t you think?”

“I’ll need more notebooks,” he said.  “A man can only do so much,” he repeated.  “This demand and that demand.  Took me the better part of a year to master petits fours.  A man can only do so much.”

“I’ll bring another notebook next week,” she said.

“It’ll have to be tomorrow if you expect so much.”

“Okay, tomorrow,” she said.

She kissed his cheek.  He touched her hand, then moved toward the window and folded his arms across his chest.

“A man can only do so much,” he whispered into the dusk.


In her car, Meg set the GPS for home, more out of habit than necessity.

“Calculating,” the voice said.

Meg wiped a smear of strawberry preserves and butter icing and cake crumbs from the edge of the platter and licked her finger.  She studied the layers and the colors and the texture in the glow of the interior light, trying to see what her father saw, the details triggering his memory of the long forgotten recipe for petits fours.  Sour cream, he declared.  Preserves.  With a tissue, she cleaned her fingers and set the half eaten petits fours on the seat beside her.  She looked at her father’s notebook and read the recipe.

Almond extract (bitters!)

orange zest (no pith!)

egg whites (no yolks!)

marzipan (rosewater!)

white chocolate (slight threads!)

Meg flipped through the notebook and noticed other pages.  The book was nearly filled.   The first page was titled No. 3.  Another recipe.  They didn’t even try he scrawled at the top.


Flour (French 55!)

water (cold!)

whole milk (cold!)

butter (unsalted!)

yeast (instant!)

salt (kosher!)

Combine the ingredients and knead.  It should feel right.  Knead until it does.  One day, you’ll know for sure.  Shape it.  Look at it.  Admire it while you can.  It’s beautiful.  Cover it.  Keep it cold.

Meg turned the page.  Primavera he wrote.

I have no right, he wrote.  I am a baker and nothing more.  I am not a saucier or a potager; I am not even a tournant.  I am a baker, but I cannot help where my thoughts take me.  A man can only do so much.  Should I be shown mercy, at least in this case?  My daughter would show mercy for her father.  I look through my window, and it strikes me as spring.  I don’t know how warm it is or how cold, since I can’t open my window.  But it appears to be spring as I remember it.  I’m sure I heard a thrush this morning.     

Primavera she read.

Virgin olive oil

Garlic scapes.

Spring onions, 

Early Zucchini

Summer tomatoes,

Late red peppers,

Autumn mushrooms,

Gently toss.  Kiss with heat.  It is spring, after all.   

“Calculating,” the voice from the GPS droned.

Meg turned the page to the recipe for brioche, and on the next page, scones, and on the following page, biscuits, and on the following page, coffee cakes.  She clenched her eyes and formed the images of the cakes, the bakery, the table top, the fragrant frosting.  She envisioned the squares of paper scattering like leaves across the rivers, the lavender, the snowdrops beneath her father’s hands.  She opened her eyes to the dim interior light.  She turned to the last page.  Almond extract.

She stared through the windshield into the darkening shapes of concrete curbs and maple trees and then at the book.  MarzipanOrange zest.  Egg whites.  She turned to a blank page and began to write while her memory was still fresh.   Marzipan, she scribbled.  She closed her eyes and looked into her father’s bakery.  She wrote what she remembered.

Pulse almonds into flour.  Fine flour.  Sweeten with powdery sugar.  Search for

imperfections.  Slowly drip almond extract and rosewater.  Blend in egg whites.  You might be concerned about raw eggs, but you shouldn’t be.  I’ve taught you that much.  You shouldn’t be.  

She wrote quickly—as quickly as her pen could move, as quickly as her memories emerged, as though her future depended more on her father’s fading memories than her own robust recollections.  As though her life depended on petits fours.

“Drive 200 feet and turn left,” the voice demanded, but Meg continued to write, furiously, from one page to the next.  She had to get it all down while she still remembered.