Everything Just So
Updated: Mar 1
(by Maggie Robertson)
Growing up in the political chaos of Argentina (the reign of Juan and Eva Perón meant censorship, demagoguery, and coups d'état), my mom would sit in the lobby of the American Embassy and dream of living in a land where the rule of law was paramount. She fell in love with the son of close family friends, and my dad whisked her off to America, where they had four kids in six years. Since Mom also took care of her in-laws, who left Argentina to live with us, I swear the only time that woman sat down was for one hour a week at church.
My mother has always been self-conscious about her accent. Her family had emigrated from Germany after World War I and spoke German exclusively. At the time, that was not unusual in Argentina: There were many German, Italian, or British families who retained their native languages and rarely spoke Spanish. But when my mom started elementary school, she didn't speak a word of Spanish and was teased terribly. As a teenager, dreaming of America, she took English classes from a British woman. So even now, her accent is a weird amalgam of German and British English. It is a cliché but true in this case: She is one of a kind.
The meals of my childhood were fancy, served with starched cloth napkins and made entirely from scratch. The mocha walnut cake that she made for my dad’s birthday every year (and now makes for mine) is multi-layered magic, and I would like one day to be smothered head to toe in the Marsala sauce she serves with beef tournedos. On the rare occasions that my parents went out for the evening, it was a treat for my siblings and me to eat Swanson's TV dinners. Even our sandwiches at lunch were decorated with smiley faces composed of olives and ketchup.
When we were young, Mom would put us to bed early, so when my dad arrived home from work, she would be perfectly made up, with cocktails and dinner waiting. My dad mostly preferred to eat at home, joking that he would leave her plenty of money to take her friends or her kids out to eat whenever she wanted. Since he died, Mom and I often go out to dinner—usually with a glass of prosecco or a cocktail to start—but it is nearly impossible to grab the check. "This is your dad's treat," she says.
We grew up with my mom ironing not only our clothes—underwear and towels too. She lives with everything just so. Her affairs are always in order. It is that rigidity that helps her get through difficulty, loss, even tragedy. When grief would keep some people in bed, my mom gets up and makes her bed and fixes her hair and makeup. I see how that can save someone.
Mom has always unequivocally applauded her children, and somehow, amidst the gourmet meals and the pearls and heels, she found time to teach us the importance of treating everyone equally and with compassion. My siblings and I are imbued with her fierce sense of right and wrong. It was essential to her that we absorb all the ideals of America that she had learned as a girl, loitering in the American Embassy.
Maggie Robertson is an advocate for hospice and palliative care services in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Mom's Mocha Marsala Cake
Start with your favorite yellow cake recipe, and bake two 8-inch round or square cakes. If you are really in a hurry, you can use a family-sized Sara Lee pound cake. Frosting: 3 sticks unsalted butter, softened 2 1/2 c. superfine sugar 1 T. good quality instant or finely ground coffee 1 T.. boiling water 1 c. Marsala wine 2 c. chopped walnuts candied flowers, if desired Beat butter and sugar together until fluffy.
Mix instant coffee with water; let it cool. Add coffee to butter mixture slowly and mix well. Split the cake layers in half lengthwise, or slice the pound cake lengthwise into thin layers. For each slice, moisten with 2 - 3 T. wine, spread with frosting, and sprinkle with nuts. Cover the assembled cake with frosting and nuts.
Decorate with candied flowers, if desired. Refrigerate for several hours before serving; serve in thin slices.