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Let It Be

(by Sarah Waddell)

My mother is making a rhubarb cake. We are in her kitchen in Woodstock, New York, with her two hopeful dogs. She has beautiful big stalks of rhubarb, given to her by a friend. Along with the rhubarb on the kitchen counter, there are various envelopes, a tin of Irish oatmeal, a copy of Democracy Now, a few dog collars, vitamins, Tylenol, a broken flashlight, and a stuffed blue owl. I can see that she had beets last night from the color of the dishes and water in the sink. I fight the need to tidy it up; she doesn’t want me in her way.

Wherever we were living, the kitchen counters were always covered with various odds and ends, as if something pulled the chaos onto them. They were a magnetic field that mirrored my mother’s life. Today she dances around the kitchen in mismatched socks, a pretty dress (she was going out for dinner later), and her apron, which consists of an oversized shirt that doubles as her painter’s smock. It is spattered, Pollack-like. On the wall is a collection of her paintings. She makes beautiful, mysterious paintings on the backs of glass.

She talks, mainly to herself, as she gathers the things she needs for the cake. “You have to have good Irish butter,” she says, in a Monty Python voice. “I don’t know why I can’t find whole fat buttermilk anymore. Where is the good big spoon?” She hums “Hey, Jude.” She mixes the butter and sugar together and says, “This is the best part, when it gets all fluffy.” She eats a big spoonful. Then the egg shells and flour and baking soda and bits of rhubarb are all over the counter.

My mother is not as clean-as-you-go kind of person. She pours the batter into a smaller pan than the recipe calls for. This is because she reserves part of the batter for herself. She puts the pan in the oven and says, “Oh, goody.” She sits down in her big chair with a big bowl filled with leftover batter and eats it with a big spoon. She looks like a little girl. She is utterly happy at this moment. “Want some?” she asks me. I shake my head. “Really, you could serve this in little bowls,” she says.

When I was a child, she made baked Indian pudding with molasses and cornmeal. She made anadama bread and challah, which she taught me to braid. I remember watching her knead her dough, the look of concentration on her face. “So satisfying,” she would say to no one. One summer she made strawberry shortcake every day.

The only thing different about where I am now is that my mother’s third dog died last week. This is a loss you can not only feel, but see. Cooper is not lying on the sofa, or howling at something unseen in the yard. He was the first responder, he stood sentinel.

My mother looks down at her little black dog, who has not taken her eyes off the bowl of batter and whispers, “Okay, good best girl, you can have the rest.” Then she lights a cigarette and sighs. She takes a little nap in her chair, and I worry that her cake will burn, but she wakes up as if by magic just as it’s done. The kitchen looks as if raccoons were let loose, but here is this perfect rhubarb cake. Buttery and sweet and wonderfully sour from the rhubarb, we eat it while it’s still warm. My mother is not afraid to make a mess. After we have our cake, I wash and put away the things she used. And I think despite the detritus, she found space enough to bake a cake. Driving home, I ask myself if there is a lesson here. I think about it long and hard, and then long and hard again. Until I can finally just let it be.


Sarah Waddell is a writer who lives in Woodstock, New York. She can be found at

Rhubarb Cake

1/2 c. butter, at room temperature

1 c. sugar

1 egg

1 c. buttermilk

1 t. vanilla

2 c. flour

1 t. baking soda

1/2 t. salt

4 c. chopped rhubarb

1/2 t. cinnamon

1/4 c. sugar

Preheat oven to 350 F.

With a mixer, cream butter and 1 c. sugar together.

Add egg and beat well.

Combine buttermilk and vanilla; set aside.

Combine flour, baking soda, and salt.

Add flour mixture alternately with buttermilk to creamed mixture.

Stir in rhubarb.

Spread in a greased 13 x 9-inch pan.

Mix cinnamon with 1/4 c. sugar, and sprinkle over batter.

Bake for 35 minutes.


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