Friday, April 17, 2009

Chocolate Cake (both of them)

My family has had an abundance of chocolate cake over the last few months. My Dad made a delicious chocolate cake for Valentine's Day that was perfect, so I still had fond chocolate memories when his birthday rolled around. All chocolate cake recipes are created equal (right?) so I chose a different recipe -- from the Food Network. To top it all off, it was an Emeril Lagasse Food Network recipe. It had to be good, right?

Well, my family said it was: they loved it. I had my doubts about it, however. Chocolate bread came to mind as did the words bland, tasteless, and "below par." I kept my concerns to myself though. One good rule for a cook might be (and I just made this up), don't talk your eaters into disliking your food.

I must say that the cream cheese chocolate frosting was excellent, and I would have been happy to just eat the frosting for dessert and skip the cake altogether. Time did improve the cake some; I actually managed to enjoy the leftovers the next day.

My mom's birthday follows my dad's by exactly two weeks, so I was eager to redeem myself in the cake baking realm. I asked my mom what kind of cake she wanted; she wanted chocolate. "Are you sure?" I thought. I asked her again the next day just to be sure. Yes, she definitely wanted chocolate.

Okay, I decided to do it, but I wanted the kind of chocolate cake I remembered from February. The key? Use the same recipe that received such rave reviews for my dad a few months ago. I had him find the recipe for me, and I followed the directions impeccably.

The results? Scharffen Berger wins the cake! It turned out just the way I wanted it too. It had the rich chocolate flavor that was so lacking in the other recipe. I will definitely make this one again!

Happy Birthday, Dad and Mom!

Friday, April 10, 2009


My mother loves birds. She loves to help people too. That is how Popeye joined the family. The cockatiel’s owners moved away and were unable to take him with them. Our family had fish, a cat, small children… why not add a bird to the mix?

Popeye was magnificently handsome with gray and white feathers, orange cheeks, and a bright yellow crest. He was fierce too. I didn’t get too close to him for fear of being bit. Well, I stayed away most of the time. I remember a lot of painful fingertips, so I must have had some interaction with him. Like most small children, I had to learn to keep my fingers to myself and out of the bird cage.

We all had fun visiting pet stores to pick out new toys for Popeye. Birds love jangles and bells. His largest toy was an arched ladder that attached to the top of his cage. He would sit up there chirping and screeching. Popeye was a big fan of popcorn too. It was the only thing besides birdseed that he would eat.

Mom got along with him the best. She was the only one who could hold him. Like most cockatiel's, Popeye was a "one person" bird. Mom remembers that after we went to bed, Popeye would perch on the top of her book while she read in the evening. A confirmed troublemaker, Popeye nibbled at the books. It was the only way he could appreciate the written word.

At the time, my mom wasn’t sure if it was right to clip a bird’s wings, so Popeye was free to stretch his wings occasionally. He would take off from his perch and fly in circles around the room. That was exciting! We didn’t like it when he flew, however, because he always ended up on the floor eventually. What if Charity’s feline hunting instincts awoke?

Popeye and Charity got along just fine, so there was no need to worry. What we didn’t worry about was the front door. What were the chances that Popeye’s urge to fly would happen while the door was open?

Well, it happened. It was our last autumn in New England, and Mom was walking through the door when Popeye took his chance. Out he went! He flew high into the sky – higher than he had ever been able to go before. Mom, David, and I ran out into the street after him.

“Popeye! Popeye!” we yelled. I was louder than anyone. Popeye ignored us completely. He was so happy! His chirps were shriller and more excited than ever as he gained altitude. His circles above the house continued on without any hesitation.

Then, without any warning, our cockatiel broke the circle and flew in a straight line away from the house until he was lost from sight.

Popeye was our bird. Sure, he wasn’t loveable or soft, and I couldn’t hold or cuddle him. It didn’t matter that he bit me. He was our bird – our pet. He was loud, bold, and colorful – full of character and spice.

And he was gone.

Susanna ran out of the kitchen where she was making muffins. Her red tearful face matched my own. She was so relieved to see me and gave me a big hug. “I thought you were run over by a car, Elizabeth! I heard you yelling, “Goodbye! Goodbye! I thought you were dying!” Susanna cried.

“Goodbye? No, I said Popeye. He flew away!” I sobbed.

The neighbors had all come out by this time. “Little Italy” had awakened, and an abundance of advice was offered. We ended up putting Popeye’s bird cage on the roof of our house for a few days in the hope that he would return.

He never came back, but it might have been a lot worse. I could have died.

More Charity

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Charity -- Our Family Cat

I still remember the little fish tank we set up when I was small. The first pet I remember was a blue betta. The tank had come with goldfish as a birthday present for my sister Susanna, but the goldfish didn’t last long enough to make an impression on me.

We kept the tank occupied with one fish or another for years, and we named them all. Some lived a long time, and one, a beautiful fish we called “Christmas” lived just a day. Ironically, its name told the story of its life with us. It was a Christmas present that died overnight due to the light being left on in its tank. That was sad, but we replaced it with a new fish as soon as we could – and we were a little more careful with the light.

As children, my brother, sister, and I desperately wanted a pet we could hold, cuddle, and play with. We begged for a dog or a cat. My parents didn’t know if that was a possibility. At the time, I didn’t understand their concerns about the cost of pet food or the commitment involved with taking care of an animal. We just wanted a pet.

I was four years old when my mom took Susanna and me to a birthday party at a neighbor’s house around the corner. We had a good time, but the best part was when we got home. Mom and Dad had a surprise for us!

Dad and David had brought home a small and fury new member of the family while we were gone – a cat named Charity! Actually, her full name was Suselda Charity Moore, but we soon forgot her first name altogether.

Charity was a female blue-cream Persian from a family of show animals. Our kitty didn’t have the “short, snub, and broad” nose that is a characteristic of the breed, so she was ineligible for showing and was sold as a pet instead. She was beautiful! She had long silky fur and a regally subdued manner. I was in awe.
She sat perfectly still as I climbed onto the couch next to her and began to stroke her blue-cream fur. Her loud rumble of a purr broke out as I continued to pet her. We stayed up on the couch together for a long time as I gently petted her.

Charity stayed downstairs as a kitten. She never ventured up the stairs to our bedrooms, but I wanted her to be able to go upstairs. I took it upon myself to teach her how to climb the steps. We worked on placing one paw above the other until she could manage the steps all by herself. I am not sure my parents were thrilled that the cat had full reign of the house after my “helpful” instruction, but what was done was done. Soon, she was freely running up and down the stairs. Her favorite place was still the living room though, and she preferred the piano above every other perch.

Charity was not an excitable cat. No, she was too “important” for that and had quite an opinion of herself. She spent hours grooming her long fur, and there was a lot of it! Mom and Dad combed out great masses of it when they groomed her, and there was plenty more after she had squirmed from their laps.

Charity was cultured and well mannered. She loved music and would leap up onto the piano to listen to my dad play. She was there for our family worship times, our singing of Christmas carols during the Advent season, and the Tuesday night Bible Studies we called CARE Group. The piano was her mountain throne from which she could direct the Moore Kingdom.

She was sweet, playful, and never overly timid or vicious with me and my siblings. My sister loved Charity a great deal, but she had a slightly different relationship with Charity at times. Hint: has anyone read Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin by Marguerite Henry? Unfortunately, Susanna had. Overall, Charity was great with kids.

Outgoing is not the right word for Charity, but she loved her catnip and toys all the same. Like most cats, she was crazy about catnip. Her usually dignified demeanor was chased away by the smallest scent of it. She loved her toy mice too. They did not last very long around our house. She would have her fun with her “mouse” and literally fly around the house swatting it around until it would mysteriously disappear while we weren’t watching. Only later did we find her stash of buried game under the floor heater -- predictably close to the piano.

Charity was not a true mouser. The only real mouse she ever killed was an accident. A new house was being built in our neighborhood, and it drove lots of mice from their homes. It was a good thing we had a cat, right? Well, Charity didn’t know the difference between a toy mouse and the real rodent. She played with them both the same. The poor mouse would be swatted around as Charity gently played with her new pet. Only one mouse actually died from the experience, and I think it was from a heart attack.

We were a little worried about her cat instincts arising when a bird was added to the family, but there was no need to worry. We returned home once to find the bird cage accidentally left open. Popeye, our cockatiel, was perched at the end of the door. Charity was seated on a chair less than a foot away. They were just having pet fellowship. The fish tank and bird cage fascinated her, but Charity never bothered either one – ever.

There was nothing more pitiful than Charity after a bath. She hated them! Her luscious fur needed to be cleaned occasionally, but she knew her beauty was lost when wet. The self confident kitty became a quaking, wide-eyed wreck when her wet fur clung to her body after a bath. We would wrap her in a warm towel and love on her, but nothing could return her self respect until her fur was gracefully and luxuriously dry again.

Charity was an indoors only New England cat. She preferred the cooler temperatures Massachusetts provided. It was a culture shock for her when my family moved to Oklahoma. The move must have provided some fun for her at first. She would climb in the boxes and watch as we pulled things out of cabinets and closets. But her privacy was violated when we unearthed her stash of mice. She must have felt uneasy when her precious piano was placed on its side, its legs were removed, and it was carried from the house.

The end was certainly near when she was caught and forcefully restrained in her cat carrier. She panted, meowed, and complained as we moved her to the front seat of our blue van and began the migration south. She was the absolute picture of misery as we left her home and drove those first few days, but she relaxed as the drive rolled into its third and fourth days. We were quite a sight by the end. Charity wandered the van at will, and our bird was perched on Mom’s shoulder.

Charity tried to make herself at home in her new state. Her piano was reassembled, and she found comfort in its familiarity. Unfortunately, Oklahoma just wasn’t home sweet home for her. It was hot, and heat didn’t go well with her blue-cream masterpiece! Without central air it was impossible to regulate the temperature. We could sympathize with her some. I wasn’t used to the heat either, and yes, it was miserable. Still, I didn’t have that big mass of fur she had to deal with, so I can only imagine her discomfort.

The fleas in Oklahoma were heartier and more abundant than in her old home. An occasional bath kept them under control in Massachusetts, but in Oklahoma we were in a losing battle in what we found out was a flea infested home. It became hell on earth for our precious Charity. We tried everything: new bath treatments, sprinkling salt on the floors, constant vacuuming, and medication. Nothing seemed to work. Charity began to struggle with keeping her fur in order, and grooming became painful. The medications made her sick, and the heat became relentless once summer returned.

It makes me so sad to think of Charity during this time. She was a beautiful and loving cat with a nature that matched her name. She could be a little aloof at times, and she gradually became less playful, but she was a sedate, calm, and friendly beauty that we all loved.

I adopted a stray cat named Empress after our move to Oklahoma. Empress was as unlike Charity as opposites can get. She was a short haired tabby with gray, black, and gold fur. She didn’t have a pedigree at all, and she had survived on her own by hunting rodents and birds. Black starlings were her specialty. She did okay surviving the neighborhood as a stray, but she really needed a family. She was small and usually at the losing end of the cat territory wars around our house. Neighborhood kids chased and tormented her. She needed a loving family to take her in, and I was more than willing to become her best friend. She was primarily an outdoor cat, and Charity envied the adolescent cat’s freedom to be outdoors and find cooler refuge in the shade of the trees.

Charity began to look for a way out. Although doors never interested her in Massachusetts, her new escapist tendencies forced us to be watchful when exiting or entering the house. For her own protection, our posh cat needed to stay inside. Sadly, she didn’t know that. Freedom was realized when she found an exit through my brother’s window.

We were so worried for her! Where was our precious Charity? We looked all over, but we couldn’t find her anywhere. Charity was gone for a couple days before she found her way back home. I was so happy to see her back! She was home safe and sound!

She was home for only a few days before she disappeared again. We weren’t as worried as before. She knew how to find her way back, right? Still, we searched all over the neighborhood. We made posters and went door to door asking if our blue-cream Persian had been seen. No one recognized her.

Charity lived a graceful life, and her exit from our family was as graceful and unexciting as her life had been. There were no violent tears. No definitive end. I expected her return every day. Only gradually did I come to realize she wasn’t coming home. Still, I couldn’t be sure. I imagined that a new family had found her and given her a home. They would have air-conditioning, and she would finally be comfortable again. At night, I dreamed that she returned to visit us. It was lifelike and realistic in a misty kind of way. In my dreams she was able to communicate to me with her beautiful wide eyes that she was alright; she still loved us.

She always left again before I awoke, but that was okay. She was happy and well. I would wake up slowly feeling at peace with the belief that Charity had actually returned – until I was fully awake.

I am so thankful for Charity. She was such a blessing to our family. She was the one that made me love cats. She was my first real pet, and I am thankful for the many years we had with her.