This is the story of Vonita and Grey Mayer, two sisters whose story lives on in memory, and more vividly, a pound cake recipe.
As much time as Grey and Vonita spent together, I never saw them talk excessively to one another. You could often find them sitting on a glider on Vonita’s screened-in porch, gently swaying back and forth. Only the creak of the metal glider broke the silence. Vonita was my grandmother, and Grey was my great aunt. In my personal encounters, Grey seemed to be a stoic, somewhat serious, and distant individual. I always knew my grandmother to be warm, gentle, and patient. Considering they had four other siblings, I often wondered why my grandmother had such an emotional connection to Grey. To me, it seemed they had a stark contrast in personalities and sparse conversations. But their history was so much richer than the surface showed. Not only were they close in age, but they had married brothers, Russell and Stanley, creating a very close family bond over the years between even their most extended relatives who attended Christmas at Vonita’s house.
Grey’s sour cream pound cakes were not as famous as her mashed potatoes or "wacky cake," but still ranked high on the dessert table. When the cake was still warm, you could pick up a whole piece with your fork without it crumbling. Fluffy cakes have always been overrated, in my opinion. If I'm choosing to indulge in dessert, I'd prefer it not to be a forkful of mostly air.
Grey’s dessert was of the main reasons we decided to maintain a tradition of dessert at my grandparents’ house. We had to disband our overwhelming dinner crowd when the extended family continued to grow. Each time the front door opened, the smell of dessert would seep from underneath the aluminum foil. Soon, the entire house filled with aromas of cinnamon, chocolate, brown sugar, coffee, vanilla extract, and pie crust. I was about 9 years old that year and had just entered into a phase of challenging myself to taste test all dessert brought into my vicinity.
Each relative had brought his or her signature dessert, nothing too inventive or edgy, perhaps attempting to convince everyone that Christmas had never changed. This year, instead of "Wacky Cake," she went with a Sour Cream Pound Cake. Not her usual choice, but anything Grey made was usually a winner. One brave soul stood in the doorway between the dining room and den and gave the official “dessert is served” announcement. After the initial swarm, we all sat down to enjoy our selection. "The Christmas Song" by Nat King Cole dreamily drifted in from the record player in the den. Some people stealthily snuck into the dining room for second, third, and even fourth servings.
At the end of the evening, I peeked into the dining room to assess the damage. Hopefully, some people forgot to take their leftovers home. That meant the dish would find its new home on the screened-in back porch for post-holiday scavenging. The crowd had reduced most desserts to one or two pieces. However, there was one tiny sliver taken out of Grey’s pound cake. Otherwise, it remained untouched. My curiosity was overwhelming as I cut the thinnest sliver of cake with delicate precision and popped in into my mouth. The dryness and gritty texture hit like a slap in the face. I quickly grabbed the nearest napkin and deposited the chewed-up remnants, neatly concealing it into the napkin’s folds.
I discreetly moved to the kitchen to throw my napkin away. I then took a seat to reflect on the situation while scraping the bottom of the dip bowl with a celery stick. Grandma was already rinsing dishes even though we still had relatives over. She fixed her gaze beyond the fields of tall grass out the kitchen window, gave a deep sigh, and slowly dried off her hands with a dishrag. She moved across the kitchen and started rummaging through the silverware drawer. Pulling out a fairly large, wide knife, she swiftly moved to the attached dining room. A few moments later, she returned with a whole quarter of Grey’s pound cake resting between her knife and bottom hand. She went right to the trash, slipped the cake in without a word, and closed the garbage can. She then just stood in silence, staring blankly at the mustard-yellow countertop.
A few years later, my mom informed me that Grey had Alzheimer’s. I realized that I had never known Grey without the illness. Her distance towards me was due to the highly progressed state of her Alzheimer’s in the years that I knew her. Most of the time, she probably forgot my name and stuck to mainly surface conversations to avoid embarrassment over forgotten details. Although she couldn't remember the exact ingredients by heart anymore, she could use a recipe. But on this last attempt, she couldn’t remember which ingredients she added.
In a world that became more confusing every day, her older sister, Vonita, was her constant. Soon, even Grey’s most vivid memories would fade. The memory of her sister's identity remained much longer than typical for Alzheimer's patients. Even when it did fade, I believe their bond was much deeper than the lost faces and names. It was roots. It was sisterhood. It was home.
Both Grey and Vonita have passed away, but I am reminded of my grandmother at least once every day. The other day while organizing our very small cookbook shelf at home, I stumbled upon one that looked as if it had been barely used. Delicate, pastel patterns surrounded the plain title: “I’m Writing My Own Cookbook.” I laughed in my head at the prospect of my mom actually writing down a recipe. Opening to the table of contents, my mother had only six total recipes accumulated over thirty years. Four of these titles started identically: “Vonita’s.” But the first recipe listed was “Sour Cream Pound Cake.”
They call it "pound cake" because to make it, you used to use a pound each of flour, sugar, butter, and eggs. This recipe is a modified version of the original with a little extra goodness.
Rich, simple, and everything a pound cake should be.
all-purpose flour (sifted)
Grey's Sour Cream Pound Cake
Preheat oven to 300°F
Beat butter and sugar at medium speed with an electric mixer for 2 minutes or until creamy.
Add eggs one at a time, beating just until incorporated.
Sift together flour, salt, and soda. Add the flour mixture to butter mixture gradually, alternating with adding the sour cream. Start and end with adding the flour mixture. Beat at a low speed with each addition.
Add extracts, beat well.
Pour batter unto a greased and floured 10-inch tube pan (or bundt pan) and put in the oven. Bake for 90 minutes.
Cool in pan on a wire rack for 10-15 minutes, then remove from pan and continue to cool on the wire rack.
I still think about Vonita often, and Grey, too. With my own middle name, "Grey," it's hard not to. They were two sisters who grew up in one of the poorest parts of the country during the 1930s as a family of farmers in a West Virginia coal-mining town. They both lived lives of humility and significance, loving each other and their families with fierce loyalty. I like to think that I honor their memory with my own fierce loyalty to sour cream pound cake.
Grey passed in 2012. Alzheimer's claims over 100,000 lives each year. Please consider donating to the Alzheimers Association. My grandmother, Vonita, passed away from ALS in 2010 at age 84. Also, consider donating to the ALS association. Both these strong women fought battles against horrible illnesses. With your help, we can continue to raise awareness, find treatments, and one day, cures.