Earlier this week, I delivered a foil-wrapped baked good to the desk of a friend and co-worker, who’s husband had been hospitalized recently. Soon enough, someone walked by and tried to peek inside, enticed by the sweet, fruity smell. At that moment, I happened to walk down the hallway, just in time to hear her being told, “that’s Grandma Hessert’s blueberry cake!” I can’t tell you how that tickled me–that was my Grandma Hessert’s Blueberry Cake–and it was being recognized as if it was as famous as Mrs. Field’s Chocolate Chip Cookies!
My Grandma Hessert’s Blueberry Cake is a funny, delicious thing. It has been a Christmas morning tradition for as long as I can remember…my own kids believe that Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without blueberry coffee cake. It is the baked good of choice when friends and family are recovering from illness, welcoming new babies, celebrating an accomplishment, or grieving for a loved one. I make it for Sunday morning gatherings and deliver at least a dozen as Christmas gifts, making Grandma Hessert’s blueberry cake someone else’s Christmas morning tradition…one home at a time.
The funny thing is…my Grandma Hessert didn’t really like to cook…or bake…and she really wasn’t very good at it! I was talking to my Dad recently about his Mom…and her cooking. Mostly, I would say, “…but didn’t you like it when she made (insert German/Pennsylvania Dutch “specialty” here…spaetzle, scrapple, springerles) and his response was the same over and over…”nope, that came from over on the Hill.” The “Hill” was a certain area of South Williamsport, PA, on a hill, where many German immigrants settled, including my Grandpa Hessert’s family. My Grandparents lived close to the Hill, but not quite on it. Basically, if Dad wanted traditional dishes, he would wait until he visited an Aunt or Uncle, or wait for one of them to visit him. My Pop-Pop (Henry), a house painter, would make most of the meals during the week, although Dad said that Grandma Hessert made a mean Sunday dinner…that, and peanut brittle and creamed hamburger, were her specialties. And her biggest cooking secret? Sugar. At least a teaspoon of it in EVERYTHING, whether or not it was indicated in the recipe!
My Grandma Hessert (Esther) was a wonderful woman. She was pretty, with a smile that made her eyes light up, but she didn’t put up with any bull. A mother of all boys, born over the course of 10 years (just like me, although she had 3 to my 4), makes me feel connected. She was a short, robust woman, who always wore an apron in the kitchen (though she rarely cooked) and until she was in her late 70, she wouldn’t have dreamed of wearing pants…only dresses…and under those dresses, she was smooth as could be, girdle and stockings every day, like a proper woman. She worked at several local department stores when my father was growing up, selling hats and scarves and jewelry. Oh, the jewelry. She had a whole drawer, neatly organized, in her bedroom dresser, with the best costume jewelry I’ve ever seen. And she loved it when her granddaughters would doll themselves up with her jewels. I spent so much time sitting on her bedroom floor making myself beautiful!
I don’t remember ever having blueberry coffee cake at her house. My Dad doesn’t remember having blueberry coffee cake at her house. Like me, he only remembers my Mom making it. But my Mom gave me the recipe, and she swears that it came from my Grandma Hessert, given to her as a mother to a daughter (they loved each other that much), and my mother passed it along to me. I don’t think my sisters make it, or my sister-in-law either, but my Mom and I use it like a secret weapon. It’s comforting. It makes people smile. It makes people feel loved and special. And I feel connected to my past when I make it, or give it, or sit down with a delicious piece of it myself. Maybe one day I will pass it down to my own daughters-in-law, when my sons find their special someones.
I remember visiting my Grandma Hessert in the hospital, not long before she passed away. I sat by her bedside, knitting a scarf while she drifted in and out of consciousness. She was a knitter, and was happy when I showed her that I had learned to knit while away at college. I remember concentrating on my knit one, purl two, thinking she was asleep, during our last afternoon visit. Suddenly I heard a quiet voice say, “I know you are here, Elise, because I can hear your needles clicking. I know you’re here.” I’ve always remembered those words, it was so comforting to me that she knew I was there. That was the last time I sat with my Grandma. Not long after, while I was away at school, she passed away. When I came home for the funeral, I’m sure we had blueberry cake.