After my parents split up my brother and I lived with my mom almost full time. We saw dad every other weekend until he moved to Chicago, when visits turned into bi annual events. I think I was around 11 when my newly single mom decided to go back to school for her master’s degree. This decision was of such a super human nature that even in my selfish little world of me-me-me I recognized how incredibly hard my mom worked, around the clock, with almost no help, continuously and somehow, most of the time, with a smile.

Monday through Friday she woke up, got herself together, made three lunches, got my brother and me together, drove us to school, drove herself to school, taught for 8 hours, picked us up, fed us, checked our homework, went off to her night classes, came home, did a few things around the house, and then went to sleep only to do this all over again in just a few hours. For years.

My mom did this for years until finally, one night she was on her way to her last class. She didn’t make a very big deal about this but she had mentioned at the beginning of the month that her last class was the last day of the month and that we’d start having more time together in the evenings. It was one of those things where I was confused by her casual attitude about graduating. In all of the movies I’d seen about someone graduating there was always a big celebration with cake.

I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to pull together a large celebration but I knew I could get a cake. I saved a little bit of my allowance for a few weeks and the second mom closed the front door, saying, “wish me luck, this is it” I ran upstairs, grabbed the few bucks I had squandered and told my little brother to go get his bike, that we were going to the store.

We pedaled the 7 or 8 blocks to the local grocery store, went in, found what we needed, paid and raced home. At this point in my life I had never tried to bake anything, let alone follow a recipe by myself but saw that all I needed to do was add some oil, a few eggs and some milk. Easy.

I poured the mix into a bowl, cracked in two eggs, two tablespoons of oil and grabbed a measuring cup for the milk. The box said to add 1 3/4cups of milk. But the way it was written, or should I say, the way I read it, it looked like it said 13/4’s. I did think it was odd to ask for 13/4’s of something but it just so happened that I had just learned how to convert fractions in math a week earlier. Confident of my ability to keep going, I rationalized this strange measurement request with the fact that these recipes were written by adults-for adults, because adults would easily know how to convert fractions. So, even though it did cause for a brief pause, it wasn’t that weird, it was just a grown-up thing, and it wasn’t going to stop me.

I did the math and added 3 ¼ cups of milk, mixed it all together, greased a cake pan, poured the mix in the pan and put it in the oven at 350. The package said to stick a toothpick in it in 20 minutes.

20 minutes later I opened the oven, stuck a toothpick in the watery pan of chocolate goo and reread the box to see if I had missed something. I saw this addendum at the bottom of the box that said, “oven temperatures and times may vary due to elevation” or something like that. And although that made no sense to me, I was sure it did to adults and decided to give it ten more minutes.

10 minutes later it was just as gooey. I decided to turn up the oven.

10 more minutes later it was still gooey but now, at 450 degrees it was also bubbling and spitting like chocolate hot lava. Clearly something wasn’t right, it was just too watery. So, I grabbed a handful of Bisquick, tossed it in and stirred a little bit.

5 minutes later I opened the oven door to find a huge chocolate balloon that had swollen so high it had hit the top of the oven. It was much bigger than I had intended but it would do.

I grabbed the toothpick to see if it was done and when I poked it the whole thing collapsed quite dramatically. I pulled it out of the oven and was now holding a smoking black mass of petrified bubbles in a very, very burnt cake pan.

A second later the smoke alarm went off which freaked the dog out enough to hop the fence and run like hell down the street while my brother was screaming and threatening to call the fire department.

I caught my brother and got the phone away from him right before he had dialed that last 1, sprinted three blocks down to catch the dog, opened up all of the windows and doors in the house and went back to the kitchen to see what I could salvage. As defeated as I felt, the idea of my mom graduating from college without a cake made my stomach ache. I chiseled the cake-brick out of the pan and proceeded to frost the different rock-hard chunks with lemon frosting, my mom’s favorite. Once the oven had cooled I did my best to clean it out. I was actually a little worried my mom would be mad at me at this point and so decided to clean the whole kitchen.

By the time my mom got home my brother and I had cleared off the dining room table and decorated it with three plates, three forks, three glasses of milk, a handmade card that my brother made, a fresh bouquet of dandelions and daisies in a small cup that my brother had picked and one awful, inedible cake with a tub of vanilla ice cream sitting next to it.

She walked in the door and said, “I’m home! I’m done with school!… What’s that smell? Is something burning? What is this? Did you do this for…” and as it all started to make sense to her rather quickly, I burst with watering eyes and said, “I totally ruined the cake, mom! I don’t think we can eat it” She grinned, sat down by a plate and said, “Oh my gosh, is that lemon frosting?! My favorite!” She grabbed a fork to take a bite. And as it crunched in her mouth like a piece of gravel she said, “I think it might have needed a bit more milk, honey” and we all started to laugh for our own reasons.

My brother gave her the handmade card that read “Congratulations of your Graduation from your Degree” which included some serious spelling issues, but the sentiment was clear. My mom’s voice started to wobble and crack as she said, “You two sure know how to make a graduate feel special. Now, who wants some of this amazing food?”

We didn’t eat the cake, we couldn’t. But all three of us ate lemon frosted ice cream with some of the proudest faces you have ever seen.