Every year when I was a kid, as soon as school let out for spring break, my mom and dad would pack us girls (and our dog Whiskers) in the car and take a road trip down to L.A. My sister and I would take our Walkmans and we would get to stop at Taco Bell for lunch. We'd hold our noses as we drove down highway 5 and past Harris Ranch. We'd stop about 6 times in 6 hours to pee. And, we'd bicker at least half the way. When we finally arrived in Los Angeles, my dad's huge family would greet us in Encino at my grandparents' house and we would spend the entire break swimming in their pool, going to the beach and playing dress up games with our cousins.
On Easter, my mom would dress us up in our floral dresses and sometimes let us wear lipstick. We'd go to church in grandpa's Cadillac and later have an Easter egg hunt in my grandparents' sprawling yard. My grandma, though, had the most memorable job of all. She would make the lamb cake. Smothered in frosting and coconut (to make it look like it had wool), with two raisins for eyes and a clove for a nose, it was always adorable and a perfect Easter treat.
When my grandmother died, I decided that I wanted to carry on the tradition (which happens to be very German). We searched my grandparents' things top to bottom to find the heavy, vintage mold she used to make the cake. But, the search came up empty and we quickly realized that a family heirloom was lost forever. Always big on tradition, I nevertheless was determined to find something that matched the lost mold. I found a couple of things that came close, but nothing that was exactly the same. For several years, I made cartoonish lamb cakes that were a far cry from the gentle sweet creature my grandmother used to make.
In those years after her death, as the quality of the lamb cakes deteriorated, so too did Easter. The epic trips to L.A. became short weekends, with unexciting flights between Sacramento and Burbank. Grandma and grandpa's extra twin bedroom and 70s shag carpeting was replaced by a Hyatt hotel. There was no more swimming in the pool or going to the beach. And, eventually, Easter trips to L.A. stopped all together.
Then, several years later, while browsing an antique fair in Auburn, my mom was hit with a moment of inspiration, a flash of memory, a guiding hand, perhaps. "This would be a great place to look for a lamb cake mold!" she thought. Feeling a kind of sense of urgency, she started looking around a bit and, to her surprise, noticed that not 10 feet away from her was a lamb baking form, in the exact size and shape of my grandma's lost mold.
From that day to the present, not a year has gone by that I have not made a lamb cake in honor of my grandmother. And, while it hasn't changed the fact that the family does not often see each other on Easter anymore, it has brought us all together--emotionally--to honor the woman that shaped all our lives.
With the mold safely waiting for me in California--I would never trust the U.S. Postal Service with it--I have sometimes resorted to help from German bakeries to carry out my (our) yearly tradition. Seeing as the tradition most likely came from my grandmother's German heritage, I think it is an appropriate tribute. Plus, I know that that serendipitous find will remain safe and sound for me to pass down to my children or grandchildren someday.
So, grandma, grandpa and family, once again I have made you a cake. It's got coconut fur, two raisins for eyes and a clove for a nose. It contains all my love and memories, just as grandma's used to. And I hope that this picture allows that love and those memories to travel across the seas and heavens and into your hearts.