Column – Caramel cake in a purse

Published 7:22 pm Friday, September 9, 2022

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By Charles Qualls

A weekly column in a pastor’s hands is a lot like a weekly sermon in that you eventually lose track of what you’ve told and what you haven’t told. It’s possible that I’ve already told this. I doubt it, though.

What brings each of us rest, and what brings each of us peace, is so unique. What would be of meaning, of comfort or satisfaction, differs from person to person. In the deep south, as you know, we tend to extend love and condolences to one another through food.

Somehow in your moment of grief or challenge, there’s nothing like seeing a neighbor walking into your house carrying a Tupperware full of green bean casserole. The deviled eggs you’ve had a thousand times at the church socials take on a new level of richness when your friend has brought them into your home of bereavement.

So it was several years ago now that my father-in-law died. He had lived a full and somewhat amazing life. In fact, at the age of 64 he had even enrolled in college. Newly retired, he decided that his life wouldn’t be complete without a bachelor’s degree.

Fourteen years later, a newspaper and two television stations dispatched reporters to his commencement as he became the oldest graduate in university history. At 78, he finally finished. By 85, this lifetime deacon had gone on to his heavenly reward.


Before his funeral, their church hosted a luncheon for family and the ministers. We enjoyed a nice, quiet time together just before the service. Then, as the funeral hour approached we headed upstairs to the Sanctuary. Since I was just behind her on the staircase, at one turn my wife’s purse gaped open. It was right at my eye level.

“Is that a piece of caramel cake in your purse?” I whispered. As though this sort of thing was as normal as could be, she simply looked at me and replied, “Yes.” There it was, a slice of cake sitting on a Styrofoam dessert plate. Wrapped in plastic. Inside a Dooney and Bourke.

We continued the climb. “What’s a piece of caramel cake doing in your purse at a funeral?” I asked the daughter of the deceased. Again, a look of business-as-usual came my way. “Well, they knew I liked the end piece. They wanted me to have it.”

I had no more questions. The service went beautifully. Everyone was so nice. The pastor there, a colleague I have admired for years, did such a respectful and appropriate job. Finally, we retreated to her childhood home and closed the door for the day.

No one was really hungry for a meal. We were all still reflecting, a little sad and a lot grateful. After days of fitful sleep, grief and millions of decisions, we were confronted with quiet now.

“Mom, can I get you something to eat?” a dutiful daughter asked. “No, honey, I’m fine” she said. OK, then. “Well, I’m gonna snack on something,” my wife said. “You want anything?” she asked me.

“Just a couple bites of something would be good. I’m not even thinking about a meal yet,” I answered. I saw her cogs turning and then she lit up. “I think I know just the thing.”

Into her vast leather purse she reached. Out came a somehow pristine end slice of the most beautiful caramel cake one could ever want to see. She pulled out two cellophane wrapped forks right after it. I joined her at the table. For a few moments, we experienced the comfort and familiarity that we so desperately needed with every small bite.

This Labor Day week, it might not be a piece of cake out of a purse. It might have been a trip to your favorite spot at the lake. Maybe you had a visit with your beloved family. Perhaps you caught up binge-watching that show you’ve discovered recently. You may have finally gotten around to experimenting with that new recipe you’ve been curious about.

Whatever has brought you away from the gravity of the moment. Whatever has brought you comfort and familiarity. Whomever has visited upon you the love and hope of a good relationship, I pray this long weekend holiday gave you rest for your soul.

If not, may I suggest that you need to get you a friend or two who would lovingly pry open your purse and shove a slice of caramel cake down into it at just the right moment. Good church folks are simply impossible to beat in that way. So are healthy family and friends.