May 28, 2011

Legacy to Lab Rat and Back

On May 28, 2004 my sweet baby Brett came into our lives. Our little boy was stillborn at 8 1/2 months. He weighed 7 lbs 6 oz and he had a full head of hair.  I miss him everyday and I am so grateful for him. Today he would be 7 years old, so we celebrate his birthday while we hold back tears. I love him so much and can't wait to be with him again.
In memory of my little Brett, I wanted to share this story with you. As a cake decorator the one question I get asked the most is: How did you get started baking cakes? So one day I sat down and started writing. I hope you enjoy my story.

My Grandma

Legacy to Lab Rat and Back

“Hey, Wendy Woo,“ my grandpa Lowell whispered as I walked past the dining room. He was sitting in a large chair positioned perfectly so grandma couldn’t see him, “Here is what I need you to do, “I would smile because I knew candy was involved in this plan. Grandpa was prepared, he had scoped out the kitchen, he knew exactly where the candy laid unattended on the counter. “I will look out for Grandma, if you get the chocolates on the counter.” He waited patiently for just the right moment, then motioned for me to get into position. We waited, Grandma turned her back and opened the large cupboard in the kitchen, Grandpa seized the opportunity. “Go, go,” he whispered. I smiled and hurried off to the kitchen being careful not to make a noise.

“Lowell!” my Grandma screamed through the house as I scurried quickly out of the kitchen and to our rendezvous point. “Good Job,” he would whisper, snickering as I handed him the bag of vanilla candy coating. We only had a few moments before Grandma would come shuffling into the dining room, huffing and puffing. She would be mad all right, but we were prepared for that. Grandpa would take the blame for my thievery as long as we both got a treat. It was all planned perfectly.

Grandpa was a big man and used two canes when he walked. He stomped around slowly, but he was full of life and love. He cared for everyone around him. Often, we would pull up to the house and Grandpa would be sitting outside on a small bench in the middle of his lawn, watering the grass, or spraying the hose straight up into the tree, watering both the leaves and himself. He would sit there for hours just enjoying the beautiful summer air, and waving at the people driving by. But his favorite past time was playing tricks on Grandma.

My grandma made beautiful cakes! As a child I would sit in awe at her works of art. I loved going to their house, it always smelled like cake and frosting. Growing up it was my job to clean their house. Once a week Grandpa would drive out after school and pick me and my sister up and drive us back to their house. He loved to drive with the windows down and one arm out the window. We would talk all the way back to their house. Grandpa was a great listener. I would spend a few hours cleaning the house with a lot of chatting and tasting mixed in. I loved to watch my grandma work on her cakes. “Don’t bump the table!” she would yell, if anyone even got close to thinking about it. I always believed Grandma had a 6th sense about that table. I can still see her sitting at that blue table doing string work and making roses. As long as we didn’t get too close we could sit down in a chair and watch her work. I would find myself holding my breath as she piped.

Through the years, I would watch her and ask questions. I always knew I would spend my life making cakes for my kids and for friends, but never really considered it a career path. I went onto college and spent my time doing ballet and studying the sciences. Biology mostly, but I loved physics too. After a few years, I got a job, doing what I would consider the opposite of cake decorating. I started working in a microbiology laboratory. I worked in the I.D. department, it was my job to grow bacteria and molds and figure out what they were. Samples would come in from all over the country and we would figure out what was growing. The big, scary ones we think of in the food industry (i.e. E. coli, salmonella) we grew them every day. As a lab rat, I sat in front of a sterile hood in my long white lab coat and goggles and spent hours inspecting each plate of bacteria, categorizing them by size, shape and color. Then I would separate them and grow all of them individually. It was very tedious work. After they were grown we would put them on slides and again spend hours at a microscope inspecting each one comparing it to their outward characteristics. Surprisingly, it was a fun job, but it stunk, literally, growing hundreds of plates of bacteria at a time, all of them with their own repugnant odor. Combined together they caused a pretty bad smell that clung to clothes and just wouldn’t come out. I would get home from work and my husband would grimace as he tried to kiss me hello, then it was off the shower for me, because he just couldn’t stand the smell. A few times I stopped at the grocery store to pick something up for dinner and I could see the people waiting in line around me scrunching up their noses and looking around, probably looking for a dead animal under the cabinet or something. Trying not to look guilty, I would start looking around too, hoping no one got close enough to figure out it was me.

My grandma on her honeymoon
The years went by, I would make a wedding cake here or there and birthday cakes for friends and family, but the stinky lab was my home until one day when my life threw me in a different direction. My oldest son was 3 and we were expecting another baby very soon. My husband had one semester left to receive his Engineering degree and life seemed pretty good. Then one day, my darling little baby in my tummy stopped moving. I was 8 ½ month pregnant, so I thought maybe he was tired from all the kicking he had been doing lately, and the hiccups, he always had the hiccups. Now he was motionless. I poked at my tummy trying, willing and praying for him to move, but nothing. I called my husband and we met at the hospital. The news wasn’t good, he was gone. Our precious little baby boy would never grow into a man, he would never play with toys, or wake me up in the middle of the night. That night as I held his little body in my arms and yearned for him to open his eyes, to cry, to wiggle, I felt a desire to return back to my roots, back to family and friends, to comfort and warmth. I couldn’t go back to that cold sterile laboratory, to the white walls and Clorox bleach. I needed warmth and reassurance. I needed home.

Through the pain, I developed a stronger friendship with my mom and my grandma. Remember my grandma from before; she had learned a lot in these years too. She had become gentle and kind. She was now in her 80’s, frail and legally blind. Grandma spent her whole life showing friends and family she loved them by sharing her talent of baking. Now she was alone, Grandpa had passed on and she would spend her days sitting at the same blue table watching, or listening to the television. So every week I would make chocolate chip cookie dough, shape them into balls, put them into a freezer bag, wrap them all up and take them to Grandma. Then she would have cookie dough she could bake for visitors.

I asked her one day if she would teach me how to decorate cakes. She beamed with pride and agreed. We spent months practicing piping and string work, roses and flowers. Although blind and home bound, she sat patiently with me, my cute little 3 year old son playing on the floor at my feet and we practiced. Grandma could see out the sides of her eyes if it was close enough. So I would work, then hand her my rose nail with my awkward rose on top. Grandma put it so close to her eyes I was worried she would get frosting on her cheek. She would smile at me and says "That is a little better, Wendy Woo, let me show you again." I would lead her hand to the center of the nail and she proceeded to make a perfect rose. I smiled and tried again. She taught me how to make butter cream and royal icing. She taught me about baking and cooling cakes, structures and supports. We would sit for hours and chat and work. It was a wonderful time.

In recent years I have expanded my horizons. I have taken the traditional techniques my Grandma taught me and developed them. I ventured into the world of fondant and gum paste. I work at perfecting my skills, an accomplishment that may never be reached. But, the legacy that my Grandma left, reminds me of the sweetness of life, the joy in the journey. I love, like my grandma to bring smiles to people’s faces when I present them with a beautiful cake.

I miss her now. Every time I get out the flour and sugar and start to bake, I think of her. I feel so close to her when I am baking and wish I could call and ask her questions. Memories I thought were lost, flood my mind and I am swept back to the smells and tastes of my Grandma’s kitchen. I guess that is why I love to bake, it takes me back to my roots, back to the memories that have made me who I am. That is why I am a cake artist.

Wendy McGowan


  1. I think this post was a long time coming.

    You made me cry as I remembered my own grandma and the things I wish I'd learned from her before she died. Been thinking of you guys and little Brett this weekend.

    Miss you guys!

  2. Becca sent me the link to your post. It made me cry as I thought of my mother. She was like your grandmother. She was so very talented in everything she did. She made cakes, sewed clothes, dolls and upholstered furniture. Like Becca I wish I had learned more from her.
    Thank you for your writing I truly enjoyed it!