I recently accompanied my mother to her seventieth reunion at Mount Holyoke College. Watching the parade of alumnae—beginning with the Class of 1934 and ending with the Class of 2009–was inspiring. From the old ladies remembering their youth to the young girls looking ahead to their prime, these women in white exuded confidence, humor, and joy.
The college made a great fuss over the Classes of 1934 and 1939, who enjoyed their moment in the sun. My mother particularly loved the hour or so we spent at the French department open house. There graduating seniors and returning alums mingled with faculty and staff.
At the open house I met up with one of my Mount Holyoke professors, Nicole Vaget, who still radiates passion for French history and culture. While we were chatting with Madame Vaget (even years after graduation it took me a while to call her Nicole) we noticed two signs of my mother’s time at Mount Holyoke on the wall of the French department library.
One was a plaque dedicated to her beloved professor Paul Saintonge. Paul and his wife Connie took my mother to France for the first time the summer after her freshman year in college, introducing her to the country and the language that would be her favorites. She still speaks of him fondly.
Above the plaque was a black-and-white photograph of a young woman wearing pearls. It bore a striking resemblance to my mother’s own yearbook photo from Mount Holyoke. “My goodness,” I said to my mother, “that’s Sylvia.”
“Oh,” responded my mother in the closest tone to a gush she could come up with (she is emphatically not a gusher), “MY SYLVIA!”
The subject of the photo was indeed her friend Sylvia Delight Sherk Hubble, who died in 1993. Her family established a memorial fund in her honor, and the college remembers her daily with this picture.
My mother made many close friends in college, but Sylvia may have been the closest. She lived up to her middle name and was a delight all her life. The daughter of missionaries (she led missionary children out of Iran at the onset of World War II), Sylvia wasn’t the smartest or the most ambitious of my mother’s friends. She was without a doubt the most lovable. She had a childlike enthusiasm for life that was infectious.
When she and my mother got together they were transformed into young girls. My mother would announce, “And now Sylvia Sherk will give her famous hog call,” or, “And now Sylvia Sherk will stand on her head.” Sylvia would comply, and they would both giggle. They probably didn’t help each other learn a lot of French in college. But they obviously taught each other a lot about friendship.
Sylvia’s marriage to Harry Hubbell, a physicist, made her friends from college a little suspicious. They were won over by Harry’s gentle demeanor and his devotion to Sylvia, however. The pair enjoyed hiking, camping, and skiing together and hated to be apart. On a visit to my parents’ home in the 1980s, I recall, they ended up sleeping in a single cot in the guestroom when issued separate beds. “I got lonely without Sylvia,” Harry explained the next morning.
When I was in graduate school at the University of Tennessee, Sylvia and Harry often invited me to their small house in Oak Ridge. There they enjoyed community and church life, bird watching, and their garden.
Sylvia wasn’t the world’s best cook, but she brought her sense of fun to everything she created in the kitchen. I recall the company more than the food during those visits in which she and Harry served as my Tennessee “parents.” Nevertheless, one item she baked stands out in my memory because of its vivid color.
One spring afternoon Sylvia brought to the table the most garish cake I had ever seen. It had one green layer and one orange layer. She explained that she had created it with a cake mix and two different flavors of gelatin. It tasted better than it looked although it was very, very, very sweet.
Years later, when I was corresponding with nutritionists at Betty Crocker about something the company advertised on television in the 1950s, I obtained the recipe for “Color Vision Cake.” This must have been more or less the formula Sylvia used.
In her honor I recreated it last week. I decided that the single flavor of gelatin in the recipe was probably enough. I also modified the icing slightly, adding more butter and less sugar than the folks at Betty Crocker suggested. It came out a perfect 1950s pink, not unlike the hue of my grandmother’s appliances and bathroom tiles.
Despite its hint of artificial flavor the cake was a hit, particularly with the young and with those who were young at heart like the delightful Sylvia.
I hope that you eat it with lots of milk and fresh fruit (to cut the sugar)—and that you think of someone you love as my mother loved her Sylvia. That affection is a tribute to the lasting friendships nurtured in places like Mount Holyoke.
Color Vision Cake
Courtesy of Betty Crocker
for the cake:
1 package (4-serving size) fruit-flavored gelatin (I used raspberry)
1 package white cake mix
1-1/4 cups water
1/3 cup canola oil
3 egg whites
for the frosting:
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
the reserved gelatin
milk as needed
2 to 3 cups confectioner’s sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and lightly flour the bottoms (only) of 2 8- or 9-inch round pans. (The 8-inch pans work a little better.) Measure out 3 tablespoons of the gelatin for the cake; save the remainder for the frosting.
Mix the cake according to the package directions, adding the 3 tablespoons of gelatin. Pour the batter into the prepared pans.
Bake the cakes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean; this should be 27 to 32 minutes for 8-inch pans and 25 to 28 minutes for 9-inch pans. Cool the layers in their pans on a rack for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the sides of the pans, and gently remove the cake layers to a wire rack. Cool them completely (about 1 hour).
To make the frosting, melt the butter. Beat in the gelatin, a splash of milk, and enough confectioner’s sugar (and perhaps additional milk) to make it spreadable. Ice the cake. Serves 10.
Tags: Betty Crocker Cake Mixes, Class of 1939, College Friendships, Color Vision Cake, Jan Weisblat, Mount Holyoke College, Mount Holyoke College French Department, Mount Holyoke College Reunions, Nicole Vaget, Sylvia Sherk Hubbell