Thursday, September 13, 2012

The cake plate, my last birthday cake and a few other things I forgot

“This cake plate came from your mother,” Debbie said, as she cut slices of her requested birthday variety – yellow with chocolate icing – for all of us who were there in her apartment on 94th Street. I stopped for a moment to consider what I’d just heard, feeling the way that our exchange student must feel several hundred times a day – I got the basic gist of her words, but I couldn’t understand their meaning. “You gave it to me when she died,” Debbie added, helpfully. Seeing my astonishment, she added, unhelpfully, “and also those candlesticks.”

Then she took a look at me, and in the way that only someone who has known you almost 40 years can do, she shut up.

Man, I thought, I really was really messed up back then, and I knew she was thinking the same thing.

Fourteen years ago my mother and I had left the house on a happy errand, to buy champagne for a party we were having that weekend. And while the best way to drop dead certainly must be while drinking champagne, it’s probably a close second to keel over while you’re on your way to buy it. “I don’t feel so good,” she had said, and she laid down in the driveway and died.

That’s her side of the story. On my half of the narrative, I had a three-year-old and a nine-month-old and a job I hated and a mother I kept trying to call every night after the kids were in bed, until about a year later when I stopped trying. It was, as they always say in retrospect, a tough time. So tough that I apparently found a lovely glass cake plate as I gathered up my mother’s things, and kindly thought of my best friend Debbie, whom my mother adored, and gave it to her, along with, at least according to her, some candlesticks. And then I forgot all about it until last week in Manhattan, when a little bit of my mother floated back to me on a breeze from the Hudson.

In the 14 years that have passed, I have baked a lot of birthday cakes, cupcakes, cake balls – whatever is required to mark the occasion of some else’s special-specialness. One year, Emma required a re-creation of Hogwart’s Castle, “with a moat,” she’d added. One year, Mary Katherine wanted a depiction of Junie B. Jones getting her head pecked into a nub by a plastic rooster. (Try finding a plastic rooster in February.) Last year, my extra-daughter Olivia, who said she’d always wanted to wake up to the smell of freshly baked cookies, arose to the aroma of a batch of my chocolate chips baking in her Dad’s oven. She saw my car in the driveway and knew that the Birthday Fairy had struck again.

The funny thing is, I really don’t care much for birthday cake myself. I remember very few of the cakes of my youth, mostly just those highly prized, Crisco-laden roses. One year, the candle holders were, wonderfully, little plastic ballerinas. I turned them into tub toys and mashed down their fingers with my back teeth, until they had duck bills at the end of their wrists, to complement their swan-like necks.

Maybe I didn’t care for cake because my own birthdays were never much fun. The day usually fell on the second week of the school year, and I swear that it must have been on a Tuesday for something like seven years running. It was just far enough into the year for me to realize that nothing would be different and most things would be worse. Getting a new lunch box, all wrapped up in Happy Birthday paper, didn’t help matters much.

And then there was my father’s desire to poop in the soup of any occasion where he could generate an audience and rev up some angst. I remember several beauts, but he topped himself the year I turned twelve and had just entered the stockyard-like junior high school up the street. That was the  birthday when he announced that he’d lost his job at age 52, had in fact been secretly out of work for two weeks and had been pretending to go to the office each day. He timed his announcement until the moment right after I blew out my candles, when he could get everyone's attention most easily.

So no, I never really had much desire to eat birthday cake.

The last cake I remember feeling happy about was the one I ate the year I turned 40. It was a carrot cake, and my mom had arranged to have it delivered from our local bakery. “Happy Birthday, Thelma and Louise,” it had said in an icing tribute to the road trip from which Debbie and I had just returned. Debbie had hatched the idea the year before, when I was 39, pregnant, and not in a very good mood. To “celebrate” my birthday, she’d suggested that she accompany me to try on maternity clothes.

Okay, I admit it, I did hit her. And yes, it was in the dressing room of the maternity shop. But it was only once I saw how truly awful this whole thing was going to be. In my defense, I suggest that YOU try on maternity clothes someday, even if you are not 39 and pregnant, and see how much you feel like hitting someone. After the fisticuffs, Debbie came up with a plan (probably after she called the airlines and realized she couldn’t get out of town early; at least that’s what I would have done). One year from today, she announced brightly, I would no longer be pregnant. And, for our day-apart birthdays, we would go on a Road Trip.

It sounds dumb now, but the merest promise that, next September, I could be drinking margaritas with her in some dive bar right over the Wisconsin border was pretty much what kept me going through huge chunks of the months that followed, and much of my labor. And lo, it came to pass, and we blew out of town for a few days, stopping in Ben Franklin stores, getting our nails done and eating in the finest Mexican restaurant in Delavan, Wisconsin. When we came home, the cake from Mom, with its sassy and celebratory icing inscription, was waiting. I ate a big piece.

A month later, my mother was dead. Then I started baking cakes for other people, making sure I carried matches for the candles and sneaking in for early-morning cookie baking. But whenever the cake, with its frisson of melted candle wax, was being plated and passed around, I always said, “I’ll have some in a minute,” and I never did.

That all changed on Monday, when I got back from New York. We had finished the traditional family post-trip meal of Chinese takeout, and then the girls and Hugo tripped in with a birthday cake, covered with chocolate frosting and many, many sprinkles. “We didn’t bake it,” they confessed. “It’s from Maren.”

Maren is one of my best friends, and I say that with a full understanding that our 48-year age difference might be too big a gap for others to bridge. But she’s my favorite theater-matinee buddy. It’s refreshing to talk at intermission with someone who wants to discuss the adventures of her stuffed monkey, instead of a long list of grievances. She is always ready to play Barbies. I wish I had more friends like that.

And here she’d gone and baked me a birthday cake. We lit candles and sang, and I found myself with a big slice in front of me.

The cake, it turns out, was great. Some people might not like that many sprinkles, but they would be wrong. I could imagine her little hands flinging those sprinkles all over her mother’s kitchen, wanting to make sure that my cake was really special. And it was.

As it turns out, there was one more thing I forgot. It’s not that I don’t like birthday cake. It just has to come from the right chef.


  1. Gorgeous piece and touching, as usual. Thanks for a glimpse into that lovely, wacky head and heart of yours Julie.

  2. Happy birthday, Julie. May your year be full of sprinkle-filled moments!