As a wife and mother I’ve baked 77 birthday cakes. That’s including the cakes I carefully packaged for my sons once they went away to college. It was often chocolate chip banana bread just because butter-cream icing doesn’t travel well in a shoebox. Nevertheless I started with small cup cakes, graduating to Barbie cakes, Batman cakes, train cakes, fire engines, cars, castles, roller coasters, rainbows, and giant chocolate chip cookies. When a new mom recently asked, “Were you ever sad on your children’s birthdays?” I came to understand that my cakes were my way to grieve and celebrate in one sweet creation.
As my children eagerly talked about their party, friends, and gift wishes I always asked the all important question, “So what are you thinking about as far as the cake?” There was always that age – the crossover point like with Santa when the excitement about the “cake” lost some of its luster. “I don’t know Mom, it doesn’t really matter.” I tried to hide my disappointment reassuring myself that growing up was what they were supposed to do.
My husband always clicked a picture of the cake sitting regally on the counter as if it had a life unto its own. It had its very own number in the line of cakes before it, proud to be part of such a celebratory and exclusive club. There is a small old-time cake supply store in town owned by a soft-spoken gray haired lady. She would help me pick out the right size white cardboard and doily with the same care as someone in search of the perfect dress for a special occasion. Birthday candles lined one wall – tiny lipstick candles, pencil candles, football candles, little guitars and musical notes, tiny telephones and tulips. She’d ring my purchases up slowly – adding them up on a small note pad and punching the amount in to a register that seemed as old as her thin and bumpy wrinkled hands. I always worried that one day I would pull up to find the store closed because the time had come for her to have no more birthdays. But it still stands as a tribute to no one ever being too old for birthday cakes.
My husband always asks for a healthy version, something with soymilk and wheat flour. And so I experiment with soy butter and organic sugars like a traveler learning a foreign language. And somehow, since love is the same across cultures the message remains universal even without the pink icing. I recently learned that the Vietnamese only celebrate a child’s first birthday. And each year after, on the Chinese New Year everyone celebrates their birthdays together for the coming year. Which is the message nestled between the layers of all my cakes. Each birthday is a passage for everyone. The cake has become my gift to all of us, as we taste a small slice of yesterday and tomorrow, celebrating the life of one family.