Let Them Eat Cake

By Joyce Maynard, "Let Them Eat Cake," May/June 2013

Because all three of my children’s birthdays fall within a month of each other, there was always, at our house, a time I thought of as The Birthday Season. Every time it rolled around, I’d be filled with a mixture of intense nostalgia and awe, along with another emotion I don’t easily admit to: a sense of guilt and anxiety. I wanted to make each of my children’s birthdays perfect. But the task left me ragged.

I could have picked up one of those fancy princess or superhero cakes that my children eyed longingly at the supermarket. But for reasons best left to the therapist’s office, I felt this need to offer up tangible evidence of my inexhaustible love: a homemade cake that would manifest the vastness of my devotion.

The Birthday Season in which Charlie turned 2 (and Audrey 6) was a particularly challenging one. I’d managed to plan a big party for Audrey but as I was taking out my cake ingredients, I realized
I was in labor. I rescheduled her celebration for 10 days later, after I had given birth to Willy.

Now Charlie’s big day was looming. I kept putting off the celebration. He was only 2 years old. What did it matter to a boy who could not read a calendar whether we marked his birthday on the actual date of his birth?

But it mattered to his sister. The morning of Charlie’s birthday, she woke me in bed—baby Willy at my side—with the reminder that there was a cake to be made. I rolled over and told her, “Maybe later.” I said the same thing two hours later, and again when she reminded me that afternoon.

The sun was going down and I was carrying out the trash—part of the never-ending cycle of chores that had almost obscured for me the beauty of the day—when Audrey asked again: “What about the cake, Mom?” She had told her younger brother it was his birthday, so now my newly verbal son, who had recently witnessed the spectacle of his sister’s Big Day, was asking, “Where Charby’s birthday go?”

“Oh, honey,” I told her, “maybe another day.” I had a load of laundry to put in the dryer. And another to wash.

So when Audrey announced her plan to make the cake herself, I must have muttered something like “Just don’t make a mess.“ I was picturing some project involving Play-Doh.

Somewhere in the background, I know I must have heard it: A clatter of pans. The opening and closing of the refrigerator. My daughter’s gentle, happy murmuring. She was singing, in fact. Whereas I was simply buried in a mountain of chores, wearily checking items off my To Do list. One item absent from the column: Enjoy this day.

Then a smell rose from the kitchen. Not unpleasant, though odd. Unplaceable. Then a small voice calling out: “It’s your birthday now, Charby.”

She had helped him up onto his booster seat. She had made him a card and a paper crown held together with paper clips and tape, with jewels glued on and a giant number 2. In her high, clear soprano she was singing the first notes of “Happy Birthday.”

The cake sat in front of him, with two candles and one to grow on. Not lit, because my daughter knew our rule about matches.

Beaming, my son plunged a hand into the center of the cake, took a big chunk, and whooped. His sister’s concoction was clearly a hit.

Audrey could not remember exactly how she’d made it, though from the looks of my counter, eggs were involved. Also cocoa powder, peanut butter, oil, sugar and a vast quantity of salt. Also mayonnaise. Teriyaki sauce. Granola. Raisins. And Honey Nut Cheerios. From the dial on the oven, it appeared to have been baked at 250 degrees.

“Was it your best birthday ever, Char?” she asked her brother, after we’d polished off the last of the cake.

“Good cake,” he said.

Made with the most important ingredient, as I well recognized.

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