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The Birthday Cake My Mother Didn’t Make

When I found out that my mother had given birth to a boy – her sixth and last child – I turned my face into the wall and cried. Not tears of joy, but indescribable disappointment. At age nine, I realized the new baby would change the ratio of male to female children in the family – 4:2 – and skew the balance or power forever. I’d already learned that boys had way more power than girls.

 

My brothers had the power to mesmerize our parents weekend after weekend playing soccer or baseball, while I sat in the bleachers wishing I were somewhere else. My brothers could slug me in the arm for no reason and then fake-whine that I had started it. And most irritatingly, they would bow their knees out a mile in the back seat of our station wagon, “man-spreading,” with no regard for their sister’s more modest tendencies.

 

As if it were not terrible enough to have another boy in the family, I learned that my brother’s Valentine’s Day birth had been a Cesarean delivery. To me, the word meant only that my mother would not be home from the hospital in time for my birthday, only four short February days away.

 

A feeling of grief settled in my stomach. Even the teachers at my school reminded me of the latest enemy-addition to our family: “I hear you have a new baby brother!” they said with sickeningly sweet smiles. Up to that time, school had been my solace, my escape, where I could imagine being an only child – a kid whose parents reminded her to drink her milk, instead of yelling, “Shut the refrigerator door!”

 

My anxiety worsened by the day. No mom equaled no birthday cake. My dad – a well-meaning man who hammered nails for a living and created large, lasting structures – was by no means capable of measuring and sifting flour into a bowl for the purpose of making something that would be consumed in a day. Not without having a nervous breakdown.

 

And then, just before supper on my birthday. everything changed.

 

When I’d lost all hope of having a cake, the lady across the street came in with a specimen the likes of which I’d only seen in my mother’s cookbooks. It was tall, with white frosting that dipped and swirled across the top and down the sides.  Delicate coconut flakes crowded the entire surface.

 

It was by far the most beautiful cake I’d ever seen.

 

Charlotte’s husband Jim was the local fire chief. And it just so happened that Charlotte was an expert at making cakes.

 

She didn’t stay, but let us get on with our little family celebration. My dad, three brothers and one little sister sang the birthday song. I blew out the candles.  I never let on that I liked Charlotte’s cake better than my mother’s. Or what would have been my mother’s had she been around to make one. Her frosting was always the same: simple butter cream. Nothing fancy, like the magic, marshmallow-y fluff Charlotte had made.

 

That cake was a gift from God. It taught me that I’m valued – apart from my family.  And it taught me the blessing of neighbors. While it didn’t remove the pain of having a new baby brother, it went a long way in taking the edge off.  FFG

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