(by Suzanne Turner)
It’s your birthday if you have a cake with a candle in it. Everything else—the cards, presents, well-wishes, Facebook greetings—all of those are secondary, if even necessary. If you only have a cake with a candle in it, then you have a celebration; the earth has made it around the sun one more time in your life.
We were on coronavirus lockdown. My 82-year-old mother was an hour’s drive away in self-quarantine. My two giant Viking prince sons and I were tucked in safe and sound at home.
I did not have high expectations for my birthday, and that was fine. We were happy and cozy. That was plenty. I bought a little cake at the grocery store bakery, risking the virus for a small celebration. We would have a little dinner, the boys and I, and I would blow out the candles. No dinner out, no gifts. Just us, and happy to be just us.
My entire life, my mother has made a sheet cake for my birthday. She still had the plastic ballerinas that have graced my birthday cake every year since my first birthday. She always made everything so festive—balloons, presents piled on the sideboard, dinner with the family, the candles a-blazing, Happy Birthday sung, then presents.
My mother was a deeply fabulous person who had always made her own way in the world. She had left home at age 18 in the 1950s, moving from the rural south to Chicago to work in the glamorous airlines. You’ve heard of the show Pan Am? It could have been about my whip-thin, long-legged, auburn-haired young mother and her equally fab friends.
They had their adventures, then they left air travel to raise their children together in the suburbs. And every year we gathered around our birthday cakes and counted another year. And not one of those women ever let a thing slow them down. They traveled, they handled things, they did what they had to do. And every year we had our cakes with a candle in them, and every year we were happy and delighted with that.
Just as my sons and I sat down to dinner, my cell phone rang. No phones at the table was our rule, so I ignored it. Then my younger son’s phone rang. Matt, Andrew, and I looked at one another, but we ignored it. Then my older son’s phone rang. Before we could react, one-by-one our phones buzzed with a text message.
“Maybe it’s Grandma,” Matthew said. “Do you think she’s okay?” We looked at one another, alarmed. She was high-risk. She was alone.
“It’s okay,” I said to Matt, “check your phone.”
He looked, and glanced up, surprised. “Mom! She’s out front!”
So out the door we poured into the front yard, leaving dinner cooling on the table. There was Mom’s little white Prius, idling at the curb.
“Grandma!” the boys said, now young men, but rushing down the hill to the car, as eager to see her as if they were still toddlers. She looked out the car window, wearing a respiratory mask, and waved them way from the door, gesturing to the back of the car.
The boys opened the hatchback, released a flood of birthday balloons in festive metallic blues and reds, fixed firm to the handle of the box they’d been tied to.
There it was in the box, my homemade birthday sheet cake with the ballerina candle holders. “I had to get a cake to my baby!” said my mother from the front seat of the car. “No, don’t come around! Keep your distance! Blow me your kisses from the curb!”
Then she pulled off, intrepid as ever, leaving the boys and me waving from the yard, holding the cake, balloons bobbing the breeze.
Just now—11 days after my mother’s daring birthday cake delivery—I found these at the bottom of the box of presents and decorations she had dropped off. Nestled amidst the festive detritus were three carefully packaged masks—one for each of us—with this note: “They’re telling you not to wear these because they are saving them for medical professionals. Wear them anyway! Always question authority! Love, Mom. Be safe!”
Suzanne Turner is president of Turner Strategies, a leading progressive public affairs firm founded in 2001. She lives in Washington, D.C.
Mama’s Spice Cake, Dressed Up Version
Since I was a little girl I always requested homemade spice cake with caramel icing for my birthday. This version is a little bit more dressed up than my mom’s recipe, but the caramel icing is the same.
1 1/2 c. sugar
1 c. raisins, chopped
1 c. water
3/4 c. butter, cubed
1 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 t. ground allspice
1/4 t. ground cloves
1/4 t. ground nutmeg
4 large eggs, separated, room temperature
2 c. all-purpose flour
3 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. baking soda
3/4 c. chopped pecans
In a large saucepan, combine the first eight ingredients.
Cook and stir over medium-low heat until sugar is dissolved.
Remove from heat; cool.
In a large bowl, beat egg yolks; gradually stir in spice mixture.
Combine flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda.
Gradually add to spice mixture until blended.
Stir in pecans.
In a small bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form; fold into the batter.
Preheat oven to 325 F.
Pour batter into two greased and floured 9-in. round baking pans.
Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35 - 40 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes before removing from pans to wire racks.
When completely cool, frost between layers and on top and sides of cake.
2 T. butter
3 T. milk
1/2 c. packed brown sugar
1 c. confectioners' sugar
1/2 t. vanilla