Today is my birthday. Just like any other Tuesday, it’s the best day of my life.
When I was a kid, Grandmama Irene made my birthday cake each year. She was famous for her cakes–even had a story in Georgia Magazine that dubbed her “The Cake Lady of Gay.” Legend has it that she bought so many 50lb bags of sugar that the revenuers got a little suspicious and thought she might have a still going somewhere out in the woods!
Some years I chose red velvet with the cream cheese and pecan frosting piled thick between three layers. Other years, I asked for a lemon cheese cake with the glistening lemon frosting. Those of you from other parts of the world may think I meant to say “lemon cheesecake,” but no, that’s something totally different. A lemon cheese cake is a tower of three heavenly white cake layers filled and frosted with translucent and tart lemon curd. There were a couple of years that I chose chocolate or caramel–buttery yellow layers cloaked in hard-cooked icing that got better as the days went by. By the time I went to college, she opted for chocolate pound cakes because they traveled well.
In my teenage years, my dad discovered that I loved coconut cakes as much as he did. He set out to make me a coconut birthday cake. Even though he’s a great cook, there was some kind of black cloud curse over the coconut cake baking process. It got to be a running joke. One year, he said he spent $45 on 3 different batches of frosting and it all still slid off the cake in a glop. It was delicious anyway! The next year, he nailed it with a coconut pound cake and avoided the subject of frosting altogether.
But we all know how kids are, right? Because I had been raised on astounding homemade cakes I yearned for a big old grocery store cake. One with pink frosting roses and my name spelled in piping. Maybe even some of those hard sugar princess castle decorations they sold at the grocery store. Don’t get me wrong–I appreciated every morsel of the cakes Grandmama made for me. But they didn’t look the cakes on TV. And when you’re seven…y’know. You think life is supposed to look like “The Facts of Life.”
I wished for candles. Grandmama made cakes for birthdays, not birthday cakes, so they didn’t come with candles. I really really really wanted candles. I had some wishes I wanted to make.
In my first year at Wesleyan, my friends surprised me with a cake–and it had candles on it. I was so unfamiliar with the process that I caught my thumbnail on fire trying to light all eighteen tiny candles. We had a great laugh and I got to make my wish. I don’t remember what I wished for.
Here’s what I learned from all those birthday cakes. The real treasure, the greatest gifts, were those cakes made by people who love me. Butter, sugar, eggs, time, patience, a light touch–alchemy that spins ordinary food into a celebration. Birthdays are when a family looks back to celebrate the day that the family got bigger. Eating cake reminds us of that sweetness. The candles, though, the candles are for the future, for wishing and thinking about what is to come.
I used every birthday candle from the age of about 28 to 37 to wish for a child. As luck would have it, on my 38th birthday, I hosted a Leukemia Society chili party. I was feeling really light-headed, had to go lie down, but I got my legs back under me in time for dessert. My friend, Karen, remembered that it was my birthday and brought a butter cream dream of a cake. We fired it up and I wished for a family of my own on those candles….and a few weeks later found out that my wish had already come true. Vivi was there for my 39th birthday.
That’s the thing about candles–and family–the light gets brighter with every year.