The Cake

Happy Birthday

I first saw the photograph of this cake in January, 2004. It was on the cover of Gourmet Magazine. It signified the necessary shift I believe we all need after seeing month of Christmas decorations and images of red and green and too much of everything. Amidst the other January magazine images which invariably offer resolutions for loosing belly fat, or getting your financial house in order, this image spoke of “happy”.

This year, 2013, my youngest daughter was about to turn 18. I desperately wanted to make her happy. She struggles with Bipolar Disorder and, by default, so do I. I was to be leaving on a business trip on the afternoon of her 18th birthday, and had fantasies of making this beautiful cake and bringing it to her school with a balloon emblazoned with an “18”.

I googled “birthday cake, gourmet magazine” and it did not take long for me to bring up the recipe for this memorable “happy cake”. I was so excited that I even posted the image of the cake on facebook, as my status on a day when we were all forced to stay inside during the Nemo snow storm.

I baked the cake in heart shaped tins of different sizes. The cake did not seem big enough so when Governor Patrick gave us the high sign to leave our houses, I bought more butter and made 2 more layers. They were beautiful! Then came the frosting. I started it on Sunday so it could chill until Monday, Libby’s birthday. I followed the directions perfectly.

The first batch, though carefully made by the letter, failed into curds of butter and syrupy sugar. Yuck. No matter, I could make the frosting the next day. On Monday morning, Libby’s birthday, I diligently followed the recipe, within an inch of its life. The only problem was that Libby announced to me that I should not embarrass her at school with a cake. This part I did not care so much about. I knew that if I showed up with this beautiful cake (pictured above), she would have nothing but love and joy.

So I pressed on with enthusiasm. Within minutes I realized that I failed at frosting. I failed at frosting in exactly the same way I felt that I failed at mothering. I had to leave to catch a plane for Texas, or else i would have bought Duncan Hines pre-made fake stuff and spread it on the cake for one last ditch effort. But no. In one sweeping Virginia Wolf moment, I threw all the cakes in the trash. Every last bit of flour and sugar that I thought could make someone happy, in a plastic bag, no turning back. Sadness, failure, waste.


One week is a good amount of perspective.

Libby now looks for the cake that she knew I was making. I instead chose to “buy” a lemon mousse cake and decorate it for her. The candles sit libby(see above) in the cake waiting to be blown out one week late.

Today we celebrated the 1st birthday of my 19-year-old step daughter’s son. Bittersweet. He was so happy with his one-year-old cake. I want to bring back the days when cake meant something. When rainbowchip pre-mixed box was enough, when I could make my daughter smile. I still feel like I will make this stupid cake some day-when the stakes are not so high. For now, I must think of new ways to make Libby smile. I think it will take the form of sushi in front of the fireplace at Latitude, or it will take that precious moment inside of her when it does not take anyone else to make her happy and she just feels happy-for her own sake.

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2 Responses to The Cake

  1. Louisa says:

    Maida, I know the feeling all too well of wanting to make something spectacular only to have it fall short of the goal. We do it for ourselves as much as we do it for others. But we really appreciate having someone say that it is wonderful even though it hasn’t met our expectations. I’m sorry that kids can be so tough on parents though they really deep down like that you care enough to do it. How can Libby not feel the love and attention that you have put into wanting to make her day special and one day you will reap your reward. Don’t beat yourself up. You’re great. xo Louisa

  2. I LOVED this…so beautiful in its simplicity and honesty, and so revealing of the complicated relationships we share with our children and more importantly ourselves. We can be hard on ourselves, but as you reminded us, time helps to put things into perspective. I guess that’s where the wisdom of age comes from. Even though those 1st birthdays seem long ago, our children are always our children. Slowing down and reflecting keeps us romantically sentimental. Letting go allows us to move on…it’s a delicate balance.

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