I recently celebrated another birthday and the day brought with it memories of other birthdays over the years. Growing up my brother and I were allowed to pick whatever cake we wanted for our special day. Mama would ask us what kind of cake we wanted several days before the actual birthday so that she would have time for grocery shopping in case of some special request. That prelude made the coming birthday seem all that more exciting. Sometimes it would take me a day or two or even three to decide. Knowing I would be mulling it over for a while Mama would offer suggestions or show me pictures from one of her women’s magazines. Every year I chose something different. Among the many delicious cakes she made for me these were the ones I remember the most:
- A layered yellow cake with sliced bananas and cream between each layer. It was something I had just imagined would be delicious and Mama had never made such a cake before. She warned that the bananas might darken. However, that scrumptious cake didn’t last long enough for that to happen.
- A coconut cake with some of the coconut dyed blue and some dyed red so that my cake was red, white and blue. I remember that she poured coconut milk over the cake allowing it to seep through and make the cake super “coconut-y”. Yum.
- A layered white cake with crushed pineapple icing on the top and between the layers – boy! Was it juicy.
- A layered yellow cake with strawberry icing and big fat strawberries on top. It was almost too pretty to eat.
- A carrot cake with cream cheese icing – my all time favorite.
- A chocolate cake with chocolate icing – which sounds boring but it was exciting for me because it was not a typical dessert for Mama to make.
My brother was less adventurous. He chose a German Chocolate cake – every single year. I am rolling my eyes as I type this but I must admit her German Chocolate cake was indeed spectacular.
My birthday is in July and that meant that the weather was usually hot and humid. I grew up in the North Carolina piedmont, after all. And in my childhood most folks did not have air conditioning. In fact, it was a rarity. So what a treat it was when my parents hosted a party in the basement of our home for my tenth birthday where it was nice and cool. We strung crepe paper all over everywhere and blew up lots and lots of balloons. Our usually drab basement where Mama did the laundry became bright and festive. Kids brought their roller skates – the kind that fit on your shoes and you tightened with a key. No one was very practiced at the sport. We fell as much as we rolled but we laughed all the while. It was grand fun.
In middle school Mama let me have a slumber party with girlfriends from my class at school. What a brave woman she was to suffer the squeals and giggles of middle school girls who ran around in shorty pajamas and bare feet for an entire evening and way past midnight. The bunch of us slept on quilt pallets in our living room – well, we didn’t actually SLEEP that much. Apparently the whole idea of a slumber party is to see who can stay up the latest. Mama rose early and made pancakes, eggs and sausage for a more subdued crowd of yawning young girls. Parents arrived midmorning to claim their well fed but very sleepy daughters. I’m pretty sure everyone went home to take a nap. I know I did – and I think Mama did, too. She’d certainly earned one.
My sixteenth birthday dawned sunny and bright with a knock on the door that turned out to be a delivery from a local florist. Mama called me to the kitchen where I found a large rectangular box with my name on it. Mama was as excited as I was, I think. Flowers from a florist were an uncommon event at our house. I opened the box gingerly and even now I can recall the heady perfume that wafted out into the air. Mama and I both gasped as we saw luscious green ferns cradling the rich red petals of sixteen long stemmed roses. I was both delighted and stunned. The card read, “Happy Sweet Sixteen! Danny”. The boy next door that I’d known my whole life was the “Danny” on the card. We had been playmates for years. We were also classmates but since high school our relationship had been confusing for me. He would ask me out on dates – movies, restaurants, dances, etc. – and we always had such fun together. We were never at a loss for words and we laughed a lot. But back at school with our friends he would hardly look at me – much less speak to me. Yet he would tease and laugh with all my girlfriends. I found it confusing and infuriating. My daddy said it was because he liked me but that made absolutely no sense to me. And still here before me was a present that said perhaps my daddy was right. Danny was away at Football Camp and so I knew he’d made arrangements for those flowers before he left. I was impressed but completely bewildered. Mama smiled at me and said, “Let’s get these in some water.” She helped me snip the stems and arrange them in a vase.
At supper that evening after my daddy and little brother had properly appreciated the fragrant roses I moved them into the living room. During our mealtime conversation I expressed what a surprise the flowers had been and then went on to complain about the way Danny treated me when we were in a crowd. The two acts seemed conflicting to me. I admitted that I was befuddled. Daddy chuckled and said, “That boy likes you.” A refrain I had heard before and still I could not comprehend it. I shook my head and shrugged. Daddy grew somber and said, “Now that boy likes you enough to have spent his hard earned money on those flowers for your birthday. If you don’t like him, don’t string him along. That wouldn’t be right.” I was astonished at his suggestion that I would consider such deception – never mind that I wouldn’t have known how to go about such behavior in the first place. I decided to respond with a simple, “Yessir” and let it be. He nodded and left the rest of it for me to figure out. And that was considerable. Being sixteen is hard. So is young love. It has taken a few birthdays to figure things out. And even with all the birthdays I’ve had much of life remains a mystery…….Perhaps that is just as it should be.