Late yesterday afternoon, I made a chocolate cake.
For many reasons, that act felt like a luxury. I had worked hard throughout my regular workday to finish a draft of a story so that I would feel justified in not working any more after three o’clock. And the house was empty, which was unusual for that time of day. Rick and Tim were at a baseball practice; Holly was at her pottery class, and since I’d driven her and two friends to the studio, one of the other mothers would drive her home, so I didn’t even need to watch the clock.
With All Things Considered as my soundtrack (and Nina Totenberg warning listeners, just as she did nineteen years ago, that content regarding her story on Clarence Thomas might not be appropriate for all audiences), I melted chocolate, measured flour, greased a cake pan. Atypical for me, who usually rushes to get everything done, I’d remembered to take the butter out of the fridge hours earlier, so it had reached the perfect consistency for creaming with sugar and eggs. I whipped egg whites, all with a somewhat dreamy sense of decadence.
Usually I rush; yesterday I had time, and no distractions. It was a more complicated recipe than I generally use. I bake a lot, but normally if I make a cake it’s a traditional layer cake with soft moist crumbs and creamy frosting. This recipe called for crumbled almond paste and stiffly whipped egg whites that then had to be folded into the butter/sugar/chocolate mixture. I’m not very good at folding batter at all. And I wasn’t sure I’d greased the cake pan sufficiently for when it came time to unmold the finished product.
It didn’t matter. I was immersed in the task at hand and thoroughly content to be doing it. The cake was for my father’s birthday dinner; I would be taking it next door to my parents’ house in another hour or so. The recipe I was using is his favorite, and normally my mother makes it for him, but she was taking care of the rest of the dinner so I’d offered to take on this responsibility.
Two months ago, I didn’t really expect my father to have another birthday. He was recovering from surgery but not very well, and the thought that by mid-fall not only would we be having a birthday dinner but that we’d have to schedule it in between his stints out on the tractor mowing the fields and volunteering at the prison would have seemed utterly improbable. But here I was, glazing the cake and wrapping his present.
Dad shares a birthday with my niece, Hannah, who turned eight yesterday. I hoped that turning eight would be easier on her than the beginning of being seven was. A year ago, she ended her own party with a trip to Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., where she was hospitalized for a week with H1N1. She missed out on Halloween, but made a good strong recovery; her birthday celebration this year will include her first sleepover party.
It wasn’t a sure thing that either of yesterday’s celebrants in my family would get to this next birthday, but of course, it never is, for anyone. Yesterday morning when I dropped Holly off at school, I ran into my friend Lisa, who said she’d had dinner the night before with a friend of hers who was mourning her own mother whose birthday it was that day. A year ago, Lisa’s friend’s mother, who was several years younger than my dad, had no reason to think she wouldn’t be around for another birthday, but as we all know, these things happen. Her death was sudden and unanticipated.
Dad’s birthday was a very happy day for all of us. We were glad he was there to celebrate with us; I could easily imagine spending the day under other circumstances. But in fact, I always feel this way on my parents’ birthdays, and my husband’s and children’s too: just glad they’re around for another yearly milestone.
The cake didn’t come out as nice as when my mother makes it. It stuck to the pan a little bit, and I had to reconstruct it somewhat on the cake plate and then slather glaze over the many cracks. But no one complained as they ate it, and I certainly didn’t complain when I made it. Baking a birthday cake yesterday felt like a privilege. I had the time; I had the right ingredients – even a tube of almond paste, which I dug out from the depths of the freezer -- and I had my dad to bake for. It was a happy birthday all around.