Birthday Cake & Memories

    I recently shared a photo of the last birthday party that my parents threw for me. It was my eleventh birthday, and I was in my last year of primary school. My dress is blue, with pretty lace and peplum, handmade by my mother. A lot of my clothes were sewn by her; you just had to find a pattern in the prom and style catalogues and she would whip up a similar look for far less.

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    The photo I mention dredged up a lot of memories for me, and it seemed a few people who were part of the parties had their memories too. That is when it really struck me how much those parties must have meant to others; at some point, it stopped being about me.

    I’m not going to exaggerate and say that we grew up in abject poverty, but there certainly was a lot lacking for many of my schoolmates. My Pookie tells me all the time how spoiled I was when I reminisce about my birthday parties. I didn’t believe I was, until I really thought about it. Every year, from when I could walk and talk, I had a party held in my honor. It meant food: rice and beans, bollos/tamales, barbeque, real soda pop (not kool aid), and a gathering of people who indulged in something that really didn’t happen very often.

    Why was that such a big deal? Well, because those sorts of meals were not had often; they were literally meals saved for big to-dos like weddings and big birthdays. Here I was, some little kid who got her special cake (did I mention my mother could bake and decorate a mean cake?) that matched the color and design of her dress, and had her large family, all cousins and classmates join in feasting on foods the likes of which would perhaps only come around at Christmastime.

    We were a community that depended on farming, growing our own food and selling the rest to survive. I know I’ve spoken about riding a horse while the moon still hung in the sky, heading deep into a mountaintop where farmland lay waiting for us to come over and plant, or reap, or clear. I worked too, but as an only child, my expenses were probably not what other parents of 4, 5, 6…10 kids had to deal with. I got my school shoes, my book bag, brand new books every year, and I was fed all my meals. Thinking back on it, there were some children who did not have that. I know for sure there were a few who showed up to work in hand me downs that had been so worn down they were practically transparent. Forget shoes for some of them, and school books had to be shared with a willing classmate. I don’t know what the food situation was at home, but when recess came, I could get myself a treat when most concentrated on snacking on the oranges or fruits from their yard. So, yes, I was spoiled by having my needs met.

    But once a year, those same classmates knew that they would go home for lunch on my birthday, and come back prepared for my annual birthday party. These parties were planned well in advance, with my mother and aunts gearing up for the big day prepping ingredients, picking which chickens would be sacrificed for the tamales/bollos. A few weeks before the big party, my mother would take me shopping for material for my dress. Sometimes she would buy a ready-made dress if one caught her eye. Based on the dress, she would then start buying the party plates and cups, goody bags and items for the piñata. Oh yes, there was always a piñata – and yes, it matched the color of my dress. My mother would work painstakingly on the shape of the piñata, twisting wires and pasting newspapers on inflated balloon shapes until it was ready for its crepe paper designs.

    The day before my big day, she would bake cakes. I often helped with them, creaming sugar and butter the old-fashioned way: elbow grease! The special cake that would be iced and decorated would be set apart, and plain yellow cakes would be stacked everywhere, ready to cut into small pieces to serve after the big party meal. Late into the night, I would stay up trying to see what design she would come up with for my special cake, but like every child waiting for Santa, I would fall asleep and wake up in bed, having missed the decoration. I was not allowed to see the cake, and it took every ounce of willpower to behave.

    Was I excited? I would like to think that I was – I know the earlier parties were eagerly anticipated, but perhaps part of me knew later in the years, that it was more for my parents and friends than it was about me. They wanted to celebrate the child they had adopted, and my classmates had something to look forward to in the dull October month. But who am I kidding? I got a pretty party dress, I got to eat and drink and be naughty for a day, and everyone was happy.

    Walking into school on the morning of my big day was fun: we always sang happy birthday to our classmates, and so mine was acknowledged like everyone else. Somehow, even the meanest boys were nicer to me, so that was refreshing. My teachers spoiled me a bit too (although I was a disgusting teacher’s pet all my primary school life), and really, an entire day dedicated to one does wonders for the self-esteem.

    I smile when I remember my girlfriends coming back from lunch on the day of my party. I was often in uniform or wearing a nice suit of clothes, but they went for lunch and came back bathed and powdered and smelling fresh, wearing their best party clothes, in anticipation of heading straight to my house after school. They left their book bags at home, coming back instead with prettily wrapped presents. Boys often looked neater, but not as obvious. They tried to be nonchalant, but they too, were excited. Right after school, all the school teachers and even the principal would lead the way, walking up the hill, down the road and around the bend on the way to my house where balloons would be bobbing in the wind, and a party awaited.

    I would go inside and my mother would bathe me (or I would bathe myself and let her dress me), while all the guests would mingle and run around the yard, playing balloons and other games, snacking on whatever nibbles were available (cheese dip was a favorite). I would step out after getting dressed, and join in the fun, but not really running around as much (a dress makes for ladylike behavior). It all would lead to the big meal, when my aunts, mother and older cousins would serve everyone a plate of delicious food, and soda pop flowed like it was Christmas (I think I have mentioned how many of us literally only had soda pop around Christmas time).

    Of course, the highlight was the singing of Happy Birthday while candles glowed atop my beautiful cake. I think that was my favorite part – not the dress, not the piñata, not even the food. I always loved to see the cake coming out with its candles, wondering what theme my mother had gone with. I’m getting quite emotional remembering how she stayed up late into the dark of night, only a kerosene lamp guiding her as she piped rosettes, leaves, vines, lacy curlicues, planted edible pearls and spelled out my name lovingly into my birthday cake.

    The last birthday cake I got from her was the year before she died. Her eyesight was shot, diabetes slowly eating away at her, but she borrowed a mixer from my neighbors and figured out my cranky apartment oven and baked one tasty cake for me. The pink frosting and the multi-colored sprinkles were not the rosettes and intricate shapes of yesteryear, but knowing what effort went into making it made it tastier. She was a mother in every sense of the word. She was born to be one; she had all the love in the world to give to a host of children, and I was the lucky, lucky recipient of her capacity for love beyond reason. Hell, I remember walking home after Hurricane Mitch had left devastation in its wake. I had waded in knee-deep water to our little house in San Pedrito, calling for her, worried that she was not home when she should have been. She soon waded in too, carrying all the ingredients for a cake. It was my birthday, and she had gone out in god knows what kind of water to find an open store to ensure I would get a cake for my birthday.

    So I look at that photograph where I’m wearing my pretty handmade dress. I am holding an extra special cake in my hands and I am beaming. I look at that photograph and I feel her presence, and I see her love, and I miss her every day, but especially on October 31, the day I was born to experience all the love she had to give me. No birthday cake will ever match hers, but I guess I don’t need cake to remind me of her, and the love that she showered me with.

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