My husband’s birthday is approaching. As I’ve done for the entirety of our decades-long marriage, I order a cake. When it arrives, the cake is spectacular, its layers moist and its frosting even and smooth. The decorative candles and balloons are stunning. It almost seems a shame to cut into it, but cut we do. We enjoy every morsel.
In my forties now, I can count on both hands the number of cakes I’ve made in my life. If pressed on why I spend money on bakery cakes when I could make them at home for a fraction of the cost, my excuses invariably run to a lack of time, interest, or skill. To be sure, those reasons are valid. But like a cake itself, there are layers to my reluctance. You see, home-made cakes make me think of my mother. With bakery cakes, there is no need for pretense.
“How much longer?”
I sit at the table, legs swinging. The TV blares downstairs; my brother is watching cartoons. Normally, I’d be by his side or with my sister playing in our bedroom. Not today.
I am four years old, for one more day. My actual birthday is tomorrow, but my party is this afternoon. Mom baked my birthday cake – chocolate, of course. I get to help frost it. The smell of cocoa wafting through our small home is intoxicating. I’m practically a big kid now. Even so, there are limits to my patience.
“Did you wash your hands?” Mom sets down the frosting and a spatula. The cakes – two round layers we will combine – have been cooling in the dining room for what seems an eternity.
“Yes!” I wave my hands, demonstrating their cleanliness.
Mom sits beside me, explaining our task. I only half listen, my mind already leaping ahead to my party. We’ll play games, eat cake and ice cream, and of course, I’ll open presents.
“Ready? Let’s start!”
I climb onto my chair so I am sitting on my knees with my elbows on the table. I watch as she turns one tin cake pan upside down, patting the bottom. The cake, a perfect brown circle, plops neatly onto the plate. I giggle at the sound it makes as it exits the pan. She does the same with the other pan.
I can see my finished birthday cake in my mind’s eye: Layers of delicious, chocolatey goodness. I am proud that I am big enough to be entrusted with this task.
With Mom’s hand guiding mine, I put a glob of chocolate frosting on the cake, smoothing it with the spatula. She praises me, and I smile. This is fun.
I know what I’m doing now; I don’t need her help. I shake off her arm. She chuckles and releases me.
For a moment, I am an artist; the cake my canvas and the spatula my paintbrush. But I am four years old. With one too-low spatula swoop over the top of the cake, I create a gouge. A crater, really. Moist cake bits come away with the spatula, mixed in with the frosting.
“I ruined it! My cake is ruined! My birthday is ruined!” My tears – and my despair – are genuine.
“No, it’s not ruined. See? We’ll add more frosting, put the other layer on top and frost that carefully. Nobody will see that there’s anything wrong with it!”
I am covering my eyes with my hands. I peek through my fingers watching Mom demonstrate her solution. My sobbing slows. I wonder if she can really fix this.
I watch her place the second layer atop the first, masking the crater completely. Understanding that I am not up to the task, she frosts the top of the cake but lets me help with the sides. Together, we smooth creamy frosting over the cake until it appears it was always one towering, complete dessert rather than an amalgam of two layers, one mangled and the other whole.
“See? You don’t want to cry. There’s nothing wrong with it!”
I sniffle but manage a small smile as I look first at the cake, then at her. She fixed it. The cake isn’t perfect, but it looks that way. By all outward appearances, judging merely by the top layer, we’d created a masterpiece.
It isn’t long before my frustration is forgotten entirely. I run off to play, leaving the clean-up to Mom. I count the minutes until my friends arrive, until my party begins.
That one can “fix” damage by disguising the problem, covering it until there’s no sign it was ever there at all, was a lesson I’d learn time and time again in my childhood. My birthday cake experience, in all its innocence, served as an apt metaphor for this unhealthy coping mechanism.
My mother was a master at hiding her unhappiness and pretending her problems away. Laying her emotions bare was as unthinkable to her as showing my friends my damaged birthday cake was to me. So, like the gouge in my layer cake, her issues remained ever-present but hidden beneath the surface.
I wish I could say I recognized this pattern as a young adult and confronted Mom about it, and that we had long, heart-to-heart talks that healed her wounds – and mine – before she died. I didn’t; we didn’t.
I wish I could say I didn’t subconsciously learn and adopt the same behavior. I can’t. But I have been working on recognizing this tendency and overcoming it.
So, why don’t I bake birthday cakes at home?
It’s not simply a concern that I’ll “ruin” dessert. I think today I’d have the confidence to serve it anyway, to laugh at – and learn from – my error.
In truth, my reluctance to bake is layered. I am busy, and I don’t enjoy spending time in the kitchen. As a result, I lack even the most basic cake-making skills.
Ultimately? Bakery creation brings me joy – without any stress, and without the need for pretense on my part.
Perhaps that’s reason enough.
Author’s note: For round one of the YeahWrite Super Challenge, I had 48 hours to write a 1,000-word mostly-true non-fiction personal story. My prompt was “a bad cake.” This was the result of my efforts. And now, I want cake. Thanks for reading!