Growing up holds the best and the worst of life–at least as viewed from a very young age. The good memories from childhood may make any bad memories dim by comparison. I can’t remember a birthday or other celebration when my mother would make my favorite foods or desserts–that just wasn’t her way. I doubt that she ever even thought about cooking that special dish just for me to mark a birthday or major accomplishment. Although I knew that my friends’ mothers would cook their favorite foods on their birthdays, it never bothered me that my mother didn’t do that. The main reason is that, to get my favorites, all I had to do was ask–no special occasion needed. And my mother was an excellent cook who never used a recipe in her life. Yet, she managed to make the simplest, plainest dish a celebration of flavor and aroma. I don’t have her cooking talent, but my son seems to have inherited it. He’s another one who can whip up a meal from whatever he finds in the pantry or refrigerator and create a feast of flavor that tickles the tongue.
But enough of the background, and back to special foods on special occasions. Although my mother’s cooking and baking were kept simple, and despite the fact that no special meal marked a celebration such as my birthday, the one thing I always got on my birthday was a cake from a very particular Italian bakery that sat on the boundary between my town of New Brunswick (New Jersey) and Franklin Township. I can no longer remember the name of the bakery, and know that it no longer exists, but their cakes were amazing creations of flavor, and the birthday cake fillings were miraculous. My favorite filling was a peaches and custard that I can still taste, forty-five years after my last bite. I always preferred the butter icing to the whipped cream icing, although both were good. To get my birthday cakes, my mother would drive over a week or more ahead of time (sometimes certain fillings were not available unless someone asked for it in advance), and then drove back–usually after work–on my birthday to pick it up. It didn’t matter if we celebrated alone (my father worked the second shift and took meals with us only on weekends), or if family or friends were present. She always bought the cake that was large enough to serve at least 12 people, and that made my birthday last a few extra days.
My mother worked hard when I was growing up. She and my father and I arrived from Europe in 1954, several years after post-World War II accords made it impossible for my parents to ever return to either’s birth land–my mother was a German born in Russia; my father’s family had a thriving farm in Belarus. Both families were all but destroyed by the Communist wave that took everything from middle-class families. What remained of my mother’s family managed to seek refuge in Minsk in Belarus, where relatives were supposed to be waiting for them to escape the west-moving force of Communism. When my grandmother arrived with five of her thirteen children in tow, she found no relatives who had fled just before their arrival. Stuck in Minsk, my mother’s family lived through the bombing of a beautiful city by both Allied and Axis nations. My mother went to school as long as she was able at her mother’s insistence. She was a star student, but was traumatized by the bombings and harsh realities of fighting forces in the streets of her city. Despite going from middle-class status to abject poverty overnight, my grandmother insisted that my mother devote all her time to her school work, and never taught my mother how to cook or sew, although she did both herself because of that part of her “finishing school” education that all middle-class girls were expected to complete. So my mother’s prowess in the kitchen was more amazing than if she had spent time watching her mother cook.
At some point after the war ended and “displaced persons” and families, caught in the midst of having no home, were basically interred in camps until the various governments could sort out which country would become their new home. Most of the remains of my mother’s family were returned to Germany, as they were still considered German citizens despite their expat status in Russia. My mother, however, met my father at whatever internment camp they occupied–neither spoke much about the war or the years following armistice. For whatever reason, they ended up in France, where I was eventually born, following the birth and death of twin brothers born too prematurely to survive back in the late 1940s. I came along at the Epiphany in 1950 (my mother says I was born late and have been late ever since). I don’t know if my mother learned to cook while in the camp, or received cooking guidance as a young wife. My father, for some reason unknown to me–possibly because of his closeness to his mother who was all but killed before his eyes by Communist soldiers over possession of her chickens, and died shortly after–was a good cook in his own right. Maybe be gave my mother suggestions or helped her cook from the beginning. I’ll never know because my father passed away more than twenty years ago, and my mother turned inward after his death and speaks about nothing from her past any more.
When my parents arrived in the United States, my father was able to procure work quickly in one of New Jersey’s cable mills because he had been a steel worker in France. My mother had picked up some hand-sewing skills while working for a seamstress in France, but hand sewing was not a sought-after skill in New Brunswick, and it took her a while to find a dress factory job that was willing to train her to use a sewing machine. She became skilled enough that she was able to leave the poor-paying dress factory and get a job at the much better paying men’s suit factory. After an initial training period, she was given the option of “time work” or “piecework.” The opportunity for better earnings were in the piecework category, and my mother was nothing if not a driven and hard-working woman. For years, she would take the bus to work but often walk the two miles home to save on bus fare. So when she came home, she was already very tired. When she learned to drive, because my father used the car for work, she would sometimes make arrangements with him to get a lift to his job so that she could run special errands.
My birthday cakes were always special errands. Even after my sister was born almost twelve years after me, and she had made special arrangements to begin work early and come home to care for my sister before my father had to leave for work, on my birthday she would drop him off at his job, swing around and pick up my birthday cake, and made sure it was the evening’s dessert.
To this day, I know how difficult that was for her to do–especially when she had a demanding toddler to care for, too. Just keeping my sister from getting her fingers into the cake on the drive home must have been what I call an interesting experience. And yet she succeeded. If my sister did manage to grab a bit of icing or one of the roses made of wafers from the top of the cake, my mother fixed it so that I would never notice. I did, of course, but I never bothered to tell her so; she was always so proud of the way she covered up the tell-tale traces of my sister’s little misdeed. But I knew there were always supposed to be three such roses on the top, not two; or that a section of the edging was a bit smoother than the rest. It was probably the only thing my little sister ever did to me that I utterly forgave because my mother–already tired after an early start to her day and probably driven to distraction by the little tyrant–had tried so hard to bring home a perfect cake from a perfect bakery that was far from our house.