Shortly after Penn and I married I decided that not only would I make memorable, amazing, and elaborate birthday cakes (just like my own mama's) for each of our children, I would do so for Penn, each year. It would be my "thing."
I chose a scrumptious sounding triple chocolate recipe. The most complicated I could find. And it was going to be huge. A Pollyanna kind of cake. I researched different theories in frosting. I took an online cake decorating tutorial. I purchased baking flour, baking sugar, and the finest butter. I bought the tools I would need. I was ready.
About a week before his birthday I had a thought.
My Mother-in-Law is a dear woman. She really is. BUT, she has one annoying habit. Wherever my MIL goes, she brings food. I'm not talking about, "Can I bring something?" and she shows up with a salad. I mean, she raids the food warehouse that is her kitchen, spends a day cooking, then has to make three trips from the car to bring in all her creations.
And they're, um... different. Some things are pickled. PICKLED! Almost everything has onions. (Did I ever mention that I have a near-phobia of onions?) The chips are the wrong brand. The cookies are sugar-free. The soda is GENERIC. It's just all wrong. And, besides, I've made or provided all these things! I just bite my lip as I watch her move my china dishes and crystal bowls and pitchers to make room for her tupperware containers full of some goopy-looking mystery casserole.
So, as I was thinking about this birthday cake I was planning for Penn, I thought of my mother-in-law.
I say to Penn, "Would you please call your mother and let her know that I'm making your cake so she doesn't bring one?"
Penn replies, "Oh, she would never just show up with a cake. She knows you're making it." (Penn always assumes things.)
I say, "I know you don't THINK she would bring a cake, but you don't KNOW that she wouldn't, so just humor me, and call her."
Penn answers, "Okay, I will."
Day of the party. I have spent hours sifting and stirring my heart out. The cake has cooled and I am about to begin frosting. The phone rings. It's her. I hear Penn on the other line.
"Okay, mother, sounds good. We'll see you then... Whaaaaat?! I thought I told you..."
Then I hear a bunch of urgent sounding whispering. And I just know.
I'm standing in the kitchen with my hand on my hips, eyebrows raised, covered in flour, when Penn shuffles sheepishly into the kitchen. With his mother still on the line.
Penn: "Uuum. I guess I didn't tell my mother not to make a cake."
Penn: Soooo. She's made a cake. Actually, two cakes. She's made two cakes. And a pie. Two cakes and a pie.
Penn: I can't really tell her not to bring the cakes and pie, after she went to so much trouble. We'll just have three cakes and a pie. More is better, right? (nervous laugh)
I was thinking about all those photos from my childhood birthdays and I was positive there was only one cake on the table. Because my mother did things right. One cake. One.
My face began to burn, my heart started thumping, and tears were welling up in my eyes. I know, I know, over a cake! But I was so mad! This is exactly what I knew would happen and this is exactly why I expressly asked my husband to make sure this didn't happen!
Being the mature and godly woman that I was/am, I threw my apron on the kitchen floor and stomped off to lock myself in the bathroom so I could feel sorry for myself and cry piteously, in private.
My MIL, who was still on the phone, wanted to talk to me. She had, er, picked up on the fact that I wasn't delighted by her contributions. Of course, it wasn't her fault, as her son hadn't told her about his new wife's OCD or her endeavors to make him this oh-so-special cake.
But I wasn't in a charitable mood. In fact, I don't think I've ever behaved so badly in my life. Well, actually, I have, and it involved my in-laws, but that's another story for another day. I actually refused to talk to my mother-in-law.
Penn was dumbfounded as he tried to hand me the phone. "Honey, she wants to talk to you!"
"But what am I supposed to tell her?
"I could not care less."
"You really won't talk to her? Are you serious?"
About this time Penn started to get upset with me. This was, after all, HIS birthday. Wasn't this cake supposed to be about HIM?
No, obviously not.
I spent the rest of the day getting ready for the party, working on the food, and doing some last minute cleaning.
Then, shortly before the guests were due to arrive, I decided it was time. Time to move my amazing creation to its proper place on the gorgeous cake stand we'd received as a wedding present. As I was lifting the cake from the counter to the stand, it happened.
My beautiful concoction just. fell. apart.
I just stood there in shock, unable to do anything to save my precious cake. (Notice I say my cake, and not Penn's? Let's be real.) What could I do? Believe me, you can't catch cake. In about two seconds it was over and there it was, in chunky chocolate heaps, all over my counter.
It was immediately apparent. There was no hope. No effort valiant enough to turn it back into something even remotely cake-like. It was unsalvagable.
And I was so glad! As my cake crumbled, I was humbled. The pride in my heart just melted. I knew I'd overreacted and handled things poorly. The anger died with the cake.
"Penn?!" I hollered. "Call you mother! Tell her to bring those cakes. AND the pie."
Soon after, my mother-in-law arrived, grocery bags in hand.
She was apologetic. I was apologetic. She was gracious. I was gracious. She hugged me and I hugged her back. All was forgiven. Thankfully, my in-laws don't get their feathers ruffled as easily as SOME people's families. And they don't hold grudges, either.
Her German chocolate cake (Penn's favorite) saved the day. Was it fancy? Nope. Was it fabulous? Not so much. The other cake was sugar-free, for the two family members with Diabetes. I hadn't thought of them. Of course. The pie was for ME! Let that sink in for a moment. The tantrum I threw was in protest of a pie made for me. Why, you ask, did she make a pie especially for me? Because she knew I didn't care for German chocolate cake. Because she's like that. I've never cared for German chocolate, Penn's favorite, so I chose to make something else on on HIS birthday. Because I'm like that. Me, me, ME!
We actually ran out of cake, if you can believe it. We ate all of her cake (well, not the sugar-free cake, there was plenty left) and had to break out my flop of a cake, or what was left of it. My mother-in-law declared her chunk delicious. And it was.
My MIL turned 80 this year. She is the eldest of 11. She has four children, with a fourteen year age gap between the oldest and youngest (Penn). So she's everybody's mom and she's used to taking care of everyone, which, in her book means feeding anyone who comes within 50 feet of her person. And that includes me.
In the five years we've been married, I haven't attempted another cake for Penn. I've purchased an ice cream cake, I've made cupcakes, and I've ordered a cake from a bakery. I've adopted a different attitude toward my MIL's bad habit. She is now more than welcome to bring whatever she'd like, foodwise, because it means a lot less work for me and, to be honest, my in-laws like her cooking more than mine anyway. I save the fancy menus, tables, and graces for visits from my own parents. They notice my efforts and make a fuss over me, which, let's face it, is what all this cake business is probably about.
Since I had a son of my own almost one year ago, I appreciate my mother-in-law in a new way. Now I know why she still treats Penn like her baby. Why she defends his truly horrifying 1987 senior picture hairstyle with a huffy, "Penn has always had BEAUTIFUL hair!" AND why she thinks he's the greatest thing since sliced bread and won't acknowledge any flaws or misdeeds on his part.
Every once in a while I think about my future daughter-in-law, and it's already bittersweet. I never thought about how incredibly important a person's choice of spouse is until I looked at it from a mama's perspective. This woman will be a part of our immediate family. She'll be the mother of our grandchildren. We'll have to share holidays with her family. We'll have to share our Nicknack. More than share. In fact, we'll be lucky if she shares him with us. She'll be Nicknack's best friend. He'll love her more than either of us combined. They'll take care of each other. They'll need each other. They'll have inside jokes and secrets to which we won't be privy. And she'll make his birthday cakes. And their children's birthday cakes, too.
It is with happy heart that I turn my thoughts to my son’s first birthday cake. He turns one on the very last day of May.
I'm trying to remember that this party is for him, not me. That if any part of it is stressful to me, that I'm taking it too seriously. That I need to share him with everyone who loves him. And most importantly, I'm trying to remember what I did wrong with that disaster of a cake!