Birthdays, Pandemics and Black Forest Cakes


birthday cake
photo by Darshini Coore

Eighteen years ago, near the end of March, I brought home a tiny 6 lb  bundle of little girl wrapped in a blanket. It was a trying time because I had another bigger bundle of little girl at home that was not quite 2 years old yet, and I had more than a few trepidations about how I would manage two children under two years. In my first few hours alone with her in the hospital room, I recognised the profile of my own father in perfect miniature, framed in the hood made by the blanket that she was swaddled in. About 48 hours later, as her face was trying out different expressions, I recognised her paternal grandmother’s dimples denting both her tiny cheeks. Holding the tiny bundle that I had been waiting nine months to meet, I was filled again with that sense of awe that I had felt when I met her older sister for the first time…awe at what their dad and I had brought into this world. The heart swelling love and the fierce sense of protectiveness I felt towards this tiny bit of brand new human being were enough to silence, at least for the time being, the trepidations that threatened to overwhelm me as I stepped across the threshold of motherhood for the second time.

A lot of growing up happened in those 18 years for both of us. The days of 4 hourly feeds, diapers and travelling everywhere with a car seat and baby bag went by faster in retrospect than when I was living through it. When the words began, and the first steps turned into full speed hurtling sprints that ended more than once with a tooth chipping or busted lip kind of fall, I found myself facing a different kind of challenge : how to contain my fear that she would damage herself without clipping her wings. It is a challenge I continue to face as she scales the apple tree to pick apples, and as she prepares to leave the relative safety of home for college abroad.

We survived weaning, potty training, kindergarten and the dreaded GSAT. Then there was high school, group projects and oral presentation followed by CSEC exams, and finally 6th form. During that time, we also survived the death of grand and great grandparents, and her big sister leaving home for college. I survived her travelling to Cuba without me for a maths Olympiad, and we both survived her 4 week sojourn in Barbados to participate in a STEM summer camp. Most recently we survived college applications which required multiple essays and online interviews, and rejection by a college that she really wanted to attend. We both not only survived the past 18 years but have grown a lot in many ways. The chipped teeth were replaced by permanent teeth, and her spirit of daring and whole hearted  pursuit of the things that grab her interest has largely remained intact. We discovered that sharing a cup of tea can celebrate achievements as well as make the unbearable become bearable. We have learned that ice packs,  and the freedom to cry when it hurts, goes a long way in preventing ongoing damage from life’s more painful encounters…both for me and her.

So as the birthday approached, she and I made plans for our own personal mother-daughter celebration on the actual day (which was a weekday), and family dinner on the weekend. Her birthday fell on a Wednesday this year, which was a day when her classes  and  prefect duty finished at 1:30 pm, but there was engineering club which began at 3:15 pm. So we decided that I would meet her at school at 1:30. We would go have a cup of tea and a sweet treat to celebrate her birthday, and she would return to school in time for her club meeting. The only decision left to make was where to go for tea…

Meanwhile, a virus which seems to have had its origins on the other side of the world in China, was steadily making its way across oceans and continents. On March 10, 2020, the news broke that the SARS-CoV-2 had made landfall in Jamaica. We had our first case of a person with COVID-19. By the next day we had a second unrelated case, also imported, and by the end of that week, schools were closed. My daughter’s birthday was a mere 2 weeks away, and it seemed now that she would in fact have the whole day off from school and we could do more than just an afternoon tea.

About a week later the number of people with COVID-19 slowly but surely had increased, social distancing measures were instituted and people were encouraged to stay home as much as possible.  Parties and gatherings were discouraged. So, my daughter and I had to go back to the drawing board regarding 18th birthday celebration plans. Given that our favourite coffee shops would be closed, I asked her what she would like to do. She responded almost immediately with “Let’s bake a cake at home.” That was a simple enough request and I asked her what kind of cake she wanted to make. She suggested black forest cake using the recipe that her older sister had tried out a couple of years ago. So the new 18th birthday celebration plan became the mother-daughter activity of making a black forest cake. In addition, I would cook dinner for the three of us and her maternal grandmother who lived walking distance from us.

As the birthday approached, the recipe was retrieved from our family recipe folder. The cupboard was checked for ingredients, and what was absent from the pantry was obtained from the supermarket. As the sun came up on the birthday Wednesday, my daughter was up and about, as chirpy as the birds outside. The early part of the day was spent acquainting herself with the new laptop that was her present from her dad. Meanwhile I did much of the dinner preparation so that we could focus on the cake making later.

The last time this black forest cake recipe was executed, her older sister was in charge, and the younger one was the assistant and had to follow instructions. So this time I told the birthday girl she was the chef in charge, and I would be the assistant. So ingredients were measured, flour and cocoa powder sifted, eggs beaten. Under my daughter’s precise and careful supervision, the batter for the chocolate cake came together and went in the oven. She then prepared the cherry filling and put it to chill, while I did round one of the washing up. She had previously melted chocolate and created the words and symbols that she would decorate the cake with. The cakes rose nicely in the pans and the rich aroma of chocolate filled the air when they were removed from the oven and set on wire racks to cool. My next task was to whip the heavy cream which we were going to add to the layers along with the cherry filling, and also use in place of frosting on the top of the cake.

My daughter began assembling the layers of cake, cherry filling and cream together. Her slow, careful, precise measuring and arranging was taking a little longer than I would have liked given that the appointed dinner time was approaching. The temptation was great to say “Hurry up”. I knew my mother would arrive shortly, and I did not want to keep her waiting. But remembering that this time I was the assistant and not the chef in charge, I held my tongue and busied myself with the final touches of getting dinner on the table. By the time my mother arrived, the birthday girl had just begun applying the final layer of whipped cream to the top of the cake. Dinner was ready, and we were now waiting for her to finish with the cake.

Once she realised we were not yet ready to eat, my mother settled into a chair and took out her phone to entertain herself. My husband was tapping away at his laptop, absorbed in his work, and nobody seemed overly concerned that dinner might be delayed while we waited for cake decorating to be completed. As the self appointed assistant to the chef, I took a few deep breaths and gazed at my daughter absorbed in the task of decorating her birthday cake. My hands twitched to take the spatula from here and finish the job in the 2 minutes it would probably take me to slather a layer of whipped cream on the cake top. My tongue twitched to say to her “Let’s not take all day doing this.”  Thankfully I managed to rein in both tongue and hands…

As I gazed at her lovely little face completely absorbed in applying the whipped cream to cake-top one careful stroke at a time, with an engineer’s precision, my mind went back to the little baby girl I held in my exhausted arms, minutes after she emerged into this world. The tiny bit of human being that I dressed in the tiny baby dress I had sewn by hand while waiting to meet her in person. I remembered the determined 2 year old who refused to sit on a particular chair because it had spots, and, the 4 year old who used to insist on walking “in the middle” when she, her sister and I went walking, so that she could hold hands with both of us. Now  when we walk, the same child still reaches for and holds my hand, and pulls me onto the sidewalk if she thinks I am not moving fast enough to get out the way of oncoming vehicular traffic. I saw in my mind the 6 year old who taught me the katas, move by move, when I started karate a year after they started their martial arts journey. The focused determined look on her face while icing her cake reminded me of the look she wore when she did her own katas almost a decade ago…totally focussed and absorbed in the activity and moment.

My hand and tongue stilled themselves without effort as I too became absorbed in the moment, watching my daughter decorating her birthday cake. When did that 6lb bundle wrapped in a blanket turn into this tall, slim, competent, quietly confident young lady? This might be the last birthday she celebrates at home for a while, as overseas college plans come to fruition. This might be the last time that we bake and decorate a birthday cake together for many years. The child I had held, fed, comforted, yelled at, and slapped occasionally, the little girl that I had read to, bathed, walked with, nagged at to go to bed, and had driven to school for more than a decade, was 18 years today. I reflected on all the love and joy she had brought into my life in those 18 years. By this time next year, she would have left the nest. Suddenly I realised the last thing I wanted her to do was hurry up and finish…

About 15 minutes later, the cake decoration was complete, and as we put our home made black forest cake in the fridge to chill while we ate dinner,  the look of pleasure and the broad smile on my daughter’s face made me really glad that I had taken those deep breaths and controlled my twitching tongue and hand. There are so many things in life we have no control over, and this is even more so in the midst of a pandemic that has turned everything upside down. Yet  we can stop and take a breath and bring our racing minds home to our bodies, and anchor ourselves in the present, and take a mindful look at what is in front of us. Then we can let go of the past, stop imagining the future, and truly live in the present moment which is all we have promised to us. So in the midst of a pandemic, under stay-at-home orders, we still managed to celebrate an 18th birthday, in a meaningful way with a small family dinner, and black forest cake for dessert. I am grateful for the request she made to make a cake, because in fulfilling that wish, I was reminded by my younger daughter’s example, that the greatest present we can give ourselves and each other is the gift of being fully present in the moment with the ones we love and cherish.



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