Birthday Cake

This weekend, I baked a birthday cake for our youngest. In keeping with the typical treatment of the third child, it was a week late — neither had any presents been opened. She’s only two, so she won’t fully comprehend this neglect.

Before my shopping trip, I scoured my favorite cooking blog for a recipe. Unsatisfied, I asked my husband for his opinion. “Why don’t you make the Bomb?” he responded. “A Zimmovan family tradition — perfect for her birthday.”

It is indeed. And as I dumped the cake mix into the stand mixer and stirred the pudding on the stove, I thought about the frequency with which I’ve come back to other Zimmovan family staple recipes in the few months. The Bomb, chocolate whipped cream frosting, sweet potato muffins, Chicken Divan…these recipes evoke, for me, the regularity and predictability of my mother’s cooking.

So regular and predictable, in fact, that when I was newly married, finally the master chef of my own kitchen, I opened up the windows of my kitchen to bring in the fresh air of new ingredients and foreign cuisine. Those first ten years of our married life certainly featured the staples of my childhood, but they were vastly outnumbered by the number of new recipes I tried.

In many ways, my efforts to transform my cooking reflected my efforts to transform myself. I, like many young women, saw my mother’s faults and strange idiosyncrasies (which, in my eyes, loomed much larger than any virtues). I would not be like that, I resolved with a sigh of exasperation.

And yet, eleven years, three children later, moments of startling recognition strike frequently. I speak, I act, and in those words and actions I see not only myself, but also my mother. Strange, that however much I have tried to create a self that is my own, that self proves only to be a veneer, quickly chipped off in moments of pressure, anxiety, or conflict.

In these moments, what can I offer myself, what can I offer my mother, except grace? Tied as we all are to frailty and weakness of the women and men who have gone before us, my youthful exasperation or even disdain will only obscure my perception of them and of my own self. Only grace can help me to see more clearly, with the eyes of compassion.

And now, as I layered the cake, chocolate pudding, whipped cream (no Cool Whip in Australia!), and crushed candy bars, my return to the staples of my mother’s kitchen seems entirely fitting. Here, on the far side of the world and with a small family of my own, I’m reaching for all of the threads that lead back home.