This is one of my favorite entries from my old blog on Cozi, which I am reposting here. Happy birthday, Dr. King.
A birthday cake mixed with vanilla and light
Alice had a plan on Monday, and from the moment she slipped out of bed in her little orange and purple pajamas, she was all about putting it into place.
“It’s his birthday,” she said. “And we will bake him a cake.”
It took me a minute to realize whom she was talking about. Martin Luther King, Jr. Monday was a day off from school in his honor. I hadn’t planned anything in particular to celebrate beyond the standard, “Martin Luther King, Jr. was brave and helped make the world a better place” business.
I tend not to deliver huge and long messages to my kids on days that are big in the adult calendar. A lot of these important days are more easily understood when you’re older and have a little experience in the world.
Mostly, though, I don’t want my kids to think they’re chumps who have to fake interest in the things that really get me going, things like social justice, poverty, education.
As usual, though, Alice was several steps ahead.
“I have a dream,” she said, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
I had to ask her to repeat herself, just to be sure. But yes, she did remember the sweet spot of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech. For some reason, it stuck with her enough that she wanted to share it with me and Lucy at the breakfast table.
“OK,” I said. “We’ll make a cake. What kind?”
At first, Alice wanted to make chocolate cake. I was fine with that. I will always be fine with chocolate cake. But then she changed her mind.
“Vanilla,” she said. “With chocolate frosting so there are brown and white together.”
This sounded like an even better plan.
I started pulling the ingredients out of the pantry when I noticed the vanilla beans I’d brought back from Tahiti when we flew there to bring home my dad after his accident.
They were my one souvenir of the trip, purchased at a covered marketplace we’d walked to during one of the long blocks of time we weren’t allowed to be in the intensive care unit with my dad. I had less than zero interest in shopping at the time, but my brother really wanted to get a Tahitian dancing costume for his daughter. Who was I to stand in the way of a six-year-old and her wee coconut bra?
I do love to cook and had heard great things about Tahitian vanilla, so I picked up a small bag of beans, carried them home, and promptly found myself unable to revisit that trip or that time. It’s hard to explain, but I didn’t want to fold any of that sadness into my food.
On Monday, though, they seemed like the right ingredient. Just the right ingredient. So I took the bag out of the cupboard and placed it on the counter next to the sugar, the flour, the butter, the eggs, the salt and the baking powder.
Alice and I do quite a bit of cooking together, and I coached her through the steps. She knows how to measure out ingredients, and she can even crack eggs pretty well. This time, though, she dropped one on the counter.
Right away, she saw the irritation in my face and teared up. I felt like a jerk, so I gently lifted her off the counter, wiped up the mess, and put her back with a hug.
Then I went to split the vanilla bean so Alice could scrape the insides into the mix. She leaned her head over the bowl to smell. “It sort of looks like dirt,” she said. “But it smells so good.”
“Do you think you’ll remember doing this when you’re all grown up?” I asked her.
What my children remember of their childhoods is a lot on my mind these days. It’s the turning of the year, I suppose. I want to be a better parent this year than I was last, and giving them memories of being thoroughly loved—even when they drop eggs—is part of that.
Her answer floored me.
“I will look into the light and remember everything,” she said.
I don’t know what she meant by looking into the light, or where she’d heard the expression. It’s certainly not anything I talk about outside the context of “Ghost Whisperer” reruns. But I like the idea of Alice growing up next to a source of brightness she can look to for happy memories. I like even more that she’s discovered it on her own.
Alice is literally half the size of some of her peers, with hummingbird bones and pale, pale skin. I worry about her all the time—until she says things like this.
We decided to make six small cakes using the miniature bundt pans, because that way we could deliver cakes to our friends and neighbors. When they’d cooled, we mixed some frosting, adding a triple portion of melted chocolate so that it was nice and dark. The girls frosted the cakes together while Jimi Hendrix played in the background, and it definitely felt like a party.
Then, one by one, Lucy and Alice delivered the cakes to the neighbors. First, the one who had a stroke two weeks ago and has to relearn how to walk. Then one who lives by herself with barking dogs. Then the one they like to play with. And another for the Brazilian couple that cleans houses.
That left two cakes. One for us, and one for my dad. We drove over to my parents’ house to drop it off and ended up staying for dinner with one of my sisters and her kids. Lucy cut the cake into eight small pieces, and those of us who eat solid foods each had a slice. I sat next to my dad, glad to still be able to enjoy such a simple pleasure.
The cake tasted sweet: of a world that’s getting better all the time, even when it feels like it’s not; of vanilla steeped in sadness and joy; of the light that Alice has discovered in some secret place, and in her innocence, shares with me.
It was a day well spent. Then, the next morning, we had our own cake, the very last one, for breakfast.