My dad turned eighty-one on September 25. Last year, Dad celebrated his eightieth with my brother’s family in Fernley, Nevada. Denny and Bev had gifted Mom and Dad with a train trip across country to celebrate with the “Western” family; they arrived home just in time to pack a few “last boxes” and make the move from the farm to The Compound on the ravine. So this year, Dave and I had planned a brunch, complete with the “Eastern” grand-kids, great grand-kids, and maybe a couple of old friends. After all, we’re also coming upon the one-year birthday of communal living on the ravine; maybe this could be one of those dual-purpose, or multi-tasking, events.
The brunch never happened. September turned out to be a problem month for The Compound’s primary caregivers. We traveled too much – first Mom and I went to the Southeastern Women of the ELCA convention in Marietta, Georgia, then Dave and I flew to Las Vegas for the big meeting of the Deloitte Partners, Principals, and Directors. Those trips came on the heels of the trip to California in August, which was preceded by the trip to South Dakota in July. With that many hole-ups in airplanes, hotels and strange places, it was bound to happen – we both came down with a nasty respiratory virus on the tail-end of the Las Vegas jaunt. Really nasty.
The first day we really did anything after days of fever, coughing, and brain fog was Saturday, September 25. Dave was salivating to grill a chicken with a half-can of beer up its rear; he had clipped the recipe from a Men’s Health magazine he read on the trip out. I stirred up a quick recipe of baked beans and a small bowl of coleslaw. Mom and Dad were thrilled that they would join us for late lunch-early dinner. We hadn’t been together in days.
Dave, could you get me a cake mix and a can of frosting? I want to make a cake for Dad.
I got an early start and I practiced intervals – cook for fifteen minutes, couch for twenty, repeat, repeat, repeat. The beans went in the oven, the lightly-dressed cabbage found its place in the refrigerator, and the two-layer yellow cake with fudge frosting looked lovely on the crystal stand. Mom and Dad sipped summer drinks in the den while Dave tended the roasting fowl.
Smells so good.
I had just said “I think we’ll be able to eat in about twenty minutes” when the phone rang.
Jade. Elder son. “Heyyyyyyy, how you doing?”
“We’re coming along. We’re cooking a chicken on the grill.”
“We’ve been up to have lunch with Jerry Wong today.”
“Did you go to eat Chinese food?”
“Of course. Anjie says tell you she could hardly eat – People were in there with no underwear.”
“Yeah, we actually went to the nicer one of the two Chinese restaurants and it was still awful. Turned her stomach.”
“Was this a man or a woman?”
“A man. Made her sick, you know, hanging out like that.”
“Oh dear lord. Don’t tell me anything else. We’re about to eat here in a few minutes.”
“I called Grandma and she didn’t answer.”
“That’s because they’re over here. We’re having Grandpa’s birthday lunch.”
“That’s actually what I was calling about. We want to stop by to bring Grandpa something for his birthday.”
“Well, come on. You can eat with us – or if you don’t want to eat, you can have cake. I baked him his favorite cake.”
Long pause. “He’s going to have plenty of cake.”
“You’re bringing a cake?”
“He told Anjie he wanted a yellow cake with chocolate frosting for his birthday and she told him she’d bake him one.”
“Well, bring it on!”
“And – well, there was some kind of mix-up with Jerry Wong. When we called to ask him out to lunch, we told him that we’d have to leave by two because we needed to take Grandpa a cake.”
“Yeah…so when we got there, he said, ‘Well, you don’t have to stop and get a cake for Grandpa because I got one.’”
“So you’re bringing a Walmart cake, too.”
I had set the table on the porch.
Dave, this is about the best chicken I’ve ever eaten. Oh, Diana, I’m so glad you made coleslaw. No, we’re not going to eat but we’ll just sit out here on the porch with you and visit. Yeah, maybe some cake – since you have plenty.
We all dodged the hummingbirds whirring and chattering from one feeder to the other to the morning glory vines on the porch rails. I forgot to bring out the ice cream I’d bought specifically for the birthday party but, hey, I navigated the brain haze well enough to bring out dessert plates, forks, and napkins.
“Okay, what are we going to do here? We have yellow cake with homemade chocolate frosting – Oh I just love homemade frosting. Mine’s not homemade; mine’s from a can. Anjie, I can’t believe you made homemade frosting,” I said.
“First time, too. I’m anxious to see if it was worth it. I want a little of yours and a little of mine,” she said.
“I want some of both of them and don’t be too stingy,” Dad said.
“We don’t want to cut Jerry’s cake, do we?” I asked.
“Could put it in the freezer,” Anjie said.
“Didn’t you say you had a dinner at church tomorrow?” I asked. “Maybe you could take it to share.”
“Now that’s what we’ll do,” Mom said. Nobody asked Dad.
Everybody had a little of both yellow cakes with chocolate frosting. The men said they liked both of them and, to prove it, ate equal amounts of both. Mom said Dad would eat the rest of both of them. I asked Anjie if she didn’t think the homemade frosting was worth it, because I sure did.
She thought about her response, shrugged her shoulders, grinned, and said, “Yeah, it’s worth it.”
“Definitely.” Actually, I liked my cake better but her glossy dark frosting put my Pillsbury canned in its place.
Jade and Grandpa were engrossed in some sort of conversation about how churches can best support the community.
Dave interrupted our cake talk to say, “Look at the fox.”
The young fox we’ve come to call Miss Prissy Fox eased around the compost bin and trotted to the garden on the opposite side of the back yard. Miss Murphy Shih-tzu stuck her black nose through the white bottom rails of the porch to get a better look – but she didn’t bark. Miss Prissy scratched the dirt in the garden and then made a dash for the center of the yard where she flopped in the grass and rolled for a minute, scratching first one side and then the other. We all laughed out loud. She sat up and made a lazy pass at scratching her left ear and then just looked around – at the yard, at the birds flying near the feeder, at us looking at her.
“Well, she certainly seems very comfortable – not scared at all,” Anjie said. “Jade, we better get going.”
Jade did not take the cue. Instead, he returned to a previous statement. “Grandpa, I think the United Methodists do a better job than any of the other churches at supporting Scouting. Well, except for the Mormons.” (Our Jade spent ten years in professional Boy Scout leadership.)
Anjie turned to me. “How do you know it’s a female? Or do you?”
“I don’t know. Wouldn’t you think you could see his wee-wee if it’s a boy?” I said.
Dave just shook his head.
“And he’s not wearing underwear, either,” I added.
Anjie and I laughed and then she said, “Oh, God, that was just so gross.”
Several minutes later, all of us exhausted by Methodists, Mormons, Scouting, Habitat for Humanity, the Harlem Children’s Zone and Zuckerberg’s 100-million dollar donation to Newark City Schools, the party ended. Dad collected big hugs from Jade and Anjie and told them how glad he was that they came to his birthday.
Dave had just pushed the “Start” button on the first dishwasher load when Dad and Mom started down the hallway for home, each carrying a cane in one hand and a cake in the other. Dad turned around.
“This was the best birthday party I’ve ever had.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Shoot, yeah. It would have to be – I got three cakes!” Then he laughed out loud as he continued down the hall behind Mom.
“I’ll bring the other one over tomorrow morning,” I called after him.