Saturday, December 13, 2003

I have been incubating this since my birthday last week. There was something so precious about it, so private too, that I was reluctant to brush off its delicate bloom by having a ready response.

The time of my birthday always coincides with a stock-taking period, not so much because it is my birthday and, therefore, a time of renewal, but because it happens to coincide with the darkening of the light, the winding down of the year and completion of projects, the evaluation of what worked out and what needs to be tweaked, the resetting of counters and compasses, the reaming out of engines, the remounting of gadgets, the rewording of determinations and the mustering of new enthusiasms, which I associate with the Equinox and the New Year, from which I make a fresh start. Hope springs eternal, as y'all know.

So for the past week, I have sailed my little leaky tub under full sail in a Roaring 40's squall, taking in much water, and bailing out, bailing out, still never giving the sails any slack.

This to introduce my surprise email from Sue Garthman:

"Happy Birthday, La Fenskaya!"

. . . in which she invited me to join her birthday boy Robert on his pogo stick.

Robert and I share the same birthday (along with Mozart, Walt Disney, Calvin Trillin, and others).

Anyway, I only read Sue's email on December 7. And I only caught up on reading my favorite linked blogs late that same night, which is when I found the photo of Robert, smiling full screen at me around 1 a.m. in the morning of the 8th.

I fell in love. I just sat for more than an hour looking at this beautiful boy, wiping an occasional quiet tear of joy from my face, peaceful and filled with an inexplicable delight, a warmth that no words can fully express.

Thank you, Sue, and Robert too, of course, for a wonderful birthday present that will stand out as one of the greatest "rainy day notes" ever.

When I was a little kid in boarding school in England, there was a tradition that someone in your family would send you a cake and fixings for a birthday party. My first year there, I didn't know how this worked out, but I had asked my Aunt Doll to bake me a cake, which she duly produced and iced and mailed in time, parcel post.

Mother Peter was in charge of the refectory in those days, a very large, no-nonsense woman with a mustache and a deep voice. When the parcel came in, I knew what was in it, I didn't open it, I just handed it over to Mother Peter to be set aside until the day, which fell on a weekday that year.

What I was unaware of that first year was that another kid in my class, two years older than me, had the same birthday. She had been a boarder there longer than me, she knew the ropes, her mother lived nearby and supplied plentiful goodies. Mary Bedson, who we all called "Bedbug", was well-known for the quality of her birthday parties, and when I got around to inviting people to mine, they had all been invited to Bedbug's first and had already accepted. So on the day, I found myself at the head of a sad little table, sitting with the three most unpopular girls in my class, those who had been invited last by Bedbug and who were very sorry indeed they had already said "yes" to me, because all three of them, and me too, ate our tea with our heads swivelled round over our shoulders, looking at Bedbug's party.

Bedbug had gathered such a large attendance that two refectory tables had been abutted to create a vast single banquet table. It was heavily laden with colored jello moulds, little piles of scrumptious sandwiches made with fish pastes and other savories, small cup cakes, chocolate biscuits, candy, store bought jams, and at the head of the table, just in front of Bedbug herself, was enthroned a huge store-bought, perfect cake, with little pink sugar roses all around the edges, and garlands of green leaves, and "Happy Birthday Mary" in pink script on a perfectly smooth white surface.

Mother Peter, no doubt feeling sorry for me, had prepared for my plain table a plateful of "bread and butter and jam" sandwiches. This was the very same "bread and butter" we got every day, with the same "jam", post-war England none of which were the real thing of what we named them, so the only difference, basically, was we didn't actually have to spread the usual jam onto our usual bread ourselves.

My group of outsiders ate in silence. We none of us could really cope with this business of sitting on the sidelines of a very noisy, joyful, large birthday party happening right beside us, where everyone was scarfing unusual delicious foods, from which we were excluded by some invisible barrier.

Mother Peter kept coming over to us, she could probably understand the situation better than any of us (this was my tenth birthday). She finally said: "Didn't you give me a cake to set aside for you?" I was embarrassed. But once I had admitted to having such a cake, Mother Peter insisted on bringing it up from the depths of wherever it had been held for me. I opened the package, and there it was, a grey, home-made cake, with the spatula marks still showing on the rock-hard icing. No flowers. No garlands. No "Happy Birthday Patricia".

Jolly, jolly Mother Peter fetched me a large knife to cut my cake: "Make a wish, go on!"

In five minutes flat, the only wish I was capable of making was to be able to cut my cake, which was absolutely impregnable! In the end, I was no longer trying to cut it, I was jabbing at it, nay, I was stabbing it, figuring if only I could get past the icing somewhere, I could break it open and bring out the cake hidden beneath this battleship shell. After a little of this, my sad guests and I were in the spirit of it, we were giggling madly, and I became manic, my usual mode -- about time -- and the cake was skittering all over the table, trying to dodge my thrusting blows.

Mother Peter intervened: "No, no, no, Fenn," she protested, "That's not the proper way to cut a cake..."

"You try..." I handed her the knife.

She took over, but then she realized that here indeed was something special, unusual to say the least, in the cake department, she had never before experienced one of Aunt Doll's home-baked cakes.

It took forever for Mother Peter herself to get in. Inside, there was a perfectly good fruitcake (I can still hear Aunt Doll's mantra about her baked goods, "It should be good, it has two eggs in it."), surrounded by delicious marzipan. In fact, only the grey icing was inedible, I swear it tasted just like what it looked like, gun metal.

The next year, the famous "twins" birthday fell on a Saturday. There was an "away" hockey match, so very few people were around for tea. I had asked Aunt Doll for a cake, pleading: "Please, made by Aunt Joan this time", and it had duly come in and been set aside, unopened once more.

At the end of a regular tea, I remembered the cake and asked for it. There was no time to eat it before we had to go into the chapel for Benediction, so I took it into our form room afterwards and shared it with all those people who were around, all those who had not gone with the hockey team.

Now, Aunt Joan was a pro, and her home-baked cake was perfection itself. It was a huge cake, a delicious cake, and we were not many to share it: so we had a memorable pig-out. Years later, everybody was still talking about that cake, it seemed after the fact as if the whole world had been there.

The next time the "twins" had a birthday, Bedbug invited me to share her party with her, so we had the one table, everybody attended, and there were no outsiders at all. The funny thing about all this is that I don't remember any more who the original unpopular three were -- not if my life depended on it. But then, after spending years together in a boarding school, by the end everybody gets along. Fact.

Thank you again, Sue and Robert. Yes, I would love to have a go on the pogo stick, I never had one. I think I would be good at it...
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