jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

Turning Nine and the Football Cake

boy with football cake

Football cake
May 2016

My son turned nine this weekend and I have absolutely nothing to say about it.

I should. I want to say something. But I am in turns fake-preoccupied with something inconsequential like party favor bags or trying to make chocolate sports balls (yes, I typed that) out of a ridiculously small silicone candy mould that is fleshy pink and so bizarre I can’t describe it. Or I am silent and searching for words. I forget what they call this mental state of pure chaos and then utter stillness, pure chaos, utter stillness.

Oh, yes. They call it Motherhood.

And so the night before his big football party (because this is the year of football cards and a new basketball hoop and sports, sports, sports everywhere we turn) I stayed up very, very late baking him a cake. Plus cupcakes. Plus another small cake to put on top of the cake such that the whole entire cake-strosity would look like a football field with a HUGE football on top, surrounded by coordinating gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free, flavor-free cupcakes, just in case.

It was almost 11 pm when I really got down to business. Most years this late start is because I’m so busy cleaning the house and planning the pirate’s treasure hunt, or cutting the paper Lego mini-fig silhouettes for decorating, or braiding survivalist rope bracelets for the canoers, or making doctor sheets for the Doc McStuffins teddy bear check-up, or frames for the Woody/Buzz Lightyear wood frames, and so on. But this year it was because I had an art opening with eight amazing women friends and we’d drunk rum punch and kissed and hugged through a throng of admirers and basically partied the night away.

So there I was, 11 pm, birthday eve, jacked up on rum punch, feet aching, totally distracted by life’s other happenings, and I found myself popping red velvet cakes out of the oven and flavor-free cupcakes in the oven. I wondered, as I always do why I do this to myself every damn birthday. Because I know this means that I will be bleary-eyed and pissy when I stumble through the ever-growing crowd of birthday party kids to place the cake before my child. Which I sort of hate.

mom and son

At the art opening, still nine years old
May 2016

When people (aka my husband) ask, I say I do this year after year because they get so excited when they wake up on the morning of their birthday party to run into the dining room and see the cake I’ve left wrapped there. And part of me maybe realizes that my fondant ta-dah costs about 10% of what a professional cake would cost. And the year my mother visited and goaded me through the Hello Kitty cake from her safe perch at the table with her second whiskey sour, I pointed out to my doubtful, heckling audience that this was an excellent use for an Ivy League degree as well as an MFA. (Look what you paid for, Mom! Great investment strategy!)

But this year, I think I realized that it is this.

Birthday cake making is this thing I plan a tiny bit in advance. I purchase the supplies, I plan a little bit, at least in my head. And the night before the big party it can only go as fast as it goes. First there are the ingredients, the flour, the eggs, the baking soda and sugar. Things need to be measured, sifted, placed in the oven for x number of minutes to rise. Then there are the icings, the marshmallow fondant, the buttercream or confectioner’s or for those flavor-free cupcakes, the Duncan Hines canister. Then there is the kneading, the rolling, the cutting, the laying on, the sweet sugary icing coursing through my veins.

There are no cutting corners. There is no racing ahead. There is this, then this, then this, much of it nearly mindless, all of it completely necessary if one is to make a life-size edible  football embedded on a tiny football field.

boy with birthday cake

Dinosaur cake
May 2011

The earliest cake for my oldest that I remember was a fire truck, all red #5, then a green dinosaur that I had to run out the next morning to get more icing for, next the blessedly easy dirt cake with worms, and the pirate cake, then the horrible Lego cake, the bug cupcakes, and now, the football. And the memory of each one lays in waste behind me, an evening spent so hard at work, then the next day, gone in an instant, ripped into with the triangular cake server and then dashed off onto compostable plates and shoved into the mouths of voracious, ever-growing children.

There is this rush to accomplish it all and then, poof!, so quickly it’s gone, impossible to even remember if not for the photographs.

This cake is my marker. It is my moment frozen in time, in the dark of a kitchen, generally all by myself, where I incubate this thing, whisper cursed threats and slightly tipsy words of blessed adoration. While all the house is asleep I spend these three hours or four trying to perfect this one thing, as if I by planning and mixing and stirring just so I can fill my son (and all his dear friends and their parents, who walk this road beside me) with good intentions, blessings, heartfelt thanks, endearments, protective talismans. And also, red #5.

It is my moment suspended in time, and sugar, and marshmallow (oh, lord, the marshmallow.) So sweet. Utterly evanescent.

My baby turned nine. The one who was only a baby for seventeen months before he became a big brother to two younger siblings, and then who became the most responsible citizen to another newborn a mere nineteen months later.

He is the one who didn’t talk until he was three (because probably he had ear infections but his overwhelmed mother didn’t notice), but now can say such wise things, such caring things. And also, he does the dap, which is a football thing, I guess. And he raps… sort of. He played Fur Elise for his recital two weeks ago with a dislocated elbow (because his stupid mother didn’t take him to the orthpedist who snapped it right back into line the next day) and on the lacrosse field he is known for getting every ground ball, for crushing his opponent in the midfield.

boy playing lacrosse

#43, crushing it in the midfield
May 2016

He is sometimes timid, and occasionally teary and when provoked, ferocious. Because he believes everything should be fair. And he knows fair. And he has the most unbelievable memory you’ve ever seen. Which isn’t fair, if you ask me.

He used to adore me. But now he is nine. And so he mostly tolerates me and expects me to be fair. But he always brings his dishes over to the sink and thanks me for things I do and doesn’t complain when I begin a sentence with, “Can you please do me a favor and…?”

He has cinnamon freckles he lets me kiss and goat ears he lets me touch and every once in awhile he sits on my lap and places my arms around him or begs me to stay in bed and read more to him. And I’m suspecting more and more these days he’s doing that for my sake more than his, but I’m ever so grateful nonetheless.

And he is nine years old today.

One of his friends made him a card that reads, “Can you believe we used to be five?” which made me almost cry. And I’m going to put it in his special box where I store such precious things. That huge box is nearly full. Because nine is a lifetime.

This year he wanted a football cake and a game in the yard with his buddies, with some football card trading thrown in. That’s it. Nothing fancy. Maybe grilled hotdogs and some watermelon and a little basketball in the driveway after the cake. It’s a party a seventeen-year-old could get behind.

So I stayed up until 2 am and I baked that cake. I took pictures and texted them to my artist girlfriends to show I’d survived the evening, recovered from the art-mayhem we’d wrecked earlier in the night. And then I went upstairs to bed, two hours into the tenth year of my son’s life, and I kissed his sweet head, pulled the sheet over his long, muscled arms and legs and whispered, “It’s just Mama. Good night. I love you,” then added, “and happy birthday, big boy.”

boy asleep

Darn that arm
May 2016

18 comments on “Turning Nine and the Football Cake

  1. Amy Reese
    May 16, 2016

    I baked an airplane cake once, Jen, for my son’s second birthday. Other than that, I’ve always taken the simple route, a rectangular chocolate cake. This year I find out my kids don’t even like cake! I must admit I was disappointed. They don’t even want it on their birthdays! Your cakes look wonderful and amazing!! Good work, mama. They will remember them even without the photos I bet.

    • Jesska
      May 17, 2016

      I couldn’t believe anyone, especially no children, didn’t like cake, until I came here and saw for myself.. Strange people.

      • Amy Reese
        May 17, 2016

        My husband doesn’t like cake either! That’s probably where they get it. Yeah, I don’t understand it myself. Love cake!!!

        • Jesska
          May 17, 2016

          Exactly! DB doesn’t either. Nor do most if the people I work with. My AuPair kids have no excuse – both parents eat cake…

    • jgroeber
      May 17, 2016

      I love this thread!! To be honest, I don’t really like cake all that much either, although I LOVE icing. Also cupcakes. Because I feel like the ratio of cake to icing is more fair on a really good cupcake. But cake is mweh (shrugs shoulders.) Now pie on the other hand… YUM!
      I remember asking my mother for a german chocolate cake (because of the coconut icing, of course) and her making me a gorgeously lopsided one. So there’s hope that my children will remember this. Also, there are pictures. 😉

      • Jesska
        May 18, 2016

        Coconut icing???? Sounds good, but I haven’t come across it in the 10 years I’ve been here.. Weird. Maybe it’s a speciality from a certain part of Germany.. I will have to do some research 🙂
        Pie is awesome too! 🙂 Definitely 🙂
        Icing, hmm.. I’m not a generic fan of icing – it totally depends on what sort it is, and how thick it is – cupcakes have too much.. I love chocolate (obviously, despite never getting the temperature right, and it never shining the way I imagine it should), and lemon drizzle, and the sticky, fudgy topping I hardly ever make, and ganache (sp?!), but I’m not into royal icing or fondant icing or even butter icing really, although I like the version with cream instead of butter. Custard-icing (except it’s more of a filling) is good too. (Another good filling is the white stuff in Cadbury’s mini-rolls..). I can’t get the marshmallow icing to work for me, but it looks good for other people 🙂
        Have you worked with moldable chocolate?

  2. Jesska
    May 17, 2016

    🙂 I do that (stay up late making and decorating cakes/edible things), and I don’t even have kids! There’s just something about kitchens in the middle of the night 🙂 (and my lack of planning any other time to do it).

    Happy Birthday, have an awesome party! 🙂

    • jgroeber
      May 17, 2016

      Have you seen Bridesmaids? Such a good scene where she makes the most absolutely stunning cupcake, and then eats it all by herself. Just one cupcake.
      And the party was great. All the dads especially loved it. Which cracked me up, because it was the least well-planned or prepared party ever. Go figure.

      • Jesska
        May 18, 2016

        I haven’t (but now I might have to!)
        I’m glad the party went well 🙂 Less rigorous planning often means more freedom, maybe that’s why they liked it more.. I like that kind of party better anyway, but then I can’t do rigorous planning even if I want to! What did the kids think?

  3. lafriday
    May 17, 2016

    Oh, Jen. Can I ever read one of your posts without crying? You reminded me of the all-nighter I pulled before Kate’s first birthday when I sculpted a top, teddy bear, ball and blocks out of gum paste to place atop the cake layers I had baked. Kate awoke with a fever, covered in spots and I madly called and told everyone to stay home as I whisked her to the doctor to find out she had Fifth’s disease. For the few merrymakers who were not deterred by my speckled child, I finished the cake and put on a brave, albeit tired face. Since then, I’ve fashioned everything BUT the cake (I made turbans, bejeweled headbands and genie bookmarks–replete with pipe cleaner ponytails, jump-ring earrings and googlie eyes–for an “Aladin/Jasmine” party; I also went nuts for a Mad Hatter tea party.

    If it’s any consolation, Kate was going through a box of memorabilia a couple of Christmases ago and found various invitations, a travel journal, etc. that I had handmade for her through the years. As she stacked the treasures in her “keep” pile, she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “You’re a good mom.” In the end, it all matters. You’re a good mom, Jen.

    • jgroeber
      May 17, 2016

      Oh, I love the story of Kate finding the keepsakes and appreciating how hard you tried. That’s what I’m hoping. That they remember that we loved them this much and tried that hard. (I’m also hoping some well-placed keepsake moments might erase the more obvious memories of my daily yelling and impatience with people who don’t bring their dishes over to the sink when they’re done!)
      Thank you so much for reading and for the vision of that Aladdin/Jasmine party. We should get together and be professional kiddie party planners. Can you imagine? Making those bejeweled headbands for money? Ha!

  4. Stacy di Anna
    May 17, 2016

    As always, laughed and cried through the whole post. “There is this rush to accomplish it all and then, poof!, so quickly it’s gone, impossible to even remember if not for the photographs.” Truer words were never spoken, Jen. ❤ Congrats on every bit of your beautiful and full weekend.

    • jgroeber
      May 17, 2016

      Thanks so much, Stacy. This past weekend was one where we really did have it all- two winning lacrosse games (I coached one!), an art opening, a huge birthday party and a family dinner with everyone altogether. Brilliant!

  5. kellylmckenzie
    May 20, 2016

    Yes! To all of this. What a lovely and evocative tribute to your lad, who will one day read this and truly understand how blessed he was to have you as his mom.
    I have a love/hate relationship to my children’s birthday cakes. Each one has their own story – from the very first ones (my daughter put her slippered foot squarely in the middle of hers and my son’s was beheaded by our lab Fergus, before I had a chance to even ice it) to the ice cream number that caused an allergic guest to vomit …
    Congrats on the art opening. I do wish I lived closer!

    • jgroeber
      June 18, 2016

      Such a lovely comment lost amidst graduations and yes, birthday cakes. I wished you lived closer, too, so that I could meet your inspiring mother and eat those cuckoo cookie/confections you wrote about so nicely. Thank you for dropping by.

  6. Jennifer Berney
    June 1, 2016

    My heart lifted a little when I read that you started late because you were celebrating god art with good friends–such richness we get to have in this life. Your description of cake-making almost made me want to go that route and build an elaborate cake next time one of my kids has a birthday. Almost.

    • jgroeber
      June 18, 2016

      Ha! The cake building is really only fun with a beverage and with friends waiting for the 2 am text. Also, my doubting mother sitting nearby criticizing. (If you ever do attempt the fondant though, google marshmallow fondant. It’s not nearly as terrible as it seems.)
      Two days ago the biggest swarm of bees alighted in our tree and swirled in a tornado of bees so dense and big that I thought our tree was dropping orange flowers that kept blowing and swirling. I thought of you and your bee-keeping. I think it was a queen relocating. You and your peeps would have loved it, while I was absolutely terrified.

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This entry was posted on May 16, 2016 by in Surviving Motherhood, The Children and tagged , , , .

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