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