Layers of birthdays past

May 14th, 2019  |  Published in Uncategorized, What we savor

My earliest memory of birthday expectations began the day of my tenth birthday. The celebration marking my decade here on earth was special, we celebrated during our first family trip to Europe.

My young parents and their even younger children sat outside a small cafe on the cobbled streets of Rome on a sunny July day. For the trip, I had packed only white clothing, despite my mother’s incessant reminders that I would inevitably stain everything. To my nine-year-old self, airy, white clothing seemed the only appropriate option for my summer vacation in Rome, but by the day my birthday rolled around my white pants were a map of previous encounters with chocolate gelato.

The chocolate stains did not bother me; even then I knew this birthday was a luxury, something to be grateful for. Summer birthdays have their downsides during childhood—all your friends are gone, you never get to celebrate with your class at school, and when you’re in Texas, as I was during my youth, it is blisteringly hot.

So as we sat outside the cafe only streets away from our small bed and breakfast, I was surrounded by my family, in my stained white pants—which again didn’t matter because I was celebrating a birthday in Rome. I think in that moment I felt what most Italians call “la dolce vita,” or the good life.

This was mostly because the staff at the bed and breakfast ordered a cake from a local, family friend’s, bakery. So in front of my young family sat a beautiful round pink strawberry cake, which looked the good kind of homemade; the kind you can only create if you’ve baked something with love.

As my family sang happy birthday, people stopped to smile, fellow Americans passing by even sang along, and I came away with a memory I would never forget. A memory of warmth, and love, and family, and the friendliness of strangers, all with a delicious fresh strawberry cake to boot.

Since that moment in Rome, strawberry cake has become my staple birthday cake. Seven years later I found myself in Salamanca, Spain, living with a local host family and a group of other teenage Americans attempting to learn Spanish. I spent the summer wearing all white again, but one thing was missing; not the chocolate gelato stains but my family. This would be one of many birthdays I would celebrate without my parents, so it marked a pivotal moment of growing up for me.

Earlier in the day, a few friends wished me a happy birthday in passing, but no one remembered a cake and for this reason I was heartbroken. I went for a lonesome walk. I called my mother and in tears I told her all about my birthday woes. She comforted me as best she could from nearly 5,000 miles away, but when we hung up, once more I was alone.

As I continued to walk on cobbled streets, not too different from those during my tenth birthday in Rome, I came across a small bakery. I paused for a moment looking into the windows. With all my teenage angst I wanted to resist going in, I wanted to suffer, to be sad, and to lament my cakelessness. Instead, I was beckoned in by the strawberries decorating the cakes in the window. I walked in and order a slice to go, found a spot to sit outside on a bench, and allowed tears to stream down my cheeks over my single serving of strawberry cake.

But with every bite the loneliness was replaced by the euphoria only sugar and memories can bring. My lonely and sad seventeenth birthday was saved by the sweet taste of strawberry cake.

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