I knew what I was going for last week when I started preparing my mother’s birthday dinner. Something warm, something autumnal, something that screamed, “Thanks for everything and I’m really sorry about setting the family car on fire that one Christmas when I was sixteen.” You know … a complete package message.
I go for the same theme each year, and each year I fall spectacularly short.
It usually starts with the number of attendees. When throwing a birthday dinner, it’s proven to be most readily appreciated if the individual whose birth you are celebrating is present (unless it’s something like Presidents’ Day or Christmas, in which one finds it unreasonable to expect the dead to appear).
This year, the number of invitees dwindled. It was only going to be my mom, my kids and myself: small, intimate, deflating.
I was going to have to cancel the big band swing orchestra and the caterer. I drew the line at calling off the inflatable moon bounce, because that has proven to be the highlight of the evening for my mom the last five years running.
I spent the entire previous day making this beautiful Gingery Spiced Cake with Sour Cherries and a Sour Cherry Glaze. And by the entire day, I mean the whole time between 3:30 and 4:45, but I shoved twenty-four hours worth of love into that labor.
The following day, I worked feverishly at creating a Smoked Turkey and Black Lentil Stew, filled with smoked turkey and black lentils.
There were a billion other things in there too, and it was supposed to be recorded and preserved for everyone to see under the Scullery section, but I forgot to take pictures until everything was already in the crockpot. It proved near impossible to separate the teeny tiny black lentils from the onions, Kuri squash and thyme leaves in order to set up individual photo shots of each ingredient–and I did try for a while–but there was a lot left to be done, so I gave up.
I needed time to set up the champagne fountain and direct the newly arrived Grand Marshall as to the best route for the military parade later that day.
Once I finally unloaded the three vans full of white orchids, set up the fireworks and laser show outside, and emptied a room large enough to fit the shark tank in, I woke to the sound of the ringing telephone. (It turns out all those bits in between making the stew and filling up Shamu’s new digs were part of a lavish afternoon kip on the couch, but it didn’t make it any less real to me.)
The phone call was Chloe, announcing she and her brother were on their way home from his brutal soccer practice and her mind-numbing after-school job. They were hungry. Make food.
By the time they got home everything was ready: the stew, the cake, the set table , the small string quartet I’d settled for (okay, the CD player providing us with a little mood music). The problem was … we had no guest of honor.
I told the kids to have a light snack, which to them usually involves a bagel, a smoothie, a bowl of popcorn, some soup and an entire pantry shelf full of cookies. They were set for the next thirty minutes.
After an hour and a half, I phoned my mother, who always answers her iPhone the same way: like it’s a small explosive device that could detonate at any moment, and therefore, she must handle it like plutonium.
“Hello?” came the tentative, faraway voice on the other end of the line. She usually holds it at arm’s length.
“Mom? What time are you coming for dinner?”
“My last student is late. I’m waiting for him.”
Note: my mother is a violin teacher who would rather be drawn and quartered, watching her intestines being roasted on an open flame in front of her, than miss instructing a small child of three or four how to properly take a bow.
“About an hour and a half, but he hasn’t phoned to cancel, so I’m assuming he’s still coming.”
“Mom. His lesson is a total of fifteen minutes. He’s missed it six times over. He’s not coming. Dinner is ready.”
“You go ahead and start without me. I’m just finishing up.”
I put the phone down and cradled my head. I am again in the situation where I must celebrate a birthday without the birthed celebrant.
“DINNER!” I called.
The dog and cat came running.
Ladling out the stew, the first question I get when handing it to my daughter is, “Is there meat in it?”
I answer yes, but remind her that the turkey was a vegetarian, so it should be okay in the end.
The next question is, “Are there guts in it?”
This is a question everyone asks if they know we’ll be dining with either one or both of my Polish parents.
“Not today, sweets. It’s guts-free gruel.”
We finish dinner, clean up and the kids leave to do homework. My mom’s car pulls up the driveway. She comes in looking exhausted. I place a bowl of stew in front of her, but then have to return half of it to the crockpot, because she insists it’s too much. I convince her to have a glass of wine from a very special bottle, pushing it into her hands. I sit across from her, watching as she nudges my stew around on the plate.
Finally, I call the kids down and we light the cake and bring it in. It looks beautiful. My daughter snaps photos, we pass out the pieces. My son takes a bite and announces in Spanish to his sibling that my chocolate cake tastes like mierda. I retort to my surprised fourteen-year old that firstly, it does not taste like poo and secondly, it is not chocolate and thirdly, I worked for hours on making that cake (75 minutes), and that I do not appreciate either his language or his lack of appreciation.
I turn to my mother. “What do you think? Do you like it?”
She shrugs her shoulders, “Truthfully, I can’t taste a thing. I’ve got a cold. I’m heading to bed.”
I look at the dog and cat.
“You guys wanna go for a moon bounce?”