What a Cake Might Mean

I don’t do baking.

I would say, as I dropped off pre-packaged supermarket cupcakes to the playgroup bake sale. I had a shrug to go with the statement. A shrug that said I have two tiny children and a husband who works away. My lack of time and energy for baking was true. It just wasn’t my whole truth.

Women are worth more than the sum of the cupcakes, rice krispie treats and shortbread biscuits they can produce whilst juggling two tiny children in a galley kitchen. An unwillingness to have my self worth measured in units of cupcake quality, when my scanty free time could be used to write my book was a perfectly acceptable feminist stance. It just wasn’t my whole truth.

The thing I buried with my faux casual shrug was a crippling unwillingness to risk failing at the bake sale. I wasn’t sidestepping competitive parenting, our playgroup community wasn’t some toxic Beverly Hills enclave. My no try – no fail pre-packaged option was shielding ten year old me; who had taken homemade cake, flat and still stuck in the tin, to school and apart from one sympathetic teacher all eyes slid past my unappetising offering and onto mouth-watering fairy cakes and choc chip biscuits. So it had one slice cut out. One wedge of a flat circle cake. The residue of the experience lingered on more than twenty years later.

A cake is never just a cake. This one was made at a time when my parents shared custody of my brother and I between them; we moved month to month from parent to parent, house to house, school to school. The mortifying stuck in the tin cake was made by my dad. And he was dying.

At a certain point in his illness I remember thinking how tall he was – except he was not tall, just skinny. He had not reached forty years old when they cremated him. Those facts have not always been foremost in my mind.

My avoidance of baking wasn’t always a thing. I remember baking when I was younger, enjoying the mixing, the anticipation of a hot oven, the prettying up with icing and sprinkles. Yet that old bruise was hit when I became a mother, and the protectiveness I felt for my children became protectiveness for the child I was. That child needed protecting. She needed the anonymity of manufactured pre-packaged preservative riddled baked goods and slabs of identical lurid icing.

I held onto my defensive I don’t bake policy for the first few years of parenthood and then I had one of those lightbulb moments: I saw the love. And it undid me. The act of it undid me. And the shock of having looked at it wrong for so many years undid me further. It was a crying on the sofa moment.

I’m not trying to sanctify the act of a father baking a cake, it shouldn’t be unusual in itself. It wasn’t even a new thing for my father to do. According to my mother Robby did bake. She told a story of an estate agent visiting them and leaving stoned. Unbeknownst to my mother and the estate agent his cooking that day was pharmacological. He was a man with a sharp quick tongue who both men and women would notice when he walked into a room. My mother described him arriving at a gathering in the 1970’s and receiving even more attention than usual because he came proudly flourishing the cake he had baked himself.

The resonance I came to see in this cake was in that man of the strong shoulders and dirty blond curls whose beautiful body was seccumbing to bowel cancer baking for his daughter, and failing.

When I try to grasp at the catalyst for switching from one pattern of thought to the other it slips away. I know I used to think one way – used to have this angry resentful feeling in my gut about the cake – and then there was the realisation about love and the weeping. The weeping that is mourning and a clearing out of passageways and although the past has not dissolved, space for something new has emerged. The catalyst isn’t important. And there is no point clinging onto the question of how can a person be so stupid. Grief creates the stupid.

A word I heard used to describe my father while he was suffering the ill effects of chemotherapy was stoic. Just like the embarrassment of the bad cake, for a long time I internalised the importance of being stoic. Thinking of it as a strength. I couldn’t metabolize the sentimental. Anything saccharin was too much for me to take, to likely to errode my defences.

There are times in life when stoicism is required – just like sometimes you’re going to need the safety of pre packaged cake.

There are times in life when stoicism is required – just like sometimes you’re going to need the safety of pre packaged cake. But hopefully those times are brief, because I’ve come to see the strength that comes from displaying your softness. And what could be softer than crying over a nearly thirty year old cake.

As well as crying I started to bake. Now I have a two tier cupcake tupperware box. I make biscuit people whose arms and heads fall off, courgette cupcakes that taste divine, sometimes I buy premade birthday cakes because I actually am exhausted, but other times I cook joyously, dangerously and with love.

The first birthday cake I made for my son was a total failure. I wasn’t concentrating and missed half the liquid. It was a dry offering but I iced it anyway. We were celebrating with a friend and her son and I had to take my dry chocolate cake to an Italian restaurant and suffer the indignity of giving it to the waiter to keep in the kitchen while we ate. After the meal the cake came out and we sang happy birthday and everyone ate the cake. There was some apology in my voice when I admitted my lack of attention to detail, but no shame. The adults were polite, and the kids mostly just ate the icing.

My son wasn’t crippled with embarrassment because his mum was a distracted cook. He was happy to have people celebrating his birthday and enjoying a meal, and a cake with candles on it to blow out. I didn’t tell my friend, who oh so politely ate the dry husk, the journey that had taken place in order for me to make the cake. It was enough to know for myself that love had arrived in the shape of an ill formed cake. There was joy in passing that on from one generation to the next.

I will admit to still being a little twitchy around bake sales, but I try to turn the lesson I have learnt into something positive. When I helped out at our primary school bake sale last year I told every single child how great their baking was, and happily gobbled plenty just to make sure no child felt left out. I probably laid it on a bit thick to be honest, but you never know what a cake might mean to someone.  

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