You never liked Christmas, as far as I could tell. Christmas never brought out the best in you. Seems it brought out the worst of those demons you frequently fought, exhausting you with angst and tears and all night episodes of furor. You would struggle to wrap presents and place them under the tree about fifteen minutes before we opened them. I always hated that. But all soon learned that an offer of help was not a calming action. I learned some thirty years later the clinical term for your episodes, finally diagnosed at the closing of your life, way too late to bring you any peace. But the diagnosis did bring me better understanding, which may be a distant cousin to peace.
But oh how you loved birthdays. You were at your best for birthdays. I never thought to ask you why, but then I never thought to ask you much of anything during those years that I stayed as invisible as possible. Now I wonder if family birthdays were your own private celebration of your strength and courage; those multiple months, twice, when added together created over a year of your life, completely bedridden to fight the physical and mental battle that brought two healthy boys into this world. You won those two fights, and celebrated many birthdays that represented battles won. But you were like a war hero that survives torture; like a soldier that survives as a prisoner of war: you never talked about those two episodes, over six months each, confining you to a room; to a bed; to a horizontal position without relief. I never heard you talk about how you survived, or what drove you to save the lives of those two little ones that 99.9% of women would have lost, simply by sitting up or walking to the bathroom. The closest memory I ever heard you offer was to reflect on the many things your husband did for you during that period of your life. I didn’t understand at the time, listening to the calm clarity of your words, that you were expressing your love for your husband. He helped you save your boys.
And so you taught me to love birthdays. I loved to be close by when you prepared for those family celebrations. I could count on those days to find you happy; to hear you sing; to watch your hands work with the joy of crafting the special, from the ordinary. I watched you place your one and only table cloth on the old Formica-topped round table. It was a pale green linen cloth that you’d unfold from the cedar wardrobe in your room and carefully iron, five times each year; at least in those early years, the years when you were able.
You made a home-cooked southern dinner, usually involving fried chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans. I can still smell the fried chicken and see the golden color of the egg-dipped flour crust. Your husband would cut the whole hen into pieces, working from experience if not skill. You’d pat each piece of chicken with flour, laid out on a sheet of waxed paper. Then you’d dip the floured chicken into an egg bath that you watched me create, patiently allowing me to beat the eggs with a fork until they wanted to climb over the edge of the bowl. After you coated both sides of the chicken in the egg bath, you’d go back to the waxed paper and roll the egg-sopped chicken around the flour before carefully dropping it into the cast iron skillet to fry. I can still hear you talking about how Uncle Frank taught you that the best fried chicken comes from a slow cook without letting the pieces of chicken touch each other in the covered cast-iron skillet. You’d pile the fried chicken onto an old china plate, lined with two paper towels to sop up the grease. I’d reach out and break off a knob of the crust from a piece of chicken, and you’d just smile. God, but you had a beautiful smile that was worn so seldom.
I attempted to recreate this fried chicken memory a few years ago (with packaged chicken pieces pre-cut by the grocer). As I carefully laid each piece of egg-dipped and flour-rolled chicken into my new cast-iron skillet, I wondered how I could possibly have never asked how LONG to let it fry. And as I removed the greasy pieces onto a plate, that no number of paper towels could have salvaged, I bemoaned the lengthy cleaning that would be necessary to remove the grease-splattered mess from my range, backsplash and other kitchen areas within several feet of the range. (And yes, I covered the skillet while frying). After one bite of chicken, confirming the pitifully greasy product, all the rest of it went into the trash, followed by a whole bunch of paper towel, soaked first in Windex, and then with grease.
But it wasn’t the southern dinner that was your birthday specialty. It was the birthday cake. A truly southern recipe for a pound cake, complete with a pound of sugar, a pound of butter, not to mention six eggs. It was your best recipe, and your family’s favorite. You would make this wonderful cake more frequently than birthdays, during the early years when the boys were still at home. But for birthdays, you’d top it with a white icing, homemade in your double boiler. I’ve never tasted anything that comes close to your magical icing—it was nothing like the frosting of familiar white plastic tubs located above the boxed cake mixes at the grocer. It was much better than the honoring of the technique in fine restaurants that specialize in lemon pound cakes with crunchy vanilla icing (The Mosquito Café in Galveston should get an honorable mention for a distant second).
I would watch you turn on the old gas stove, lighting it with a match, and start the water to boil in the bottom pan of your double boiler. Then the icing ingredients would go in the top of the double boiler, and you’d work your electric mixer over the pan while it was in a gentle boil on the stove. My help was safety oriented, holding the electric cord away from the gas burner and side of the bottom pan. This task gave me a bird’s eye view as the thick liquid would magically transform into a white fluffy substance, difficult to describe, with a texture much lighter than pudding or frosting. I’d watch you quickly coat the cooled pound cake with the icing, and within an hour it would harden into a crunchy shell that gave way to a delightful softness when I was allowed to place the correct number of birthday candles onto the cake. Today I find it fascinating that I hold such a specific memory of the sound and feel of those candles breaking through the hard outer layer of the icing, and then pushing through the soft inner icing and richly thick cake. The only bone I ever had to pick about this wonderful icing was that there was no way to secretly steal a bite without cracking the finish and leaving evidence of the crime. But that was OK, as the top double boiler pan was mine to scrape clean.
I don’t remember birthday presents, although I know they were opened. My guess is that they involved baseball and softball gloves, footballs and other such outdoor sporting hobbies. At some point the presents focused on teenage clothing, when the passing of time brought the boys long gone and birthday cakes that came from boxes. Sad, flat cakes that were frequently missing some of the required added ingredients, as described in the small font on the back of the box. There was no icing and no white-jarred frosting. But there was still song, although occasional tears served as accompaniment.
But today I remember the green table cloth; the fried chicken; the best pound cake in the world with icing I’ve never found on another’s cake. I remember the happy voice of a mother that loved to celebrate birthdays. I remember a round table that just barely fit into the small kitchen, with five people sitting around it. I remember four of the five following the beautiful voice of Bonnie’s song: Happy Birthday to You.
Today I remember and hold on to those good birthdays. Today I remember to do as you asked. And even though a fresh bouquet of silk flowers would be appropriate to replace this past spring’s bouquet, faded from these just completed summer months, I will save the placement of a new bouquet for another day. Today I remember, and hear your voice: “Oh honey, please just bring me a single red rose.” And so today, as in these twelve years past, it is time for me to drive to the cemetery and place a single red rose on your grave.
Sometimes I wonder about the young woman in these pictures—the stories I will never know. And then I pause from my typing and look down at the hands resting in my lap. They are your hands. And I smile, and feel the peace that I wished we could have shared. Happy Birthday Bonnie Ruth: