About a Cake

Author's note: This was written the day before my birthday in 2019. I remember feeling so overwhelmed when I made the connection between my husband's act of love and my dad's.

For as long as I can remember, every July 9th, my dad, who typically worked every daylight hour during the summer, would be in the kitchen, grinding almonds, zesting lemons, and putting together my mom’s birthday cake.  My mom has never been one to demand sweets (or anything, really), but Emma’s Lemon Syrup Cake was the one consistent, delicious gift from my dad that marked her birthday and made it special.  Food has always been a love language in my family.  From mom’s cookie cakes to celebrate the birthdays of random friends to pizza nights hosted at our house to the cookie boxes my grandma ships out every Christmas, my growing-up years seemed to be filled with the making, giving, receiving, and ultimately the devouring of the product of few or many hours of toil in the kitchen.

All the baking and the cooking that went on were semanticized by my family’s desire to serve–each other, strangers, friends, and family.  Serving requires sacrifice.  Sometimes this was just the cost of the ingredients or the time it took to whip up a pot of soup or a loaf of bread, and sometimes it was more.  I was absolutely an aspiring baker growing up–for most birthdays, I was responsible for making the cakes (until my younger sister decided she wanted to be a REAL baker and entrepreneur–I’m both proud and bitter).  But mom’s birthday was different; on mom’s birthday, it was dad’s turn.  I’m sure I griped and complained and demanded to be a part because I do remember on some occasions helping my dad construct the dessert; spooning the syrup over the warm cake, whipping the cream, sprinkling ground almonds as a garnish.  It has only occurred to me today, on the eve of my own birthday, watching my husband make the same cake, that by letting me help, my dad was sacrificing something important.

My family had no extra money to speak of when I was growing up.  Following the direction of the Lord, my parents had made the decision to homeschool their four children, meaning that my mom stayed at home and my dad worked two jobs.  Once I left home and started college, I gradually began to see how much my parents gave up and deprived themselves of for the sake of my siblings and me.  Mom and dad rarely gave each other gifts, and making that cake every July was truly my dad’s gift to my mom; it was rich with meaning, sweet with the sacrifice and care that went into making it, offered with love and received with enthusiasm.   So when my dad let me have a hand in making that cake, he was really sacrificing part of his opportunity to give a gift all his own to my mom, just so that I would feel like I could claim that I had helped and so that I was able to do something I genuinely enjoyed.  In a way I can’t quite explain, by sacrificing this, dad was showing me love and serving me, too.  And I don’t know if I can handle discovering one more thing my parents forfeited for my sake.

Sometimes I worry that, as nostalgic and sentimental as I am, I romanticize my childhood memories too much.  But as I watched my husband, Jay, bake the lemon syrup cake tonight, I felt his love and affection for me through something he also enjoys doing, and I thought about the connections between food and serving and sacrifice.  Even as I look to the past and make decisions about what I want to emulate and what I want to eschew, I hope I can love those around me with the sacrificial, serving love my parents embodied.


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