1 8oz cream cheese
1 stick softened butter (unsalted)
1 box sifted confectioners sugar
2 tsp vanilla
1 cup pecans
cream butter and cream cheese thoroughly; mix in sugar and add vanilla and nuts
if it seems dry, add a little milk
(my mother’s recipe)
I remember the first birthday cake that I ever baked. It was my father’s thirty-second birthday.
It was also the first occasion that we celebrated in our new home on Connor Rd–a steep hill lined with duplexes, reserved for officers. We lived at the very top, and looked out over the base and into the embrace of the Highlands above the mighty Hudson River.
Years later, many, many years later (but before Homeland Security), I returned to West Point to discover that I could no longer see the river from our place. The view had been obscured by trees–ones that had only just been planted when I first arrived on the base at the age of 11.
It was the mid-seventies, and my mother was still baking from scratch (sometimes), and sewing our costumes for Halloween (all the time), and keeping our house immaculately tidy–except for now. Now, she was crying in the tiny bathroom off the small kitchen which was just like all the others in this row of Captains quarters.
Beneath us, on the flat stretch below, were the First Lieutenant’s homes–somewhat smaller, and without a view, but nicer than those beneath them–in the apartments assigned to Second Lieutenants.
We would live on this base in this duplex for 3 years, until my father became a Major, which wasn’t enough of an advancement to get us one of those fancy homes with the big lawns and the screened porches. My father used to drive us down those tree-lined roads, which were closer to the Academy and the Chapel; and sometimes, he’d even venture into the exclusive cul-de-sac at the heart of West Point–reserved for Generals.
My mother hadn’t left yet. Hadn’t woken us girls up and carried the youngest ones out to the car sleeping, and then silently winded her way through the base, past the Generals’ homes, and out the gate, into Highland Falls; where she pulled up to the curb at the liquor store; and I held my breath; before she drove 4 hours in the dark to her hometown at the shore.
On my father’s thirty-second birthday, in mid-September, she hadn’t mustered that courage. Instead she was weak, and weepy, like a dog.
In fact, when I think back to this day, I think of Tigger–the dog that belonged to my baby sister once she was grown. I remember hearing her scold Tigger once, and then I watched, as Tigger bowed her head, slinked into the bathroom, and hid there until she was absolved.
My mother was hiding too. She had been hiding for a long time. Hiding pain. Hiding the bottle. Hiding from my father.
On this day, he banished her from the celebration at the kitchen table saying, “You don’t belong here, Mommy.”
She was drunk.
Because she was drunk, I decided that I would be the one to make the cake.
Carrot cake was my father’s favorite, and my mom made it every year with that cream cheese frosting and pecans.
It was a tall order for my first try. I never made it to the frosting.
The cake sat there–flat–on the table between us. Stiff, like clay, in our mouths. Especially after we sang Happy Birthday, Daddy to the sound of our mother’s shame echoing off the walls of the tiny bathroom.