My baby girl turns 3 today.
When she was born–looking like a cross between a plucked chicken and Lord Voldemort-– I never imagined that she would suddenly, somehow, become the leaping and laughing KID she is today.
Three is big. Three remembers. (I remember my third birthday… the balloons, the presents, and the chocolate cake my mom baked.)
So, I want to bake my daughter’s birthday cake.
But the thing is, I am pathologically unable to follow recipes. When I cook, I end up experimenting, but not in a good way. I substitute honey for sugar and the cookie crumbles. Flour for breadcrumbs, and the schnitzel burns. And FYI if you want to watch your family turn various shades of green, use olive oil instead of butter when making scrambled eggs.
(Even when I heat up frozen food, I manage to screw up–soggy middle, scorched edges. And this is why we always stock up on Cheerios and milk. And maybe why Little Homie is anemic. )
“Would you rather I make the cake?” My mother-in-law asked when I shared my plans with everyone during Shabbat dinner. “Yes! Let her make the cake!” B. pleaded with his eyes. But I was resolute.
“Nope, I can handle it!” I said with a smile. (Although I may have lost a filling on one of my back molars from grinding my teeth.)
There’s a lot riding on this birthday cake. For the past few months, a cultural chasm has widened between my daughter and me, and as she hurdles through Hebrew, our connection in English has become frayed. There are times here when she’s laughing with her friends and the Imas of her friends that I feel like the odd woman out. Dimwitted, dowdy, and trying to hard to figure out the joke. (If I feel this way now, I shudder to imagine the teenage years…)
And as hard as I try to get by in Hebrew, I’m floundering. Swimming against the tide, barely able to catch my breath before the next sentence crashes over me.
And my daughter knows it.
So, I want this cake to be perfect. I want to see my daughter’s eyes shine with excitement when she sees the candles–three, plus one to grow on–blazing from the chocolate center. I want her to run her index finger along the top and lick the homemade frosting when no one’s looking. I want to watch her pick the sprinkles off and place them daintily by the side of her plate–saving the sugary rainbow pile for the very last.
And so, I scoured the internet for recipes, until I found one that wouldn’t be hard to foul up. Problem is, mother of the year over here doesn’t have a baking pan. Or flour. Or sugar. And after getting our last budget report from the kibbutz, we now realize that the convenience store here is eating away our savings.
So, off to Yohananoff–the Israeli equivalent of Safeway or Albertsons or Piggly Wiggly or whatever monster superstore y’all have up in your neighborhood–I went. But while I’ve gotten used to the intimate general store on the kibbutz, an Israeli supermarket is an entirely different beast.
Shopping at Yohananoff is a surreal experience, and walking up and down the aisles gave me insight into what the onset of dementia must feel like –everything looks poignantly familiar. From a distance, the colors make sense, the layout is almost what you would expect, but then, you turn a corner, and bam–another dimension. The canned goods are in the same place as the fresh fruit and vegetables, the dairy next to the shampoo. The Cheerios is on one end, the oatmeal on the other.
It almost feels like tugging the hand of a woman you are sure is your mom, and then realizing that you’re mauling a stranger.
Midway through the juice aisle, I started hyperventilating.
By the time I reached the baking goods aisle, I was almost in tears.
There were seven different kinds of flour–all labeled in Hebrew. I couldn’t find the baking powder, and it seemed they were out of vanilla extract. I started pawing through the dried goods looking for the vanilla. I knocked over a jar of colorful sprinkles–the plastic container split open, spilling thousands of tiny rainbows to the floor while an old man who’s name tag read “Avner” (or “Avram” or something with an Alef and a Vet in it… Hey, speaking Hebrew is hard enough…) came over with a broom and began to sweep.
“I just want to bake a cake for my daughter’s birthday,” I said in a mishmash of Hebrew and English with a sob in my throat.
He rolled his eyes and gave me a look as if to say “lady, you think you’ve got problems? I was in the Palmach when the road to Jerusalem was cut off and we almost starved to death!”
“Take!” he said. And he handed me a blue cake mix box. And there, smiling maniacally from the front was the Pillsbury Dough Boy. It felt like meeting an old friend.
So, I took the mix. And a tub of chocolate frosting. And a jar of rainbow sprinkles.
(And off I skipped to the alcohol aisle. Because Smirnoff is Smirnoff in every language. )