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  • Writer's pictureMary Balistreri

The Greatest Birthday Cake Ever, Easter, and No Pictures

A 'big" birthday approaches for me. A new decade urges me to think about aging and what it means, yet, the memories in my head are of other things and of people who recently passed. I am learning to celebrate without them, yet my thoughts are on them.

My mind is focused on two celebrations from a time when cell phones did not exist for most people and we most certainly did not have an instant camera with us for every moment life offered. Like most moods associated with my grief, these materialize on their own and take hold. They announce themselves and demand my attention bringing emotions across the color spectrum - blue, bright pink, tawny yellow, deep purple, lilac, and brilliant, Kelly green.

The first memory is of Easter in general. How it all seemed to me as a kid. And, this is how those memories grabbed hold of me.

Easter this year was all about my mom. My beautiful and talented niece, Valery, (I have three beautiful and talented nieces) is an outstanding cook. She and her husband, my brilliant and talented nephew-in-law, Brian, invited us for a late lunch and I volunteered to bring dessert. While mulling simple dessert options requiring the smallest effort, I remembered the strawberry shortcakes of my childhood. Mom bought Angel food cake, cut up strawberries, and always topped it with Cool Whip.

Now, Audrey Balistreri was a very talented home cook. Looking back, I find it surprising she used "store bought" ingredients for this holiday. But she loved Cool Whip. She kept it in the freezer and ate it instead of ice cream. And, my dad loved strawberries - the fruit symbol of spring as much as crocuses and tulips symbolize spring, Easter, and new birth. Marrying the two created the perfect dessert for the celebration.

Also, our Easter morning activities contained an enormous volume of emotion and celebration. Hallelujah was allowed back in church after the dreary 40 days of Lent. I cried every year with happiness when we sang it. Hallelujah! We attended an early morning Easter service in which I usually sang in the choir and Dad was a lector presenting a reading. Easter week was filled with activity and we were exhausted once mass ended on Sunday. I sang in the choir the whole week. I love the drama of it - starting with all the people waving palms on Palm Sunday when everyone is in love with Jesus. Then, the magic and mystery of Holy Thursday and the last supper takes over leading to the sadness and grief of Good Friday. Good Friday had the best, most chilling music. Sometimes we had a service on Holy Saturday, too. Then, the payoff, the resurrection and Easter Sunday!

After church, we came home to a gigantic, robust breakfast. Mom made eggs, bacon, toast, and there was filled coffee cake from Wilberts Bakery. This coffee cake contained custard, not that artificially white filling you encounter in most "store bought" coffee cakes and donuts these days. It was a very special, yummy treat purchased only once each year. Dad made pancakes. For dinner, he also made the glaze for the ham and mom made scalloped potatoes and deviled eggs.

Many times, we listened to our Milwaukee Brewers on the radio on Easter. My mom loved watching, listening to, and following sports - mostly baseball and tennis. I still remember the famous Easter Sunday Brewers game in the 1970s and all of us cheering - to the radio because it was being played at our stadium and was not broadcast in our area. Yes, I see now Mom was tired out with everything else - did I forget to mention the Easter baskets, dying eggs, hiding eggs, and so on? - and gave herself a break when it came to Easter dessert by using "store bought" Angel food cake.

No pictures of any of this exist. Not the beautiful food, nor the group of us cheering around the radio, nor the pastel-colored baskets containing jelly beans and one, chocolate bunny per basket, nor the Easter egg hunt. None of it was captured for others to see or admire. It exists only in our minds now. As I learned over the years, each mind files the memories away slightly differently. This retelling is how it appears to me nearly 50 years later.

What did Mom look like? She was beautiful, petite, elegant, perfectly groomed and dressed right for the occasion. She changed from church clothes to nice black slacks and a blouse once we arrived home from the service. Her hair was brownish blond tied back into a bun at the nape of her neck. And her eyes glinted blue with intelligence, wit, and, unfortunately for any kid who was causing trouble, quick anger. There usually was a loud disagreement between my parents, too. They often disagreed over the glaze for the ham and how my dad was securing the pineapple slices on the outside.

No pictures.

Back to 2024, this year, I went to the grocery store for Angel food cake, strawberries, and Reddi-Wip. My sister, Ann, and I always made fun of my mother's love for Cool Whip. Reddi-Wip is much more modern, we thought. Well, Audrey Balistreri made her presence known this first Easter without her. No Reddi-Wip could be found at the store, but Cool Whip cried out to me from many locations, on sale two for $4. Cool Whip would crown this season's strawberry shortcakes.

When I arrived at Valery and Brian's house, Valery immediately talked about her obsession with paprika this year. Of course, it traditionally tops deviled eggs. "I am all about the paprika this year. What's that about? Didn't Grandma always use paprika?" she said. Apparently this year, Val added paprika to the cheesy potatoes and her extra-delicious biscuits and gravy on impulse. YES! Paprika was definitely a favorite, my mom-spice. On Easter, it would also boost the scalloped potatoes. At other times, she used it in shrimp salad, French potato salad, stew, sloppy joes, and her famous home-made croutons.

After I shared the no-Reddi-Wip-only-Cool-Whip-at-the-store story with Valery, we agreed, Easter was all about Grandma Audrey. Similar to how Thanksgiving is always about my sister, Ann, who died last year.

Then, the Audrey-induced kicker of the day! Valery made amazing ham and cheese sandwiches on rolls heated in the oven. That was one of my mom's specialties. A bit of knowledge of which Val was unaware, and of which there were no family pictures to remember and discuss. Just the memory of the event, the smell, and the taste of Audrey's all-occasion, oven-baked ham and cheese. Valery's sandwiches contained cheddar cheese, smallish rolls glazed with a garlicky butter, and a dab of mayo also seasoned with minced garlic. Mom's were ham and Swiss with a dab of mustard, except for Ann's sandwich which Mom wrapped up in foil separately and labeled with a marker because Ann was deeply mustard-phobic. Seriously, it is a real thing called moustardophobia.

With Easter past and my birthday looming, I keep dropping into memory number two - a favorite birthday memory - when Ann made me my favorite birthday cake because Mom refused to do it. It may have been ten or even 15 years ago. You see, after all those years of cooking and cleaning for a full house of people - six kids and then kids-in-law and grandchildren - my mom declared at some point in the 1990's she no longer wanted to cook. So, it was not just my favorite birthday cake on which her back was turned, but all our favorite foods from our childhood. Ann found this to be, "Just terrible!"

Birthdays in my family were always a big deal. Mom would let us choose our dinner for that special night. We could pick whatever we liked, until I was around 13 or so. By then, Dad had suffered many months of layoffs from his construction job and Ann had been in and out of hospitals running up steep medical bills. That year, I remember choosing steak for my special birthday dinner and being told 'no." I had to settle for spaghetti and meat sauce. It was my mom's homemade meat sauce, so it was spectacular, but not the extravagant meal of Sicilian steak and garlic bread I wanted. Sigh.

That year, when I turned 13, my birthday also came very close to Easter. Somehow, we had M&Ms in the house. A rarity. Maybe one of my older siblings brought them. I am not sure. But I always cherish the memory of the cake Mom made for me. It was a basic two tiered, chocolate cake. The special part came from how she decorated it. My cake looked like a beautiful cloud spotted with multi-colored polka dots. She had frosted the cake with Cool Whip and decorated it with M&Ms. I felt so special. My absolute favorite cake ever!

And here we were, on my-possibly-45th or 50th birthday and Mom refused to thrill me with that special cake now or ever again. I remember being really bugged about that. As Ann said, "It's just terrible! She should just make you that f**$$@!! cake!"

In the week before my birthday, I strove to keep my mind off this slight and my mother's stubborn nature. Once Audrey (or Ann or Valery or me, for that matter) made up her mind, no type of persuasion could sway her. On my "actual" birthday, as opposed to celebrations we might have on more convenient weekend days, Steve and I went to Ann's house. We were invited for dinner.

My nephew, Josh, let me in the back door and said, with a gasp, "She's in the kitchen." His hand pointed to the kitchen and fell dramatically in exasperation. Exasperation over what? I did not know.

Ann was indeed in the kitchen! She was bent over a bit and breathing hard, making small gasping sounds, similar to the noise Josh made when we came into the house. I rushed to her side ready to help. "What's wrong, Ann?" I searched her face for the signs of pain or upset I recognized in her on a regular basis. Then I saw she was laughing. Doubled over with giggles over something mysterious.

"Josh! Come help me!" She barely said it and he was there in the kitchen. He picked up a strange looking container. It looked like the deep, deep pot that people use to boil spaghetti or cook lobster and crab legs, except is was upside down. It was that exact pot. "I made you your favorite birthday cake, but I got a little carried away," Ann said and burst out laughing again crossing her legs a bit as if to hold in the need to use the bathroom.

Then Josh slowly pulled the upside down, silver pot upward to reveal fluffy white Cool Whip forming an enormous, vertical cloud doppled with pastel polka dots. "My cake!" I cried out wondering when the pot would finish its ascent. Up, up, up, it went revealing more and more dotted cloud until Josh finally uncovered all of it. It was like a skyscraper cake! Or like a Godzilla-sized cake if held next to a regular, two-layer cake. She must have used at lease four tiers of chocolate cake. Giggles, snorts, laughing, and eventually tears spurted out of all four of us.

My NEW favorite birthday cake was born! And no pictures exist.

These memories kept me company many nights as I drifted off to sleep, many days when my eyes and mind wandered away from my computer, and, through the years, on the sad or hard days, too. What an incredible gift it is to remember! People are gifts. You can never guess how they will surprise you, affect you, anger you, or love you. My greatest birthday gifts this year for the big 60, and every year, are people and love - the love I give and the love I receive.

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