Twenty-seven years ago today, we pulled into the gravel parking lot of Lisa’s one-room “studio” apartment in Susan’s white four-door Jeep Cherokee, “Butch Running Truck.” Ostensibly, my friend Lisa was making the two of us a treat for my birthday. We climbed steep outdoor stairs and knocked on the glass door.
“Surprise!” Lisa and several of my other graduate school friends yelled.
“Eeek!” I countered.
We all sat on the floor talking, and then, as if by magic, out came The Cake, with twenty-eight candles on top (including one to grow on). When we were young, my sisters and I had that chocolate cake for every birthday. My mom had grown up not having to wait for birthdays to eat it: my grandmother had baked the two-layer, round, chocolate cake with chocolate frosting every week for my grandfather.
The frosting had a bit of coffee in it, taking a little of the edge off its powdered sugar base. I usually asked for raspberry jam in between the layers, which, of course, my mom had included in her instructions to Susan. Yes, less than a year after having become “lovers” (as we referred to ourselves back then) and without having had any previous introduction (because while I was “out” to my parents, I wasn’t as far out as to talk about my “private” life), Susan had called my mom to get the recipe. She had smuggled the cake to Lisa’s earlier that day so that I wouldn’t catch even a glimpse of it beforehand.
That was my first of twenty-three birthdays with Susan, who made every single one of them special. I don’t mean the syrupy-sweet, overused “on your special day” kind of “special.” She tailor-made distinctive celebrations and gifts for me–and for many others. My sister and her family often came to our house for their August birthdays so that we could sit, surrounded by streamers and with party-hat elastic biting into our chins, and eat shish-kabab Susan grilled with her “Yummy Yummy Marinade.”
For our household, Susan customized the Swiss birthday-morning tradition of her childhood. The day would begin with cow bells calling me downstairs. She would sing “Sunna g’burstag to you,” a combination of English and Swiss-German words, sung to the American tune of “Happy Birthday.” I would blow out the flame of a single large red candle, the base of which was wrapped in a paper towel and stuffed into the hole of the bunt-cake shaped Gugelhof. She would have made the yeasty bread the night before, using butter to stick almonds to the complex form and implanting the circle of dough to create a finished loaf with almonds baked on the patterned bread. On the Gugelhof plate, she would place flowers that bloom in May, often lovely Lilacs, which make me sneeze in appreciation for their pleasant fragrance. I would cut us each pieces of the bread. Over coffee (she dunked Gugelhof in hers), I would open cards sent by relatives, and a selection of presents before we’d go off to work.
By our third or fourth year together, I was making Gugelhof and ringing bells for Susan’s birthday, too. “How do you make it cook through without making the bottom too brown?” she asked me, frustrated by being out-Swissed. I was also the one who discovered that with enough butter, you could balance an extra tier of almonds on a smooth part of the form.
The celebrations that Susan instigated and we built together became traditions that helped define us, later including our son, as a family. They cemented our most important shared memories. In the years since her death, I haven’t yet had the emotional fortitude to bake a Gugelhof–it makes me miss her too much, but both my son and I have used the brass form as part of our layout of one another’s birthday morning tables. We continue to wake one another with ringing cow bells and sing “Sunna g’burstag to you.” Sitting directly across the table, Susan’s empty chair between us, he and I eat store-bought pastry and open cards and gifts. Occasionally, I glance at her chair, sometimes with a pang at seeing it empty, but mostly remembering her warm smile and the joy with which she produced celebrations and gave gifts.
Rather than alternate years between morning and evening birthday celebrations, Susan insisted I get both. My birthday dinner choice varied (hers was always steak and tater-tots), but, despite my objections about how much time it took to bake both Gulgehof and cake the night before, we would usually have The Cake for that night’s dessert. A few times The Cake was peppered with flecks of whole bitter chocolate that hadn’t melted properly; I assured her it tasted as it should, though it didn’t. Usually, however, it was just right. I always eat my pieces from the inside out, beginning with bites of the dense, moist chocolate cake and the sweet stripe of jam. As I crunched on raspberry seeds, Susan would offer me a present to open. I would wait to unwrap it until a frosting shell remained on my plate, with just the right amount of cake still attached. To make her wince at not being able to reuse it, I would gleefully tear apart the paper. For a couple of days afterwards, I would share some of my Gugelhof and cake, leftover signs of another happy birthday.
As though the celebrations were not enough, there were also Susan’s gifts to me. On my thirtieth birthday, I opened a guidebook to Bermuda and plane tickets. Finally, I understood why she’d made me get a passport several months before.
“But you made reservations for this week?” I worried aloud. ” I have to ask for days off work!”
“Don’t worry,” she reassured me. “I already asked your boss, and we’re leaving in two days, not today, because I knew you’d need time to pick exactly which jacket to bring.”
With my packed and repacked bag, we made it through the Bermuda Triangle. It’s cliché, but just before landing, I was awestruck by the brightest blue and clearest water I have ever seen. We had a romantic time in Bermuda: exploring via two-seated scooter on the wrong side of the road (“right turn, swing wide,” I’d yell from the back); happening upon a cricket match (“I think it’s a break for tea,” she puzzled, as all the players walked calmly towards the bleachers); hearing a bird whose call we adopted as our secret signal; walking together on the soft pink sand, almost alone, because Bermudans are quite proper and don’t go to the beach until June. Thanks to Susan, I will always renew my passport just before each birthday ending with a zero: thirty, forty, fifty . . .
Bermuda came early in our time together. It was hard for her to top, but I made do. There was the four inch-wide model of a wine rack, complete with little bottles, as a promise for the full-sized one she later built. After I’d coveted hers for years, she had her father ship her a second soft, light-weight down sleeping bag “for a friend” (she never came out to him) with an opposing zipper so we could zip them together. She made me a jewelry box: on a four by seven inch pine box, she used a wood-burner to etch an ocean-scene, and lined the box with felt. Always the masterful secret planner, she had a fellow-photographer ask me which large-format color printer I’d been lusting for; she it delivered to my parents’ house as a surprise for my birthday dinner there. When our son was ten, they produced a “Mommy Radio” podcast for me, including an interview with Susan about where I grew up.
For my 48th, tragically anticipating that the ovarian cancer would wrest her from us before she could create a celebration of my fifth decade, Susan gathered friends and family for a tailgate party before a Boston Breakers game. The Breakers, Boston’s women’s professional soccer team, were “our team.” Susan, our pre-teen son and I were inaugural season ticket holders and consummate fans with personally autographed Breakers gear and photos of us with players. At my birthday tailgate party, Susan laid out a spread that included delicious little sandwiches from Swissbäkers and my favorite beer. She’d bought a small blue cowbell for each guest. In her perfectionism, she wanted each one labeled with the Breakers logo, but being the one with the technical know-how, it was I who had to print the transparent labels and affix them. That was a difference between new love and old: in the beginning, she did all the work to produce a celebration; in the end, I had to fuss with font sizes and smearing ink.
While most of the party focused on sandwiches, beer, and conversation, our son led a kick-around that turned into a spirited game of keep-away. My mom uncovered The Cake she’d brought, a signal that it was just about time to go. I led our cheering section into the stadium, cowbells a-clanking. Though our Breakers had another frustrating loss, the metaphorical icing on the cake still remained. Susan had arranged for me to go on the field and shoot a penalty kick against one of the Breakers goalies. I let two other birthday kids take their shots first. Then, I spun the ball around in my hands until the logo faced up and placed it on the penalty spot. Without looking at the keeper, I took three steps back and to the left and, keeping my eyes on the ball, kicked it hard and flat, just as I had practiced. I did not miss! I swear that a millisecond of surprise passed over the goalie’s face because I’d kicked it so hard, just before she artfully went for the ball and purposefully let it slip through her grasp. That autographed ball remains one of my prized possessions. It embodies a magical event that Susan created, combining people, food, a sport, and a team I love, with my competitive streak and my pride in being a middle-aged woman able to play soccer well enough.
Since Susan died, the year after that soccer party, my body displays the effects of age, but birthdays don’t feel real. In celebration-time, I’m still 49. I haven’t been able to bring myself to arrange a special dinner, make The Cake, or otherwise truly observe my birth date. Someday, I will be happy with the relative frugality of a birthday without her. Someday, soon, I hope, my birthdays will feel festive again. Someday, I will spend her birthday celebrating her joie d vivre rather than my loss. But not quite yet.