In a few weeks, I will be celebrating my father’s 106th birthday. I bake a cake because he always wanted cake for desert and was heard often to ask, “What, no cake?” at the end of a family dinner.
One of my first memories is of waking from a nightmare and crawling into my parents’ bed, regaling my father with a detailed description of the house I wanted. Although he had to rise at dawn to drive to the next town to work as a carpenter until after sundown, he listened, questioned and made suggestions for my dream house until I fell back to sleep and woke in my own bed in the morning,certain and secure the nightmare would not scare me again.
My father’s love of cake was especially intense for Strawberry Shortcake. The year I turned five, I was allowed the honor of presenting my mother’s famous strawberry, whipped cream and Bisquick biscuit layered cake, carrying it from the kitchen to the dining room. My proud entry, the smile and pride on my father’s face was heart-swelling and … I tripped.
Falling face first into his birthday cake, already crying my heart out, are all I clearly remember of my shameful moment. Though there was undoubtedly chaos for a moment after the disaster, laughter and a clean-up of me and the floor, I can only imagine mother served another, different cake and my dad ate it with pleasure.
In the following year, my father left our home to find better work to feed his family. When he had a good job with a small construction firm and a place for us to live, my mother drove across the country with me, my younger sister and older brother—newly licensed to drive. When we arrived in San Francisco, I was shocked to be told I’d been enrolled in school and that would start two weeks after my father’s birthday.
But I couldn’t read!
Explaining to my father I was determined not to go to school, not until I learned reading, he sat me down with a book—title forgotten—to teach me how to do this marvelous thing.
My dad never let a teaching opportunity go by without taking advantage. Road trips were chances to have spelling Bees and I could always, by the time we reached our destination, spell the longest word in the English language or the medical term for a recently discovered cure for a condition. We always stopped at roadside attractions such as dinosaur exhibits or local museums and trading posts.
When my younger sister had trouble learning the alphabet, my father spent his very few leisure hours teaching her the letters on a standing chalkboard and magnetic easel we had received as a Christmas present. She thought of it as a punishment but I always saw his efforts as a gift and made an effort to do the same for my children.
My father worked every weekend and evening to repair properties my parents had bought to build a rental property business. They eventually owned several properties and were able to buy their own house.
At this same time, my father discovered square dancing as a favorite leisure activity. My sister and I were too young to be left at home at night or over their weekend Hoedowns so we learned “do-si-do (dosado)” and “Allemande left” with the adult dancers. From square dancing, he moved on to round dancing. He and I practiced, when my mom as presiding over her PTA meetings, in our living room.
Between them, my parents ran a successful home rental business, while my dad still worked as a carpenter and my mom ran the household and made cakes.
At the age of 53, cancer fatally struck my father. He survived for only six months. My mother had to practice giving him morphine by repeatedly stabbing a syringe into an orange. He was in so much pain, he begged to die but he still had enough energy and commitment to my well-being to tell me to stand up straight.
This year, my dad has been gone for as many years as he lived. I have honored his birthday with my husband and sons—who are all so much like him—with cake and ice cream. And this year, I will make a Strawberry Shortcake but I will give my daughter-in-law the honor of carrying it to the table.