I was born the day after my grandfather. A day and 67 years.
And for a while, these people who loved us tried to cram birthday cake down our birthday throats. There’s a picture somewhere of a cake: “Happy Birthday Pop and Kari.” That’s what they all called us, when they gave us the cake. I suspect we ate it. We were nothing if not polite.
But at some point my grandfather put his giant foot down and said on his birthday, he would prefer strawberry shortcake. He was a Michigan farm boy, and strawberries were his favorite thing, and he was 70, so people gave in.
They still got me a cake. It got incrementally smaller during a period of about 4 years until it vanished completely. Because who really wants grocery store green frosting flowers and artificial raspberry filling when you can have strawberry shortcake?
(Nobody, that’s who.)
My grandpa and I had 24 birthdays together, and he died not long after that last one — he had gotten his shortcake and it was time to go.
But I can’t celebrate my birthday each year without thinking of him and our tradition. My mom often makes me biscuits and mashed strawberries for my birthday, and I take them home and try to get really into it, but usually I just eat a bowful standing over the sink because strawberry shortcake requires some pomp, you know? It’s a celebration food. It’s not buttered noodles. It needs a parade, but the most I can muster on my own is the procession from the bowl to my face.
If you’re wondering where this is going, it’s headed toward a strawberry field yesterday, where we picked berries with friends. My grandpa would have enjoyed the place. He was a farm-stand kind of guy, and when we would visit his native Michigan each summer, he could barely wait until we passed the border to load up on cherries and peaches. He truly believed they were far superior, and so they were.
But in that field, attached to a little market with signs about returns being available only if you are “over 80 and bring your parents,” and a sign that might explain why they don’t open until noon on Sundays, “any earlier, and we’ll see you in church,” we picked four giant baskets of berries, which like all fresh berries raised for flavor instead of transport, started disintegrating the moment we cut their little umbilical cords.
We barely had time to get home before the jam assembly line began, and as I stood there, hulling 9 bar-jillion berries, I thought of my grandpa again. Man, he would just love this, I was thinking. He would love that I make strawberry jam … he would just be so proudohwaitmaybethat’swhyIdoit?
I mean really — you can buy jam in any grocery or farmer’s market. There truly isn’t any logical reason to stand over a hot stove at the very end of June boiling vats of molten strawberries, is there?
Probably not. And yet …
I get a little nuts — everyone knows there are moments when if you walk into the kitchen (which has temporarily become MY kitchen) I will act as if I am performing an emergency appendectomy on the counter-top. I will spread out my arms like the police chief at the scene of a nothing-to-see-here-folks movie moment and I will say, quite impolitely really, “don’t touch ANYTHING!”
I suspect if I did this more, I would get more Zen about it, but in order to do it more often, I might need a prescription.
And so, I do the best I can and when I hear the little pings of the jars, I start recognizing that my previous behavior may have been a little … extreme, and so I start some biscuits.
The biscuits calm me right back down again because they are simple. Anything is simple compared to the science of canning: getting your MBA, discovering electricity, delivering your own triplets …
But biscuits are pretty handy when you have a strawberry surplus. You can both test out some of your jam on them and make the foundation of a shortcake.
I suggest that last one. I think my grandpa would too. If he were still here, he would take a big China bowl and top the biscuits with sweetened mashed berries, whipped cream, another layer of berries and another layer of whipped cream until the tower threatened to slide right out of the bowl, at which time he would gobble it down. He would declare it the best dessert he’d ever eaten and the best birthday of his life (assuming this occurred anywhere near May 6).
I thought of that image last night as I took my first bite of strawberry shortcake, and I realized how lucky I was to be born so close to him, to have been able to enjoy so many birthdays together, to have so many memories to share with my own little family.
And then … well then I went to get seconds.