Master J has passed his first great milestone, nearly a couple of weeks ago now. He is one. Part of me can scarcely believe it – a whole year – but when I look at him and realise how far we’ve come and how grown he is, I can see – deep-etched in my memory – every single one of those 365 days between the day he was born and his first birthday.
We bought his gift when he was three weeks old, and it spent the year wrapped in purple paper and tied with wide orange ribbon, living at the back of Master J’s cupboard. The rather regal appearance of the package certainly suited its contents: a lion. And he’s not just any lion. His name is Leo and he is very fine, looking every inch the king of the jungle – or at least the king of Master J’s toy tower, Granddad’s paint-spattered old ladder. We fell in love with Leo’s wise, kind face, his big mane and his swishy tail – he really looks to have been made with craftsmanship and care – so imagine our delight when he and Master J came face to face and the birthday boy fell instantly in love with him too. Up until now he’s shown limited interest in his vast array of stuffed toys, but he took an immediate shine to Leo. Now Master J stands at the end of his cot roaring at the lion, which sits on the prize rung of the ladder like a golden guardian, watching over our boy. Master J’s face breaks into the widest smile every time his gaze alights on Leo; I love the way he reaches for him, and lying in bed listening to his determined little roar first thing in the morning is one of the great pleasures of my life. “Rah,” he says. “Rah, rah, rah.”
After kicking around several ideas for the first birthday, in the end we just wanted something simple at home. We settled on ‘afternoon tea,’ though we were planning on opening a few bottles of champagne, no cups and saucers required. I found the question of who to invite really quite vexing. Should we invite our friends, or his…? After all, Master J spent the year primarily in the company of the other infants in my mothers’ group; I couldn’t imagine not inviting his little companions and their parents. And it was alarming to see the invite list balloon – I can well understand how these things spin right out of control. I really struggled with it: invite 5 kids from the group – not excessive, I wouldn’t have thought – and there’s the potential for 10 adults before we’ve even invited immediate family. And of course we had to invite a couple of our closest friends – it would have been an extremely peculiar sort of celebration without them. So before we knew it we were expecting around 30 people in our apartment… hmmm, interesting.
But early parenthood is full of last minute cancellations, and so it was with Master J’s first birthday, when the guests started dropping like flies as the day wore on. A suspected outbreak of Hand, Foot and Mouth meant several people decided not to risk the outing, so unfortunately two of Master J’s closest little chums weren’t able to make it. It was so sad, thinking none of them might be able to come – but these things are utterly beyond one’s control, plus we had a little six-month Miss in our midst whom I wouldn’t have exposed to H, F and M for quids, so that was that. Plus the viral scare neatly took care of our overcrowding fears.
As to the catering, well, as you can imagine we still have a freezer full of leftover food. Llew’s mum made her delicious chicken sandwiches – enough to feed a village – and I think they’re what sustained most people throughout the afternoon (and us in the days following…). My MIL makes the best chicken sandwiches, hands down. And they are perfect afternoon tea fare, in plump fingers with the crusts cut off. YUMMY. We also had a big cheese board and a ham station with sourdough bread, mustards and pickles…and of course I made Master J’s first birthday cake.
It has been a long, long time since I baked a cake. Oh, I’ve made plenty of loaves of banana bread in recent years, and in fact was rather randomly baking one the night my waters broke, but an old school iced round cake? I don’t know if I’ve baked one of those since high school. I decided to do a trial run the day before, and just as well I did, because on the day we went through both cakes. The cake recipe came from Llew’s mum: it was the cake she baked for my sister-in-law’s second birthday. I love that detail. I love the fact that 38 years later, I was baking a cake to the same recipe. It adds a few extra dollops of love, I think. Such a small symbolic thing, but it connects the family across generations, and I think that’s enormously special.
It’s a simple butter cake, but it’s a style of cake that holds a great deal of nostalgia for me as well, being virtually identical to the one I remember Grandma making throughout my childhood. Grandma and Granddad’s house was the sanctuary during our mad and troubled childhoods with our mad and troubled mother – amidst of the general chaos and dysfunctionality of our lives, Grandma’s butter cake with the orange rind icing was a beacon of reliable warmth, affection and safety. She made it in a square tin, and I think now that even those neat little rectangular portions offered me the comfort of precision. Smoothly iced, orderly slices of cake, all so uniformly arranged… oh, how I wanted life to better resemble Grandma’s table.
Master J licked his first wooden spoon the day before his party, and while he instantly recognised that something BIG had come his way, I don’t think it in any way prepared him for the utter revelation of CAKE. How I wish we had a video of those first moments of comprehension, of that dawning understanding that slowly went across his face in distinct and deeply comical stages. There was sheer wonder as he realised he was allowed to touch the magical thing, then there was the curiosity as a fistful of icing and cake made its way almost gingerly to his mouth. Next there was a moment’s hesitation as he tested this new sensation on the tip of his tongue, and then there was the shock of it, the shock of this luxurious treat and the entirely alien permission to devour it… suddenly it all dawned on him in a rush (specifically, a sugar rush): I caught the precise moment he understood the rareness of this gleaming 100s-and-1000s-dusted jewel in his hands and the fleeting nature of his chance to make the most of it. Struggling for greater access as Llew failed to hold him back, Master J reached down toward the cake and planted his mitts deep in the icing, just as though he were leaving his mark on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. How appetising for the assembled guests! Cake, anyone?! Of course, the downside was a frantic two-day sugar jag that saw the birthday boy still coming down from the high well after the wilting of the last balloon. I think we’ll be hiding that recipe until next year.
As for the first year in review, that’ll be my next post. Right now I have a bunch of thank you cards to write…