I turned 40 the year we moved into our house. It was my first birthday without my mother, and what I missed most with her being gone was not being able to tell her that I finally understood why she cared very little about celebrating her own birthday and very much about celebrating Margaret’s and mine.

She’d explained it to me exactly 15 years earlier. She had called on the morning of my 25th birthday to tell me, as she had on this same date, every year of my life, about the day I was born.

“What do you want to do for dinner tonight?” she had asked. When I told her I’d made other plans with friends, she bristled and hung up. I called later to apologize and to see if we could instead have lunch, just the two of us. It wasn’t what she wanted, but she agreed. “You girls were the best presents I ever got,” she said. “Your birthdays will always be more important than mine.”

At 40, with two young children of my own, I finally understood. And I pledged to myself (and to my children, though they wouldn’t yet know it) to carry forward the best of this understanding while trying to correct the worst of it. We would enjoy every festive birthday of my children’s childhoods in a way that would allow me to let go when it came time for them to lead their own lives, make their own choices. Only joy, no guilt. Let each celebration be complete in itself.

And celebrate we did, almost always on the porch, at least in the early years, and usually with homemade cakes. Wildness and mayhem, every year.

One year my daughter had a spa party with bright pink boas for decoration and little bottles of red polish as favors. Bernard let her paint his toenails (“tony-nails,” as she called them at the time), and he kept them painted until the polish wore off.

We had pinatas, built cardboard castles, played Barbie keyboards and guitars.

Parties weren’t only for the children. A few years after we’d moved in, I threw a surprise party for Bernard. We had drinks on the porch, food in the kitchen. People came and went until well past midnight. Toward the end of the evening I sat down in the kitchen with our friend who’d led the renovation (the friend who’d said, before we closed the deal, that all the house needed was some “spit shine”).

He said, “You all live in this house.”

“Well, of course we do,” I replied. “Where else would we live?”

“No,” he clarified. “I mean, you LIVE in this house. Like, you really LIVE here. It’s a funky old house that’s big and messy and full of life, all the time, isn’t it.”

“Yes,” I said. “We live here, mess and all.”

As the children grew older, sleepover parties replaced afternoon celebrations. One advantage to a spacious but unfinished house? It’s like a stage set, adjustable in almost every way. We laid out sleeping bags in the living room and showed a movie on a projector. We crammed chairs around the kitchen table, had photo shoots, played loud music, set up video games.

On his 18th birthday, my son said, “So Dad says we’re doing something tonight for my birthday because it’s the last birthday I’ll be a home before going to college. But what I really want to do is go out with my friends because it’s the last birthday I get to spend with them, too.”

So we had an early dinner, as a family, and then he went out with his friends.

I was surprised to hear him come home, not long after he left, friends and ice cream in tow. They sat on the porch. I went upstairs with a book, far enough away that they could be on their own, but close enough to hear their laughter, a celebration complete.

All-Occasion Yellow Cake
Adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible

Makes two round, 9-inch layers

  • 6 egg yolks OR 3 whole eggs (large)
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 2 3/4 cups all purpose flour (or 3 cups cake flour, which I never have on hand)
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 heaping Tablespoon baking power
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 12 Tablespoons (a stick and a half) unsalted butter, at room temperature (Note: you can use salted butter if that’s what you have, just eliminate the salt from the dry ingredients)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour cake pans.

Combine egg yolks, vanilla, and half of the milk; set aside. Sift dry ingredients together and then place in a large mixing bowl (I use a stand mixer). Add the remaining milk to the dry and mix to incorporate. Add the butter and mix on low, then medium, until it starts to come together. Add the remaining wet ingredients in two batches, mixing well and scraping down the sides after each addition.

Pour (scrape) batter into prepared pans and bake for about 30 minutes. Cool in pans for 10-15 minutes then turn cakes out onto wire racks to cool completely before frosting.

This post is part of a series about our renovation of a house built in 1905 that we bought in 2003 from the woman who lived in it for 91 years. The first post in this series is “Jackie’s House.”

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