By Rosalie Tirella
My mom’s birthday was the 22nd, just a few days ago. Maybe that’s why, when out grocery shopping a few hours ago, I gravitated to the Duncan Hines Strawberry Supreme cake mix in the bakers aisle. When we were little kids growing up in Green Island Ma always made Duncan Hines Cherry Supreme cake for our birthdays. I think she liked the pink cake for her little girls.
Her formula never failed: at the kitchen table, wearing the old orange half apron that my sister sewed for her at the Girls Club on Winthrop Street … Very serious … No talking to Ma to spoil her concentration … And no running or jumping when the cake was in the old gas oven – it might “drop.”
First the cake mix, eggs, water and vegetable oil coming together in her one and only big mixing bowl – a pale green one in which she did all her mixing: Betty Crocker boxed brownies, homemade chocolate chip cookies – and our Duncan Hines Cherry Supreme birthday cakes. That was my mother’s sweet-baking repertoire. All through my childhood, she never strayed from the tried and true. No coconut cream pies or apple turnovers or exotic ingredients like lemon rind for Ma. She had found her baking niche and was comfortable in it and stayed in that Eisenhower era groove until we were in high school.
I always watched Ma make my birthday cake and licked our big green mixing bowl after she poured the pink, fragrant batter into her two square cake tins. She only had the two. No Bundt cake pan or round cake pans for us…we were so poor! But Ma did splurge for three cupcake tins at White’s Five and Ten on Millbury Street. She used them to make Duncan Hines Cherry Supreme cupcakes for our school bake sales at Lamartine Street School. To have my pretty mother walking down Lafayette Street with us (we never had a car), to our school!, with a dress box full of her Duncan Hines Cherry Supreme cupcakes, all neatly lined up like kids coming into Lamartine after recess, beautifully arranged – my mother was a perfectionist – on a layer or two of “wax paper,” well, my sisters and I were so proud! We ran around our mother giggling. We looked up at her now beaming face and vied for her attention and approval. Our mother had the most beautiful smile to go with the most beautiful cupcakes!
Rose’s mom, CECELIA, in her youth. Bridgette, one of her beloved Dobbies, was her favorite dog of all time!
After delivering the treats to our classroom at Lamartine or the school auditorium, wherever parents were supposed to drop off their baked goods, Ma would turn to the front door and then walk out of our school, down Grosvenor Street and up Lafayette to the drycleaners on Millbury Street, where she was a “counter girl” for 60 hours a week. For minimum wage. 40 hours regular pay check. Twenty hours under the table for cash. Our father was a bum who decided supporting a wife and three kids cramped his style. So he contributed pretty much … nothing. No money towards rent or the gas bill, no little gifts for Ma or us kids, not even a kind word or two, and definitely no birthday presents for anybody. Ever. Hell, he never once watched any of his three girls blow out the candles on their Duncan Hines Cherry Supreme birthday cakes. We never missed him!
Rose’s kid sister in her party dress
Back to baking…Then Ma, in our big old kitchen, would take a box of Pillsbury chocolate frosting mix out of our kitchen cubbard – a tall white metal medicine cabinet, second hand, our father had picked up during his junk travels, the one whose right door was always flinging open – and she would make the frosting expertly by adding softened butter to the dark powder – in a large cereal bowl. Voila! Smooth, creamy chocolate frosting – which I also tasted. Then Ma would frost the cool cakes after she had carefully placed one on top of the other. A double decker dream cake! Then she’d grab a small jar of bright red happy maraschino cherries out of the refrigerator – she had bought them special for decorating the cake – and cut the cherries in half with a steak knife. Then she’d place the cherries all along the top border of the frosted cake and on its sides, too. Finally, the special pink plastic flower birthday candle holders that she used year after year would make their appearance and she’d artfully arrange the candle holders on the cake, each holder representing one year. And then the five and ten cent store candles from White’s. Always new. Always a soft pink, green, yellow and blue …
Bapy … not too happy on birthday party day!
And then Ma leading us, her girls, in the Happy Birthday song after we had eaten our dinner. Cake time! Often Ma would throw a birthday party for us and invite her two sisters and their husbands and kids, our cousins, over to help us celebrate. Bapy, our Polish immigrant grandmother, lived with us, so she never missed a birthday party. All the noise and people grated on her nerves. … Then out came my mother’s cute pin the tail on the donkey game. Taped to our beige kitchen wall. Out came my purple taffeta party dress with the lilac ribbon for a belt. Out came the dozen or so party hats and paper horns from White’s Five and Ten. My aunts had married into the middle class and lived in nice homes in the Burncoat area and across from Hadwen Park. We were poor and living in an old three decker on Lafayette Street. But you wouldn’t have known it if you’d heard the laughter and the joking, watched us kids play happily together or the grownups flirt and make fun … and ate a slice of my mother’s Duncan Hines Cherry Supreme birthday cake, with maraschino cherries on top.
Rose and her two kid sisters, in the Lafayette Street “parlor,” mid-1960s.