Thursday, August 13, 2009

Meaningful Cakes

I’m baking cakes for all sorts of celebrations this week. One is for a 50th wedding anniversary; another is a small cake for an intimate wedding reception, and then finally a surprise birthday cake for a 40th birthday bash. These cakes will be for parties on Friday and Saturday, and at 7:20 a.m. Sunday I’m on a flight headed toward a long-awaited vacation in Emerald Isle, NC (see my blog dated June 22, 2009 about Shrimp Scampi and EI, NC).

It’s such a pleasure to bake cakes for happy occasions. More than any, I have especially loved baking my own children’s birthday cakes. When they were little, I made a Batman Cake for Joe, a Holly Hobbie cake for Katie, Strawberry Shortcake cake for Meghan, and a Cabbage Patch Doll cake for Tricia. Each year the kids would pick out the cake they wanted, and were enthralled watching the creations come to life.

For all their growing-up years, I baked a cake on January 3. My kids would always ask, “Who’s the cake for?” and I would answer, “It’s just for us.” In reality, January 3 cakes were baked for a child I didn’t yet know. This annual cake marked the birth of my first son, born when I was just sixteen, and relinquished for adoption days later. Every year since, that date was such a sad one for me, filled with open-ended grief for the child I’d lost, and regret that I wasn’t older and more capable at the time, despite knowing that I couldn’t possibly keep him. Baking his cake on his birthday was one way to feel connected, hoping the energy put into it would somehow generate outward and find him, so that on some level he’d know I celebrated his life and wished good things for him. Life was very different in 1971, and my secret was well-hidden, even from my own family, until just before his birth. When Jeffrey (named Patrick John O’Farrell) was born, there was no way an Irish-Catholic sixteen-year-old girl could openly raise a child. There were too many prejudices and repercussions, so I made the most difficult choice of my life. When we were twenty, I married his father and we went on to have four more children, all full siblings and beautiful reminders of my first-born, yet distinct individuals unto themselves.

It’s been almost eight years since I was “found” by my first son’s relatives, and it was months before Jeffrey and I met in early June, 2002. All his life he’d been living in Colonie, near Albany, New York, just 30 miles away from Saratoga Springs. My own mother had died just two months before that first meeting, and I was aware that Jeffrey’s mother, Rosemary, had passed away a few years earlier. Mothers Day was going to be impossibly hard for me, and I could only imagine how hard it would be for him, as her only child. I decided to send him a letter and included a photo of his four siblings. I wrote it at work and everyone in my office was encouraging me to mail it right away! It wasn’t long before I received an email back, and we met just weeks later. I saw his face and it was such a familiar one – he looks like a compilation of all of us and the reunion was joyful. We’ve had an easy and comfortable relationship ever since, and I’m so grateful for this time that I could never have hoped to expect. This reunion is my life’s gift. One of the first things I learned about Jeffrey is that he is a baker. He has been baking cakes since he was a little boy! We’ve worked on a number of baking projects together.

Jeffrey now has a nephew Henry (my daughter Katie’s son) who looks very much like the photos I’ve seen of his Jeffrey as a baby. It’s such a special connection for him. We’ve come full-circle, and on his nephew’s first birthday, Jeffrey carried Henry’s choo-choo train cake in to the party. It was a moment I’ll always remember, as I watched him and thought “I wish I could have been there to make your first birthday cake, and for every birthday after.” I am so grateful that Rosemary was there for him, as his true mother for every year in-between. Now I’m Mom, Second Shift.

The photo to this blog was taken on October 1, 2005, the day Katie and Bill were married.


  1. Holy TEARS Jeannine! I read all your posts and they make me smile, laugh and mostly HUNGRY! But for this one I cried big tears of joy .. and love. Thanks for sharing your story!

  2. Greetings to Adirondack Baker

    I never cook-- but movies and some of those who act therein DO interest me; and my special interest right now is "Julie and Julia." So I have been looking at some blogs which mention Julia Child, and was just now searching for blogger acknowledgment of her August 15th birthday.

    [That region of the calendar has other connections-- Julie Powell embarked on her year's-French-cooking-journey blog on August 13th. Two years later, Julia Child peacefully died in her sleep on August 13th. And I note that August 15th is a big holiday in France. That must have made Julia's birthdays in Paris more fun. As a Catholic I'm aware of the holiday's Marian origins.]

    Anyway, I ran into you here....

    I have a cousin who gave her child up for adoption for precisely the reasons you did. [She's on Facebook, named Carolyn Mittlestat.] I was very warmed by and absorbed in your story. And, my cousin got to come back into the life of her daughter, much like you.

    How dear to hear about how you commemorated your first child's birthday, preparing a fragrant memory to rise every year. And making an origins-unknown family event out of it.

    God bless. Applause.

    [It would be a lovely upbeat story to speak of, or write, as a pro-life testimony somewhere. Couldn't help but note that.]

  3. Jude, thank you. I so appreciate your comment and am thrilled that my blog is something you enjoy.

    Clulus, thank you so much for your thoughtful response to my posting. Birthmothers share a common sisterhood but I can honestly say that I know very few despite the universally challenging experiences we share. Makes me think that there's a good opportunity to creat that community for myself in the future. Perhaps I'll start by friending your sister on FB!

  4. Jeannie -
    I will always feel badly that you and Gene had to go through that period without the support of your friends. At the same time, I have to say that I understand and admire your choice and I am so glad that your family is now complete. From everything you've told me, Jeffrey is a fine young man - the result of being raised by loving parents and now blessed to have quite an extended family. And he bakes!! Life certainly does hold surprises for all of us. I can't wait to meet him!

  5. This is Jeffrey's cousin Dolly. Please tell him how much I love him and miss him. I can't tell you how blessed we were when we knew that he was being adopted into our family. I was 14 and it meant so much to his mother Rosemary and all of us that he was coming in to our family. We all still love him and miss him. I sent him Christmas cards every year. The last one came back last year.I always remembered his birthday, but didn't know how to reach him this year. We all love you Jeffrey---Dolly, Kimmy Merry Ronnie and Bernie.

  6. Dolly, I've just come across your note and I am so happy to hear from you. I will share this with Jeffrey and hope you know that I am very, very grateful to all of you and realize how fortunate he was to grow up in such a loving family, his first family.

  7. What a deep, and special part of your heart you held close all those years without anyone knowing. Thank you for sharing your sadness as well as your happy ending .<3

  8. I just came across your blog for the first time tonight, and am very much looking forward to trying all your delicious recipes! I, too, grew up in Saratoga Springs, NY in the 1970's and 1980's. When I read your blog post about the Sundial Shoe Store...WOW...did that bring back some fond memories! I loved going shopping there, especially Mr. Izzo and his dog, which freely roamed about the store.

    I also wanted to congratulate you on being able to establish a relationship between you and your son you relinquished for adoption. I, too, am an adopted child, given up for adoption in 1970, in Albany, NY. Unfortunately, after hiring an agency to help find my birth mother, I was unable to locate her. I can't help but wonder if she is out there baking birthday cakes every year for me as well.

  9. Mary, I can guarantee that your birthmother, if not baking a cake every year on your birthday, is thinking of you on that day and every day. I'd imagine that she'd be about my aga, since my son was born just three days into 1971. It was a very different time then and young women had much more limited options than today. I'm very grateful that you came across my blog, and that it sparked a happy memory for you about shopping at Sun Dial Shoe Store. All the best to you, and I hope you keep reading Adirondack Baker. Thank you! - Jeannie

  10. What an amazing story. I read it before, but it moves me every time. Jeff is lucky to have you in his life now.

    1. Thank you Catherine. I think we are all pretty lucky to have found each other - not just Jeff and me but all of us. Thanks for being there along the way!