Sunday, February 5, 2017

Love in the Time of Cupcakes

February being the month where symbols of love like red hearts and satin are everywhere in anticipation of Valentine's Day, it seemed a perfect time to bring this out of the archives. Love has so many forms! This essay was a finalist in the 2010 Royal Palm Literary Awards for "creative non-fiction"!!

The last of the "tennis ball" cupcakes set sail this morning, a small but telling harbinger of the fact that I'm going to be facing an empty nest in the fall. Twenty seven years of "hands on" mothering symbolically reduced to two dozen clumps of devil's food cake in little foil baskets. They swooshed out the door with my youngest son, for what would turn out to be his last tennis meet of high school. He graduates in another couple of weeks, heading for college in the fall and instantly turning any use of the words "high school" into the past tense.

I've been making cupcakes decorated like tennis balls--light yellow frosting with the slightest tinge of green, arced with curves and swoops of white icing--for fourteen years now, ever since my oldest daughter signed up for high school freshman girls tennis before the school year even started. Call me OCD, I don't mind! I consider it a badge of honor.

There are fundamental differences between "girls tennis" and "boys tennis" and only some of them have to do with testosterone levels. Girls tennis season starts in late summer and continues barely to early fall, guaranteeing splendid and warm afternoons and entire weekend days watching budding young ladies flit around on the court in bouncing pony tails and miniskirts, suntanned legs flying. Girls tennis, from my experience on the sidelines, has involved matching hair doo-dads with color coordinated ribbons, team posters, lots of conversation, and a great appreciation for cute snacks. Hence the tennis ball cupcakes, a big hit for both my daughters and their teams for a bunch of years.

Boys tennis, on the other hand, starts just on the cusp of very early spring, when winter hangs on for dear life. And here in the upper Midwest, winter's claws are deep. More than one tennis season for my sons has started its first practice as snow flakes were falling. The weather leans more toward rain, and cold, and wind, and if there's coffee involved for blanket-wrapped spectators under grey, stormy skies, it's been hot, not iced. Very few boys sported pony tails, and nobody wore matching barettes. The guys still appreciated the cupcakes...but I don't know that they even noticed the decorative flair right before they inhaled them.

And still, despite the fact that for years my cupcakes have been nearly vaporized in haste (and without a single squeal of how "cute" they were) by their entirely masculine patrons, I clung to tradition. At least once a season I needed to send those sweet, fluffy treats along to a meet, even if, as the years went by and my job schedule got less flexible, another tennis mom would actually have to deliver them for me. Call me crazy, it's been done before.

While the tennis ball cupcakes stretch back fourteen years, the cupcake thing has actually been a fixture for something more like twenty four. Long ago enough that my oldest daughter would have needed to bring a birthday treat for kindergarten. Or preschool. So through the next two and a half decades, the miniature confections were a constant and a comfort amid the multi-tasking, crisis-response mentality that goes into raising four kids with a minimum number of trips to the emergency room. There were cupcakes with sprinkles for birthdays, cupcakes with candy dots for art shows, cupcakes decorated like little ghosts and jack-o-lanterns for Halloween.
This last tradition--the Halloween cupcakes--nearly drove me into the ground once. I had three kids in the same grade school at the same time. The youngest wanted Halloween cupcakes for his second grade class party. I signed on for two dozen, half of them orange and half of them white, with little ghost outlines and pumpkin smiles drawn on with melted chocolate, eyes made from chocolate chips. Then the fifth grader chimed in. I signed on for another two dozen. And then as I started the baking, when I thought of my daughter's class in eighth grade going without my cupcakes on this festive day, I threw caution to the wind. Halfway through decorating seventy two little ghosts and jack-o-lanterns with dribbley chocolate I rethought my enthusiasm...but it was too late to turn back.

I was planning to dress up for the second graders' party, and I tweaked my daughter with the thought of showing up in costume to deliver the goods. She's got a dark, sultry beauty to her, and she warned me off. "Mom, don't you dare!!" she said ominously, her eyes flashing like the fiery gypsy in Carmen. I filed that thought in the "hmmm..." pile. Made some soothing mention about bringing a change of clothes.

The next day I dutifully and precariously loaded six dozen cupcakes into the minivan, and set off for school. Fifth grade cupcakes were dropped off and put out of mind. The second grade Halloween party was so cute it could make your back fillings hurt. I think that was the one where I'd made my son a little royal blue cape with fake ermine collar, for his part as the "king" in a teeny tiny little play.

And then the lunch bell rang. I grabbed the last two dozen cupcakes from the van and walked them down the length of the school to my daughter's eighth grade classroom. As I stood in the doorway, her back was to me. A friend she was chatting with looked up, and announced slyly, "Sarah, your mom is here." Slowly she turned... and there I stood, a shallow cardboard box filled with treats utterly overshadowed by my appearance in a Pocahontas style beige fringed tunic with red embroidered trim, black leggings, and a feather in my hair. I bit back a grin, but it was really hard.

My daughter flashed daggers at me with those dark brown eyes. If looks could have killed, I'd be writing this from the great beyond. But at the same time, despite her fourteen year old peer-reviewed fury, I could see the corners of her mouth start to turn up in a smile in spite of herself, at the sheer perversity of my guest appearance. I delivered the goods and quickly exited stage left, fighting back a laugh.

Eight years later we were chatting on the phone as I drove to drop off yet another batch of tennis ball cupcakes for her younger brother's meet the next day. I was going to have to miss this contest too, and so once again the cupcakes were going to stand in for me, making me feel like I was still sharing a part of the adventure. We shared a good laugh about the day I showed up looking like Pocahontas at her eighth grade classroom. At the age of twenty-two, you develop a lot more perspective and forgiveness for antics like that.

I bemoaned the fact that with her in college, I didn't have the opportunity to bring festive or seasonal or downright ridiculous treat to her classes anymore. "Mom, you can bring cupcakes to my class any time!" she assured me. "We'll eat 'em!" I could resist pushing the envelope. If it was around Halloween, could I wear the Pocahontas costume again? There was just an instant of hestitation, then..."okay!" I could just imagine her eyes rolling across the miles between us. Maturity comes in many forms, and learning to humor a mother during a fleeting moment of insanity is a remarkable milestone for a daughter of any age.

I never did drive eighty miles to a college classroom after that to bring a sugary treat to a bunch of accomplished and sophisticated college students. Life just got a little too busy, it seems, though in hindsight I wish I'd grabbed the opportunity. But I still remember laughing at the memory with her, and the beautiful thread of give-and-take the offer and acceptance held, binding us tightly and preciously with love and affection despite the distance.

They were just cupcakes. And then some.

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