06 Oh, to Be Rich with Mom's Cake!
(By Sande Smith)
I lay on my bed, legs propped up against the wall, desperately wishing my mother would call. But I remembered the last time I'd seen her, right before the train for Providence pulled out of the station, "You know how expensive it is to call," she said, then squeezed me tight and said good- bye.
This was my first birthday away from home. I missed my mom, missed my sister, and most certainly missed the special pound cake my mother always made for my birthday. Since getting to college that year, I would watch jealously as the other freshmen received care packages from their parents on their birthdays -and even on ordinary days. Big boxes containing summer slacks and blouses, packages of M&M's and Snickers , things they needed and things they didn't. Instead of feeling thrilled about my upcoming eighteenth birthday, I felt empty. I wished my mom would send me something, too, but I knew that she couldn't afford presents or the postage. She had done her best with my sister and me -raising us by herself. The simple truth was there just was never enough money.
But that didn't stop her from filling us with dreams. "You can be anything you want to be," she would tell us. "Politicians, dancers, writers - you just have to work for it; you have to get an education."
For a long time, because of my mother's resourcefulness , I didn't realize that we were poor. She did so much with so little. She owned and took care of our house. She clothed and fed us. She found ways to get us scholarships so that we could take violin, piano and viola lessons from some of the best teachers in Philadelphia. She never missed an opportunity to have a tête-à-tête with our schoolteachers, and she attended all our plays and musical performances. My mother had high hopes for my sister and me. She saw the way out of poverty for us was education. We didn't play with the other children on the street, didn't jump double-dutch or stay out late on the porch laughing and talking with our neighbors. We were inside doing our homework and reading books. She sat with us while we did our work and taught us how to learn what she didn't know by plowing through the World Book Encyclopedia or visiting the library.
She did it all on 800 dollars a month and what a struggle it was for her.
Please, Mom, can we go to the movies? We'd beg.
No, we can watch a movie at home, she'd say, turning to the movie channel.
Can't we get nicer pants than these ugly green things? We'd say as we went through the black plastic bag filled with hand-me-downs from our cousins.
These will do you fine for now, Mom would say.
Why can't I have money to buy French fries after school? I would plead, my nostrils full with the remembered smell of sizzling grease and freshly salted potatoes.
No, you don't need that mess. Besides, I've made pea soup with carrots and potatoes.
She never bought anything that she could make herself.
I felt our lack most deeply after Christmas, when the other kids talked about the new games and expensive outfits they had found tucked under their live Christmas trees. I didn't mention our silver tree that we unpacked and repacked every year, or that there were only a couple of items for me under the tree: some books, socks, maybe a pair of shoes that I needed. And because my dad wasn't around, Mom pressed me into service -I would wrap my younger sister's gifts so that she could wake up excitedly, believing that Santa had left gifts for her under the tree.
Thanks to my mom's sacrifices and big dreams, I'd made it to the Ivy League: Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Yet I was afraid that I wouldn't measure up to the other students. They seemed to exude confidence and the smell of money. I felt so lost, so far away, as if my mom had said, "Well, if you're old enough to go six hours away, you're old enough to take care of yourself."
As I was recalling these things, my roommate joined me on the bed. "Hey. After we study, let's buy ice cream and cake." I nodded, closed my eyes, and imagined the cake Mom would have made. She would take out her mixer and the chrome bowl, then add the butter that she'd let sit out until it was soft. She would pour in the sugar grains in a narrow stream. Mmm. I could see the golden yellow of each of the twelve eggs, swallowed under the rapid blur of the spinning beaters, and I could almost smell the vanilla and nutmeg filling the house while the cake baked.
As I daydreamed, there was a knock on the door. My roommate opened it to find a deliveryman asking for me. He handed her a large box, which she carefully placed on the desk near my bed. "Open it." I did, and inside was a vanilla cake with chocolate frosting. In icing were the words: "Happy Birthday, Sande! Love, Mom." My skin tingled with excitement, as if Mom were right there hugging me close. How had she managed to afford it? I felt as if I were back at home with her, safe and secure while she sang and told me how much she loved having me in her life. I ran out to the hall and knocked on my dormmates' doors. "Birthday cake," I called. As I cut cake for the students gathered in my room, then watched their faces as they ate, I didn't need to eat to feel both full and rich inside.