Yesterday was the first day of the school year. Since my five were small, I have baked a cake on the first and last days of term. Chocolate cake, Victoria sponge, carrot cake, coffee and walnut cake – you name it, they requested it. At one point, I was cooking for four teenagers and a toddler, plus assorted friends with the ability to smell baking from several miles away. A cake or a batch of cookies disappeared within ten minutes of their arriving home – inhaled rather than swallowed and never affecting their appetite for dinner.
But the baking of the twice-termly cakes was different, at least for me. It became a punctuation to the school year, a marker that celebrated their school releasing them for a while and a sad acceptance that it would reclaim them again all too soon. Holidays were always the best, the messiest and the noisiest times and I still hate their ending.
And yesterday marked the beginning of yet another school year. I pulled out the baking tins and recipe books as usual, then stopped. Almost without noticing it, our resident family has shrunk over the past few years. Now that our fourth child has left home, only the eight year old is still here. Without him I might not even have known that the schools were back. Looking at the familiar recipes, they suddenly seemed all wrong. The pictures of large and lavishly-decorated cakes only highlighted the painful fact that our family has shrunk and the house is much quieter nowadays. I almost gave up the tradition on the spot in a burst of self-pity.
Eventually, after much thought, I baked half a cake. It looked odd and sad when finished. But our youngest deserves to experience the same traditions as the older children, even if he can’t demolish a cake with the same swiftness as the four of them working as a team. When it was finally assembled, I looked at the half-a-cake sitting forlornly on the plate, as though bemusedly wondering where its other half was, just as I sometimes wonder where the rest of my family went. I breathed in the familiar scent of vanilla and sugar. My daughter always said her newborn baby brother smelled of vanilla cookie and cake crumbs. They were clearly some of her favourite smells and he was one of her favourite things.
The afternoon passed very slowly as I counted the minutes until school pick up and felt the pain and the pleasure of nostalgia for things which had been and which would never come again, at least not in the same form.
Until our youngest burst triumphantly through the front door, fresh from a day back with his friends and the excitement of a new class. He dived straight into the cake, just as his brothers and sister always had. No gloomy cobwebs of memory and regrets can hang around for long under the onslaught of young energy and a face smeared with cream and jam. He was purely, blissfully in the moment and so, after a second, was I.
Those cakes of years gone by were very wonderful. They punctuated our family’s year and helped soothe disappointing grades and broken friendships. They highlighted achievements and eased the transition back to school each term. But so too was this cake equally wonderful. It served the same purpose for our youngest as for his siblings. It highlighted the fun of a new year ahead. It gave me the same chance to connect and share in the rhythm of his life as it always had with theirs. Half a cake, a whole cake, it doesn’t really matter. It connected the past and the future, smelled of vanilla and sugar and gave my son and me a moment to share together, a joyful celebration of the fact that life does move on and change and that the joy is often in the change as much as in the continuity.