Joco Diversions

Family tradition is the icing on a birthday cake

An orange cake for the birthday boy was in order.
An orange cake for the birthday boy was in order. Special to The Olathe News

Traditions count and, in my book, they count more on birthdays.

A tradition in this house is to tell Mom what shape, type of cake and frosting flavor you want for your birthday. Not just the kids, but my husband, in-laws, anyone I’ll be feting gets their choice of cake.

I’m not a great baker. I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but baking is a science, cooking is an art. I’m a decent home cook, but not all that sciencey. However, I have made a lot of them (and watched all of “The Great British Baking Show”) — I know my way around a cake. Our youngest had his 14th birthday recently and his request? “Vanilla, orange frosting, circle.”

I speak the lingo of this child. What he meant was, “a round layer cake with cream cheese frosting flavored with orange liqueur.”

What? Alcohol and a minor? Do you know how much alcohol is in vanilla extract? A minimum of 35 percent. The hooch that I used contains —urprise! 35 percent and is an equal measurement exchange with vanilla extract (amped with orange zest and juice, if we’re swapping recipes.)

The joy of picking their cake might be a tradition of the birthday loved one, but making it gives me time to think about them. As I slowly add ingredients and the mixer fluffs up the batter, I think about the other cakes I’ve made for them; I think about all the birthdays that I’ve been able to celebrate with them. In my son’s case, I thought about my pregnancy and his birth. I got a little weepy thinking about his trip to Children’s Mercy hours after he was born…but a little salt is a necessary ingredient in both life and baked goods.

Birthdays are weird. Everyone handles them differently and it’s taken me more than 40 years to realize that feeling awkward on your birthday, regardless of your view about being the center of attention, is pretty common. How do you tell a kid that it’s OK to feel self-conscious that day? That feeling special and grateful aren’t negated by feeling unnatural? You don’t. This may be one of those things they need to figure out on their own, one birthday at a time.

Another tradition is for each of those birthdays? Celebrate your own way. Family parties are non-negotiable, but the birthday person gets to pick the rest…within reason. School still needs to be attended, work still needs to be done, but if I, the celebratee, only want an Italian dinner and not a tenor-waiter belting out Happy Birthday holding a candle-lit-cannoli- then I shouldn’t have to sit through it with a fake smile on my face.

Another Vollenhouse tradition: Birthday waffles or pancakes with sprinkles and a candle.

“Hey, Mom?” The birthday boy asked when he first appeared on his special day. “Where are my birthday waffles?”

It may have been the crack of Saturday for him, but I was already working and not at a breaking point. “Give me five minutes?” I asked.

“Naw, that’s OK,” he said.

I raised an eyebrow (if only in my head because I don’t have that kind of facial muscle coordination).

“Are you sure?”


So, I honored his wishes.

We both regretted that decision.

As I was whipping up the orange frosting later, it hit me — he had been disappointed. When I asked him why he declined birthday waffles he said, “You were working, I didn’t want you to have to stop.”

I was disappointed that I hadn’t pressed the waffle issue but then it occurred to me that he was focusing on his loved one on his own birthday.

That’s when I got a little birthday gift of my own. With a touch of salt.

Susan Vollenweider is a Kansas City based writer and podcaster. To listen to the women’s history podcasts that she co—hosts or to read more of her writing, visit www/ or