My father, my cousin Tom, my grandfather Ellsworth, and I were born near Christmas. Competing with the baby Jesus on his special day was a tricky business that often resulted in gifts labeled “Happy Birthday and Merry Christmas.”
But we were lucky to have family who loved us and made our birthday celebrations special without taking any of the joy away from Christmas. One year my cousins from Indiana gave me a gingerbread house for my birthday. I was young then – maybe seven or eight – and am not sure if Lydia, Bill, Tom, and Nancy drove east for the holiday or just sent the house. In any event, it was miraculous to me, and I can still taste those candies on the roof.
My grandfather’s birthday was December 28th. In 1913, on this date, he married my grandmother Agnes.
Sunday, December 28, 1913 – “Cold night Saturday night, cold today. Ellsworth a married man. Spent the night with his bride in Springfield. His birthday today – thirty-two years old today.” – Lydia Jane Hall.
Five and a half years later my mother Janet was born, and she and her daddy were great friends.
Ellsworth had modest taste in food and a liking for eating it in little bits throughout the day. He hid favored snacks on the shelves of the pantry and china cupboards – squares of chocolate and boxes of “Hi-Ho” Crackers are what I remember. We all knew his hiding places and helped ourselves to his stores, but I don’t think we were ever scolded or seriously admonished for this behavior.
But once a year, on his birthday, he had an extravagant treat when my mother baked him a fresh coconut cake. She was a meticulous cook and followed all recipes to the letter. She had a hard time organizing her closets, but she could beat an egg white so that it stood at attention in perfect peaks.
For this annual confection she first baked delicate layers of cake and filled them with lemon custard. Next she covered the stacked rounds with a boiled frosting of egg whites, sugar, vanilla, water, and cream of tartar. Finally, she grated fresh coconut and gently patted it onto the graceful swirls, a long and painstaking process undertaken with love and care. It was a beautiful sight – this large snowball of a cake – and my grandfather was always delighted.
On Wednesday: A New Year