Last week, for the first time in years, I made a cake for my birthday on the actual day of my birth. A birthday cake, if you will. I get kind of depressed around my birthday. I don’t really celebrate it in any particular way and I kind of low-key wait for it to pass. I also tend to keep these feelings to myself and try not to think too much about them, because I know if I focus on where they’re coming from I will find that they are rooted in the past, which is a place I already spend more time dwelling than I probably should. And yet, these feelings all came bubbling up to the surface on the day before my birthday. I was at the sink washing dishes—which, in and of itself is like a form of meditation for me, where my subconscious runs free while I occasionally stare off into the woods beyond the backyard—when I heard my phone ring, and because it was my mom, I stopped what I was doing and answered it.
“Hi there! I’m in the car. I gave Kathleen a ride to the store so she could get a prescription filled and I thought I’d call you while I wait for her.” Essentially, Mom wanted to know if I had any plans for my birthday and what I wanted to do and to let me know that she could make a trip up to visit me and that we could go out to lunch somewhere, if I wanted, but that if I didn’t want to or had other plans that was okay too, and in which case not to worry about it.
“Well, I was just trying to decide, actually,” I said as I leaned over and perched my elbows onto the kitchen counter. My eyes settled on the blank wall across from me and I began to stare at it and focus on it as if the answers I was looking for might suddenly appear there. “I’m in between taking it as a day where I do nothing: where I tell myself I don’t have to do anything and try to allow myself the freedom to not feel guilty about it—although that’s not really possible because I will most definitely end up feeling guilty about it, [uncomfortable laugh], but ya know, maybe just make a cake and a nice dinner, or—”
“Oh that sounds good, good for you, that sounds nice.” Mom interjected a little too quickly. “It’s okay, it’s your birthday, you don’t have to feel guilty about whatever you decide to do.”
“Uh-huh, well, I’ll probably still feel bad about it,” I continued “or, I dunno, it would be nice to get together too. I’d love to see you and Annie if she’s going to be around, it’s just, I get kind of depressed thinking about it, ya know?” I’m pretty sure she didn’t know. I eeked out the words and my voice crumbled into a shaky tone while trying to choke back the sobs that wanted to accompany the tears I could feel trickling down my cheeks just then. “I just miss my family, ya know? I miss Dad and Brendan and Grandma and Grandpa. And I never get to see Jimmy. Everyone being together is what made birthdays special. Us all being together is what made it feel special, you know? I just miss that so much.” I’ve learned that sometimes I don’t truly know what I’m thinking or feeling until I hear myself say it. And while I had an inkling that this was all percolating, I ultimately took myself by surprise as the dam holding back that stream of consciousness gave way. There was silence, at first, on the other end of the phone, and then came a little laugh and she said:
“Well, I think you should channel your grandfather, the spirit of your grandfather, and think what he would say.”
“Huh?” Momentarily dumbfounded by her jocularity, I blinked a couple times and then asked "What does that mean?”
“Well, you know, it beats the alternative!” she said with a chuckle.
It took a few seconds for the punchline to sink in. My grandpa was always optimistic, even in dark circumstances, and this was an endearing quality of his. However, in this instance, when he is one of the dead people for whom I'm sharing my grief about, I think he'd allow for a bit of mourning. Yes, I agree. I would rather get older and be slightly depressed on my birthday than be dead. I didn’t think I had to say that. “Yeah, I know, but I can’t just brush away my feelings and pretend they don’t exist?” I pressed on though I was pretty sure that secretly (but maybe not so secretly) that was exactly what she wanted me to do.
“I know, I know,” Mom chirped into the phone. “Kathleen’s about to get in the car I’ll talk to you later I’m gonna go.”
“Tell her I said ‘hi,’” was all I could think to say. The conversation ended as abruptly as it had begun, and left me standing there in my kitchen somewhat stunned. I wiped the tears off my face and shook my head as I sighed to myself and went back to washing the dishes. At least now there was no hiding my own thoughts and feelings from myself. They were out in the open. They had been spoken. I had heard them.
Celebrations just aren’t the same after the people you identify as being integral parts of them die. How could they? I miss my dad. I miss my little brother. I miss my grandparents. I miss my Otto, my sweet dog. I miss my family. I miss being able to make new memories with them. It makes me sad. That’s the truth. So sometimes, as a balm, I look at old pictures of happy birthdays from years ago when we were all together and try to remember what it was like back then, when my everyday life equated to luxuriating in the ignorance of taking it all for granted. Sometimes I look at the photos and think “Wow, if I had known then we’d only have ten years left together before he died…” And then I sometimes find myself on a mental hamster wheel of grief, anxiety, guilt, and depression that never solves anything but is really good at robbing me of my time.
In order to get off that hamster wheel it helps to have a task—or, really, a project—something I enjoy doing that requires my attention, my mental and physical focus, something that I can allow myself to feel good about getting carried away with. Something like making a birthday cake.
I view it as a way of caring for myself. It’s something I can do that is nurturing and cathartic. And it made me feel even better when I was able to share what I made with my mom and sister the next time I saw them. Just like it makes me happy to be able to share and talk about it here. I’m still feeling good about what I consider a successful birthday this year, one where I took time for myself to enjoy birthday cake-making, and to have a nice dinner. I picked up some smoked chicken and sausage from our favorite bbq place and cooked some green beans and wild rice to go with it, hell yeah. But, also, and this is so important to me: to acknowledge my feelings and to appreciate that the things that always made these kinds of occasions special were never so much about the gifts or parties, but about being with the people in this world who really know you and love you for all that you are, and for all that you aren’t.
I started thinking about yogurt cheesecake when I realized the container of yogurt in my fridge was just getting moved around and overlooked instead of being eaten by Brutus and I, who are the only yogurt fans in my household. Ryan’s face becomes all contorted in disgust when I even start talking about yogurt: what a freak. I also had a package of cream cheese that had been sitting in my cheese drawer for months, admittedly. I remember checking the expiration date when I bought it a season or two ago and thinking ‘Pssht!’ I’ll definitely use this before August. I have to just accept that anything I commit to with complete certainty is something that will make me laugh at myself sometime in the future: Lul. Truly though, I can’t bear to waste food, especially when I remember the intended use I bought it with. The yogurt was to be breakfast, and the cream cheese was to be for spinach-artichoke dip. And yet here we are.
I strongly dislike the springform pan I own, and I loathe trying to figure out which pan it will fit in to use for a water bath. I don’t mind making cheesecake in restaurants where there’s (usually) all the proper equipment, but at home, it can make me bonkers. That’s why I opted to make mini cheesecakes in a muffin tin.
I love cheesecake, but I don’t always feel good about having eaten it afterwards. Life is complicated. So are the links between body image, shame, eating food that is considered healthy, and self esteem. But life is also short, and I want to eat cheesecake. I thought maybe, just maybe, if I didn’t rely solely on pounds of cream cheese but instead mostly on yogurt I might be able to eat and enjoy cheesecake without feeling bad about it. Well, success. Not only do I not feel bad about it, but I feel so damn good about it I’ve been eating them for breakfast. It is yogurt and fruit after all. And, being able to enjoy it, if I may be so bold, beats the alternative.
I adapted this recipe from Siggi's and Betty Crocker's recipes for yogurt cheesecake.
Mini Yogurt Cheesecakes with Cherry Compote
Yield: about 20 mini cheesecakes
Note: taste your cherries to see how sweet they are and then decide how much maple syrup to add. If your cherries are particularly sweet, start with a lesser amount of maple syrup and then taste to determine if you want more or not.
Well hello! I'm Kat, and
I'm always either cooking or thinking about what I want to cook next. For me, food is always about so much more than just my next meal. This is a place for sharing stories and recipes from a life lived through the lens of food...