Though scratched and faded, the slides my parents took in the 1960s and 1970s offer me clues about their lives. My parents, now gone for several decades, left me their archives. I get to see the world through their eyes, at least for these captured moments of time. The images show me details I did not notice as a child even when I was there.
So many photos of birthday cakes – could there be anything new to learn from them? In our family, like many, you were asked what type of cake you wanted for your birthday. So, each cake represents a choice that was made. Whether these cakes were trends of that time I couldn’t say.
My mother’s parents were both Italian American. My mom’s maternal grandparents arrived in New York in 1899 from Southern Italy. Of their 6 children, 3 were girls. My grandmother, Nancy, was the youngest child. Rose was her older sister by 9 years. Mary was 3 years older than Rose and the only child born in Italy. Everyone in the photographs shown below lived in the Bronx at the time, as did my family. With that in mind, here is a portrait of 3 sisters and their cakes.
Nancy, youngest sister – Homemade, chocolate glazed, yellow Bundt cake
This style of Bundt cake makes an appearance in quite a few of my photos. My mother most likely was the baker. Note the candle holders to catch dripping wax. I remember my grandma as being fashionable, intelligent, loving and strong. (1969 photo)
My brother and I spent a lot of time with her and grandpa when we were younger. They were often our sitters and I remember going out for ice cream, the park and movies with her. She was always busy, had lots of energy, cooked for the family, could be strict, but was always there for us. She learned to paint in the 1970s and was quite good. She painted winter landscapes and Still Life.
She only spoke English and worked throughout my mother’s childhood as an executive assistant at a large company. This classy looking, perfectly sweetened cake fits her style to me.
Rose, middle sister – Bakery-made, white frosting, chocolate dusted cake
My Aunt Rose chose what looks like a professionally made cake. It’s beautifully and thickly frosted with buttercream or whipped cream and chocolate shavings. My Aunt Rose loved her sweets, so this cake is symbolic of her preferences. (1968 photo)
In the late 1970s, she was lived alone in a basement apartment in Queens, NY and had crystal candy bowls on every end table. The bowls overflowed with Necco wafers, caramel creams, butterscotch, tootsie rolls and more. She always had large, glass bottles of delicious chocolate soda (not Yoo-hoo) that she generously poured into glasses for my brother and me.
She was an extremely sweet, compassionate person, but often seemed anxious. She listened to news a lot on her transistor radio and TV and got so worried over what she heard. I got to know her better when she lived with us for a little while in 1980. My mother had been close to Rose when she was growing up and when they had both worked as secretaries in the Bronx. Aunt Rose’s favorite color was green, and she often wore green clothes and wrote only with green pens on green stationary. She spoke English to most of the family, but Italian to her sister Mary.
Mary, oldest sister – Homemade, yellow Bundt cake, no icing
Aunt Mary, the oldest sister, is here with a plain yellow Bundt cake. I vaguely remember whispering to my mother, “Where’s the icing?” as if she had forgotten to add it. This was the cake she wanted I was told. It was startling to me that some people didn’t like icing on their cakes. (1969 photo)
She was a quiet person, to me anyway, so this cake fits my memory of her, in its simplicity. I remember trying to talk to my Aunt Mary several times, and she said nothing. As an assertive child, I went and found my mother who was busy in the kitchen, getting the dessert plates and coffee ready, after lunch.
“Aunt Mary won’t talk to me,” I said.
“Oh, honey, Aunt Mary doesn’t speak English.”
I was jolted. That was when I learned that other languages exist, and Aunt Mary only spoke Italian. My Aunt Rose was the only one at the party who could have a conversation with Aunt Mary. I remember in later years asking my mother why Grandma didn’t speak Italian when both her parents and older sister only spoke Italian. All I remember of the explanation is the large age gap between my grandma and Aunt Mary.
Just in the last week, I found a document online that gave me some insight on the closeness of the bond between Rose and Mary. The 1910 census showed them as children living at the New York Catholic Protectory with 89 other girls. They were listed as “Inmates.” I was stunned to learn this. It made me realize that I could not possibly imagine how difficult their lives had been as the children of new immigrants in the U.S.
Yes, I photobombed my Great Aunt Mary’s birthday photo. I remember leaning into the shot. But I was just 2 ½ years old according to the slide’s date stamp. I never got to know Aunt Mary well. I have quite a few pictures of her at my birthday party and other family events in 1969 and 1970. But sadly, she died in 1971. (1969 photo)
A Bow on the Head
Is this an Italian tradition or just some family fun? I don’t know. But whenever we celebrated birthdays on that side of my family, someone put a bow on the head of the birthday person when they were seated to blow out the candles. I haven’t yet found any information online about this being a tradition anywhere. And this is my only photographic proof that we did this.
Summary of Portrait Through Cakes
Trying to wrangle deeper meanings from a person’s cake design and sweetness preferences may be a bit of a stretch. After all, how much can one choice of cake on one birthday say about a person? But in my mind, with only these photos to hold onto, every detail takes on meaning. So, looking back, these choices represent them in some small way. The classy chocolate drizzle, and the fluffy, white frosting and the simple, unadorned cake. As different as the personalities and life experiences as the sisters themselves.