Earlier this month I turned 52, and my mother baked me the same birthday cake she has made since I was a kid growing up in Clay City: an oatmeal cake. It is so moist it’s almost gooey. Brown sugar deepens the cake’s color to a caramel-brown, and cinnamon and nutmeg give it a kick. The icing is more like a glaze that soaks down into the cake, a scrumptious mixture of butter, sugar, condensed milk and coconut.
Well, two-thirds of my birthday cake had coconut. The tail-end had a clear glaze, a smooth top without the coconut’s crackle and crinkles.
Our middle son, Marco, has a coconut aversion. When he was little he ate too many coconut-flavored desserts at a Chinese buffet restaurant and hasn’t been able to stomach the flavor since. My mom modified my birthday cake so that the whole family could enjoy it -- with or without the coconut topping.
My mother has many good qualities, and being accommodating is one of them. “Why get upset?” she says.
To hear her tell it, being a middle child enabled her to go with the flow. She was the third of five siblings. Too babyish for her older sisters and quite a few years older than her younger brother and sister, she learned to either go along or go off by herself.
Throughout my life I have benefitted from my mother’s easy-going disposition. Our home life was calm. I always felt supported.
In fact, I used to be the “Marco” of the family, except coconut wasn’t my aversion.
My dad, Lloyd Abbott, had his own birthday cake each year: a white cake covered with white icing, showered with sweetened coconut flakes and dotted with red-hot candies. I did not like those red hots! I didn’t want a hard crunch in the soft cake. The fireball-taste of cinnamon didn’t go with the smooth vanilla of the rest of the cake, in my opinion. I would pick off the candies, but my slice looked like it had chickenpox because the red coating soaked into the white icing, leaving pink dots behind.
Eventually, my dad’s birthday cake was also fractioned out: half of it had coconut and red dots, one-fourth had just coconut and the last fourth was just plain icing.
My mom found a way to accommodate everyone.
Unfortunately, I didn’t inherit that ability from my mother.
Last week I made a frittata for dinner, and my youngest son turned up his nose. He didn’t object to one ingredient. I couldn’t have adjusted the recipe for him. He just looked at it on his plate and put his hands in his lap.
“Eat it,” I said. “It’s healthy.”
Actually, I am accommodating in many ways. At school, I work with graduate students who teach the courses I supervise. I give them teaching materials, including a textbook that I wrote myself. But I encourage them to teach their own way, to adapt the lessons to reflect their unique interests and insights. With friends, I’m open to watching whatever movie or meeting at whatever restaurant they like best. When my kids really need me, I drop what I am doing to be there for them.
Sometimes, though, I wish I could be more accomodating, like my mom. But the truth is that some things are simply deal breakers for me.
Take social media for example. I enjoy it as a place where people have lots of different tastes, opinions, experiences and messages. In that way, it’s like cake, icing, coconut and red hot candies all rolled into one. But there are things I cannot abide --like racism, cruelty, misinformation and xenophobia-- so I unfollow or unfriend based on that. I cannot accommodate those views in my timeline, in my circle of friends, in my life.
My birthday came and went. The oatmeal cake disappeared quickly, too. What is taking me a lot longer, however, is finding the balance between accommodating others and remaining true to myself.