Our three children’s conflicting schedules rarely coincide to allow a traditional family dinner. At three-thirty in the afternoon, however, afterschool snack commences at our kitchen table with rapid-fire conversation and ingestion of cookies and fruit by my elementary, junior high, and senior high school aged sons and daughter. “I never win anything,” my ten-year-old son whines, after the principal has picked his friend’s name out of a hat at a school assembly, and he was rewarded with a basketball, complete with a rubbery scent reminiscent of new car tires.
“You were born,” my stern 15 year-old daughter reprimands him. Now that she’s studying advanced placement biology, she finds it necessary to lecture her younger brothers on the finer points of genetics in addition to their fashion choices and table manners. “Do you know how many sperm try to fertilize an egg? Everyone who is born won the lottery,” she affirms.
Unconvinced by his sister’s profound declaration, Ben looks downcast. “Did you ever win anything, Mom?” he turns to me for solidarity.
“I had you guys. That’s the best prize,” I declare emphatically, taking a cue from my daughter’s biology lesson.
“Really, did you ever win anything that was an actual thing,” pipes up my literal 12 year-old son, finally taking a break from inhaling a fist full of grapes.
Abby is exasperated now. “Don’t you guys know about the cake walk?” She rolls her eyes. Where were her brothers when she was absorbing family lore? Why is she the only one who remembers important historical facts from before the invention of the cell phone like Papa meeting President Carter’s wife or how many stitches Mom got after being chased up a flight of brick steps by Uncle Joe?
I start to tell the boys about the Purim Carnival I attended at my synagogue when I was about Ben’s age. We bought ten or twenty purple tickets at the door and handed them over to teenagers from the Temple youth group so we could toss rings, throw sponges, lift up rubber ducks floating in a basin with numbers scribbled onto their bottoms, and guess how many jelly beans had been poured into giant glass jars. On the stage of the social hall, someone had arranged black, shiny chairs in a circle, and labeled the seats with numbers corresponding to homemade cakes displayed on a table just underneath the stage. For a whopping four tickets, you could enter a chance to win a confection at the Cake Walk. Israeli music started to blast from a tape recorder, and I walked around the circle with other hopeful children.
Then the music stopped, and I grabbed the index card taped to the chair next to me. Descending the narrow steps on the stage, I scanned the table with layered yellow cakes with chocolate icing and carrot cakes with cream cheese frosting and walnuts. My number matched up with a cake wrapped mummy-tight in foil. A joyful squeal escaped from my throat. Other than being born, of course, I had never won anything before.
Like a cat presenting its owner with a freshly hunted bird, I carried my prize straight to my mother, who was sitting off to the side, waiting for permission to escape from this religiously imposed, migraine-inducing revelry. We bid farewell to our friends dressed as Queen Esthers, Mordechais, and villainous Hamans. My parents gently nestled the cake into the back seat of the car to prevent it from sliding around. This was the 1970’s, and not even children wore seat belts.
The carnival was over for my brother and sisters. They would tuck their plastic junk prizes and foil crowns into their nightstand drawers. Once they left the synagogue, it was just another chilly Sunday. I had won big, though, and my joy would not be contained. Practically darting out of the blue Buick station wagon once we arrived home, I waited by the back hatch door, as my mom handed me my jackpot. “Don’t drop it!” she cautioned.
I made it into the kitchen without losing as much as a crumb. Our dog sat by my feet witnessing the slow peeling of layers of protective foil encircling my prize. The entire family had entered the kitchen to witness the unveiling. And then I saw the strawberry cake in all of its pink glory. Slices of freshly cut berries rested on their side bleeding threads of red into the already pink frosting. Even the interior of the cake had been doused in pink food coloring. My dad rested his hand on my shoulder. My mother shook her head. I was allergic to strawberries.
I’m not EpiPen-in-the-thigh, throat closing up, hives-from-just-touching allergic to the species Fragaria. Perhaps due to other pollens residing on this fruit and other berries, my mouth tickles uncomfortably from contact with a strawberry’s rough skin. The pink cake sitting on our kitchen table seemed to stare at me with its hundred red eyes and laugh.
Ben walks over to my seat and hands me a chocolate chip cookie. “That stinks,” he editorializes “Isn’t it ironic?” my daughter shakes her head. “I love strawberries,” my middle son announces.
“Don’t worry, guys,” I try to cheer them up. Platitudes come rushing to my mind. Winning doesn’t always mean you get what you want, and even a cake walk isn’t always a cake walk. Instead of waxing philosophical, I tell them that right after I unwrapped that pink cake, Papa drove to the Food Fair and brought home a chocolate Entenmann’s cake with chocolate frosting. I don’t really remember that part of the story, but it definitely could have happened. I’m sure if I ask him about it, my dad will say yes.
Sharon Forman was raised in Norfolk, Virginia. She was ordained as a Reform rabbi by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994 in New York and has worked for twenty-two years in the field of Jewish education. Having published her first book through the URJ Press, Honest Answers to Your Child’s Jewish Questions (2006), a chapter in Lisa Grushcow’s The Sacred Encounter (CCAR Press, 2014), and most recently The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Innings (2015), she has also written for Kveller about her experiences as a mom of a child with asthma and is editing an essay about ghosts for “Literary Mama.” For the past ten years, she has lived in Westchester, New York, with her husband and three children and has never once baked or served a strawberry cake.