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Thank You Aunt Nellie

Author: Helena McCusker

Every year my aunt Nellie baked a celebration birthday cake for all of her nieces and nephews. From first birthdays to sweet sixteens. Every year she weighed out the ingredients with a no-waste precision, mixed them with a wooden spoon, then baked the sponge to springy-to-touch perfection. In those days there was no shop-bought decision to make over chocolate, cream, caterpillar, or rainbow layered cake. Every year the cake was personalised, with name, age and “Happy Birthday” piped in iced lettering. When my turn came to be the recipient, mum would carry Nellie’s cake from the kitchen into the living room, holding it high – a trophy on a silver plinth. The plastic ballerina topper, in a pink net tutu, pirouetting on a white icing lake, as wax melted down stick-thin, pastel-coloured candles. Every year I’d close my eyes, take a deep breath and blow them out.

‘Don’t forget to make a wish!' Mum would always say.

Then Aunt Nellie’s cake would be cut into thin – we need to make sure there’s enough for everyone – sized slices and passed around on paper plates. Once the tea-jennys had received sufficient refills, the good china cups and saucers were collected in, washed, then packed away for safety. It was time to push the glass revolving doors on the mahogany sideboard around and reveal the hidden drinks cabinet.

The celebration would continue way past the chorus of happy birthday, as family voices joined in with songs blaring from stereo speakers. Vinyl rotating, like the hands of a speeding clock, with Uncle Owen always half a song behind. The floor vibrated from a mix of old and new dance moves. Nobody ever noticed the music distort when the turntable needle jumped and skipped a groove. As compensation for their shaking ceiling, the downstairs neighbours were invited in to join the celebration. Everyone had a signature dance move: Mum, always the first to kick off her slippers and move her hips, could twist almost down to the floor and Dad would shuffle then give a hand clap after every movement. My two great aunties, sitting in the best seats in the house, would stay seated, legs swaddled in wrinkled tan stockings, only tapping their feet, as they complained that the music was too loud, and they couldn’t hear anyone speak.

‘Show us some of your disco steps,’ my cousin was asked one year as she did the hustle and thought she was “all that” in her white satin trouser suit.

As night disappeared, voices overtook voices like speeding cars on the M8. But one voice, the Lamborghini voice, fuelled by whiskey wouldn’t stop until he’d overtaken everyone or run out of fuel.

The going home could be a lengthy process as not everyone would want to leave, some having to be coaxed out of their chairs with a forceful tug of the arms; in denial that the celebration was over. Taxis would be phoned, and everyone had to be reunited with their belongings. Coats and jackets were always laid out on the bed at the beginning of the evening for easy retrieval, but at some point, during the celebrations, bored younger cousins would have made a den out of them – exploring pockets in the process.

‘Ho, tell that taxi driver to wait, I’m just coming,’ was often heard reverberating down the close stairs.

Swaying shadows disappeared into the cold early morning air, leaving our home silent again, except for the ringing in my ears.

The year I blew out sixteen candles I didn’t realise it would be the last of the birthday cakes from Aunt Nellie and every year since I wish I’d wished that the celebration would never end. Now, even though the family shrinks and expands, family ties and bonds are still formed and taken forward for future generations as the celebrations continue in many differing ways. We’ve sloshed, struck a pose, and vogued, moonwalked, lined danced, and flossed our way through the changes. From vinyl, to cassette tapes, to CDs, to streaming and back to vinyl. During the COVID-19 lockdown, celebrations changed drastically for everyone, but families and friends always find ways to adapt. I think of family members sadly not with us anymore and wonder what they would make of Zoom, virtual hugs and singing choruses of “Happy Birthday” to running taps while lathering our hands with anti-bacterial soap – two choruses to be exact, per NHS guidelines.

Thank you, Aunt Nellie, for the love you put into the bake, every year, that brought a family together to celebrate. The recipe is now handed down to all your nieces and nephews who every year try to recreate the taste of that special celebration birthday cake.