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  • Writer's pictureMiriam Green

Happy Birthday, Mom

What should we give Mom as a birthday present? What would she appreciate? My dad is taking her to a local production of Fiddler on the Roof. I know she’ll love that. The best idea I have is to present her with an album of photos of our family. That way we can have many moments of looking at them together and remembering who they are.

Mom’s birthday is on Sunday. She’ll be 74. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s five years ago. I can’t even remember what it was that alerted us to her condition. Perhaps it was crying to Daddy on the phone while she sat in the car unable to start it. Or coming home empty handed from the supermarket because she forgot what she wanted to buy. Or forgetting words and asking the same questions over and over. These symptoms developed over time. They were present before her diagnosis.

A few short years is all it takes to lose someone you love to Alzheimer’s. When I think back to how capable Mom was just a few years ago, I realize how much of her we’ve lost. Time is both a blessing and a curse. There are many people who get no time to say goodbye to their loved ones. For us, it’s as if we are in a constant state of saying goodbye.

I keep reminding myself to think positively. Mom is happy. She laughs and sings. She tells jokes. She claps along to music. She enjoys taking walks. She is innocent in her enjoyment of the now, and I capitalize on that when we are together.

Birthdays were always fun occasions when I was growing up. For one of my birthdays, I remember my friends being blind-folded and led through a maze in our basement. When the blind-fold was removed, the maze had disappeared. All our jumps, all the exhortations to step to the left or right, were pretend. I marveled at the cleverness of my parents to invent this fun game, especially as, once we’d been through the “maze,” we encouraged our friends from the sidelines and watched as they exerted themselves.

How strange that this is the memory that surfaces as Mom navigates daily the maze of her mind’s making.

What really sealed the birthday deal when I was young were the “failure” cakes Mom used to make. I don’t remember why we gave them that name. Maybe Mom had left out an ingredient. Or maybe it was woefully underdone. Whatever the case, Mom’s failure cakes were delicious; we always begged her to make more.

None of us remember a specific recipe for “failure” cake. When my kids were growing up, we made an assortment of birthday cakes, mainly chocolate or vanilla-flavored in different shapes, the most impressive being a train or a doll in a skirt, Winnie the Pooh, Spiderman and Batman. Now that they are older, “crumble cake” is the optimal favorite as it combines chocolate and vanilla, has a pleasing, moist consistency, and is topped with lots of “crumbs.”

Crumble Cake

This cake always appeases the disparate requests for vanilla vs. chocolate-flavored cakes. The batter is enough for two small or one large cake.

¾ cup canola oil

2 cups sugar

4 cups flour

4 tsp baking powder

½ tsp salt

1½ cup milk (or milk-substitute, i.e., soy or orange juice)

1½ tsp vanilla

2 eggs

½ to ¼ cup cocoa powder

1½ tsp cinnamon


In a small bowl, beat oil and sugar then add remaining dry ingredients. Set aside 1 cupful for the crumble topping. Add egg, vanilla and milk (or milk substitute) to the dry ingredients and mix well. Divide batter. In one bowl, add cocoa powder. To create a marble effect, pour alternating layers of vanilla and chocolate batter into a baking pan. Gently swirl a knife or spatula through the batter. Add cinnamon to cup mixture that was set aside and crumble on top. Bake at 350° for approximately 40 minutes.

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