Malted Milk Balls

I looked around at everyone seated at our kitchen table. Normally crowded with the nine members of our family, today we were wedged together like sardines with our guests. The chicken Mom had made was so tender that it fell off the bones and melted in my mouth. Mashed potatoes, rich with butter and tender green beans kept me busy and quiet. Finishing the last bite, I considered licking my plate, but somehow knew Mom wouldn’t like that. It was hard being eight years old, the youngest of a large family.

Earlier in the week Mom had said, “It’s my brother Bushwa’s birthday on Sunday. I’ll make sure he and Augie come for dinner. They don’t know that our sister Tressie and Art will be here, too. I’m going to make a very special meal with a birthday cake for dessert.”

Excited, I thought about what Mom had said. Bushwa and Augie were bachelor uncles who dropped by for weekly visits and a meal. Tressie was my aunt whom I loved. Art was her husband. I was a little afraid of him. He had white hair and a florid face, especially when he talked politics. They lived in far northern Wisconsin, so we didn’t see them often.

The grown-ups were quiet, too, while polishing off their chicken, potatoes and green beans. Now, with their hunger sated, they relaxed and began to talk. Mom poured lovely, fragrant-smelling cups of coffee for them. Then she went to the kitchen counter to cut the cake.

I knew that one of our saucers had a crack. Whenever Mom needed to use it, she made sure it was always hers. Mom once complained that the first serving from a pan sometimes crumbled. That too, was always hers. When everyone had cake, she sat back down at the table. I glanced at her cake plate. Just as I expected. She had the cracked saucer and a slightly crumbled serving of cake.

My taste for sweets was endless, but I didn’t care for cake. As I ate the frosting off my piece, I wondered, “Why do people bother to make cake? It isn’t as sweet and good as cookies or candy…blech!”

Aunt Tressie said, “Agnes, your delicious dinner must have filled Kathy. She isn’t eating her cake.” I wrinkled my nose, but didn’t say anything.

My mother loved to make a big deal over making birthday cakes for me and my brothers and sisters. She would put the cake on a tall wooden plant stand, light the candles and then take a picture of the birthday child standing or sitting on a chair behind it.

As I entered my teens, I know Mom continued to make birthday cakes for me, but I don’t remember them. My birthday comes two days after Christmas Day. By my way of thinking, it was a waste of time to make a birthday cake for anyone at that time of the year. Between Christmas Day and Little Christmas on January sixth, I was on a sugar-induced high from gorging on malted milk balls, chocolate covered peanuts, fudge, bridge mix and butter finger bites that Mom provided in the name of Santa. Who wants crumbly, boring cake, when there are malted milk balls around?

As an adult, I gained considerable affection for cake, but I still never bothered to make one for my birthday, much to the dismay of my children. I told them, “It’s too close to Christmas. I’m ok with not having a cake.”

In the last two years, I have given up eating food made with sugar, eliminating both malted milk balls and cake from my diet. At first I felt sad. But then I discovered that when you avoid sweets, it doesn’t take much to satisfy a craving. This voluntary dietary change helped me to realize what I really want each year for my birthday. I want my family to affectionately make a fuss over me. Feeling loved is far sweeter than any cake or candy!


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