How I’m using my mom’s recipe of sweetness amid tragedy to spark joy with my son

Life brings us back, so often, to where we start. Like rocket ships orbiting the earth. Or a virus traversing the globe.

Mom + son playing

"Sit still so the cones stay steady," my mom said, driving our Buick Skylark through our quiet suburban Cleveland town.

It's a crisp, sunny day in January. I'm clutching two dozen birthday treats balancing precariously on my lap on the way to afternoon kindergarten. Cake cones are nestled inside a box MacGyvered by my mom: holes painstakingly cut out for each cone, tin foil covering every square inch. The cones are a trompe l'oeil–filled with vanilla cake and bursting with strawberry frosting and sprinkles to resemble an ice cream cone.

It was the greatest birthday treat I'd seen in my half dozen years on Earth. I was fiercely proud to show it to my new friends in my new town. The box glistened in the sun, like the space shuttle that had just fallen from the sky.

It was Jan. 28, 1986. The day the Challenger exploded.

I didn't know it yet. My classmates didn't either. And my mom called my teacher to make sure it stayed that way. "Let Emily have her party, please," my mom asked before bringing me and the treats in for our half-day class. Schools everywhere were thrilled at the prospect of the Challenger launch. We all knew a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, was on that flight. She would have been the first teacher in space.

Decades later, my memories of that day are of the sunny, cloudless blue sky, that shiny box and those absurdly tasty treats – which my mom never made again because she later told me, they were too much work. I didn't comprehend the sadness that the Challenger represented, and I'm thankful.

And now I'm using that recipe to make a memory for my son. He doesn't comprehend the sadness of the pandemic, the death and isolation, the absurdity of online kindergarten or the angst flowing through our country. But I do.


So when I realized his half-birthday would fall during our two-week quarantine from his learning pod after a COVID-19 scare, I knew exactly how to celebrate. Not that we normally would mark a half-birthday, but in the pandemic, we accept all moments of joy.

For days we talked about the treat. He even yelled to strangers we saw on our walks in suburban New Jersey that his half-birthday was coming and he'd be making cake…but in an ice cream cone! With blue frosting!

On the big day, his voice was jubilant and proud: "I'm 5 and a half!" were the first words out of his mouth that morning.

All day we kept him happy, busy and at bay. He had online kindergarten. I had work calls and deadlines to meet. His father had work calls, too. I sent the two of them out for a Happy Meal drive-thru at lunch while I worked some more. We traded him – our only child–back and forth, like we've been doing on and off since life got weird in March.

Late afternoon my husband texted from his office in the attic, asking me when I'd start cooking.

"You better let him do the frosting. He's been talking about it all day," he wrote.

Living our lives in between deadlines and calls, I spotted a break on my calendar. It was go time.

"Send him down in 30 minutes," I texted back from my first-floor office.

These days, with all the time in the world and no time at all, I would be making nothing from scratch. Planning counts for everything when there are no more casual trips to the grocery store. Over the weekend I had scouted out a box of vanilla bean cake mix in our pantry. Check. So I added a tub of creamy blue frosting and cake cones into my Target order and hoped for the best.

I had also looked online at recipes and hacks–meaning to ask my mom her secrets but never getting around to it, like so many other things these days.

So I loosely formulated my own plan. I knew the cake and cone had to be in the oven together – you can't bake a cake, cut it up and put it into the cones. The two must go into the oven together.

My first attempt was a delicious disaster. Somewhere on the Internet, it said to proceed like you're cooking cupcakes, but stick the cones on top and then the two will coalesce when baked together. That seemed like a solid approach, I reasoned, so why not add some more cake mix into the cone before turning it upside down? I made only three, saving most of the cake batter in case things went awry.

They did.

I took a peek in the oven after 10 minutes, and it looked like a vanilla Mt. Vesuvius had erupted.

With my newly minted 5 and a half year old likely to bound down the stairs in 15 minutes, I acted quickly. The first attempt taught me the cones must bake standing up. (My mom would later tell me this is why she made them only one time. "Too hard to do," she said.)

But I didn't know that yet. I figured how tough could it be to keep a cake-filled cone balanced in the oven? A loaf pan not yet put away from the never-ending cycle of dishes caught my eye.

Bingo.

I ladled more batter into the cones, careful not to overflow. Three fit perfectly in the loaf pan, standing up but not touching. Like the six-year-old me who held steady to her treats that day, I carefully put the cones back into the oven. It now smelled heavenly from the cake eruption that was my first attempt. On went the timer, off went my work email.

And then I crunched into an empty cake cone. Not a bad carb to stress eat, I told myself.

Off went the buzzer. Down barreled the child. "Let's frost in 20 minutes," I texted up to my husband. Thumbs up, he replied.

The cones were perfect. A little batter had spilled out, but nothing that extra frosting couldn't cover up.

"Let them cool," I told my son, shooing him away so I could work some more – something he's unfortunately all too used to these days.

He practiced his sword moves until the 20 minutes were up.

Cake cones cooled, we tore into the blue frosting. Each with our own knife, and yes, each double (or triple) dipping.

"What's this?" my husband asks, as he sees a silver foil coating underneath the frosting lid. Ah, sprinkles, I say. My how the products have developed over the decades. That's when I see the name on the package: "Galaxy Space Blue." The sprinkles are silver space shuttles and yellow stars.

I take a bite into the still-warm treat and blast off through time and space, to that day I turned six and the nation mourned.

Life brings us back, so often, to where we start. Like rocket ships orbiting the earth. Or a virus traversing the globe.

"Happy half-birthday," we cheered as we took selfies to send to faraway grandparents.

"Just like my sixth birthday treat! Remember?" I text my mom in Ohio.

Of course, she does.

That little girl, who didn't know the tragedy before her, is making a joyful memory for her son, who doesn't know the tragedy before him. May he look back on this time–all of it–and smile.

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