Two cakes sit on the counter. One, from the Dairy Queen, is mostly chocolate and vanilla ice cream with a cookie crumble layer. The other, from Grandma’s house, is a chocolate cake covered in lavender frosting—not quite what we were expecting.
This is just the way the color turned out, Grandma tells us, showing us the royal blue napkin with primary colors she tried to match. Both have the words “Happy Birthday” written in frosting.
Tonight, we are celebrating two birthdays three days apart. My stepsons have asked for separate parties; we’ve convinced them to start together with dinner for friends and family. Later, the grandparents will leave, and the boys and their friends will divide into two groups for sleepovers.
My husband still smells like charred meat from his extended grill duty as we gather twelve pubescent boys amid parents and step-parents, grandparents, step-grandparents, and uncles. We can’t even imagine what this family tree would look like sketched out on paper, so we just circle the table, the smell of boys and meat and purple frosting thick in the air.
The boys’ mom asks for a lighter as she sticks candles into the cake. She assumes we have one, likely even knows where we keep it, because the house where we are gathered, the house I share with my husband and stepsons, used to be her house, the house she lived in with this same man and these same boys. She respects that it’s my role to produce a lighter in this space now. We understand each other, even though it takes work to parent like this.
She puts the candles in, and I light them. I hand her the cake, and she starts the singing. I snap pictures. I insert and light the candles on the second cake, and we repeat. These are her boys, so she should hold the cake, be in the picture. But these are my boys, too, now, so I light the candles and host the party. That’s how we share them, how we work together to raise them.
Later, one group of boys leaves to go to her house for the night; the other group of boys comes in from playing basketball, and we help them with soda and candy bars and individual bags of chips and cookies.
“This is like heaven,” one of the friends says to me as he pours Mountain Dew in the travel mug he brought from home.
We pull down the paper streamer that came unwound and put the baked beans and sliced tomatoes in the refrigerator. I hold my breath as my husband rearranges the furniture for optimal video gaming. My mom, who is here for the party and is staying overnight, helps me stack up blankets for the sleepover. Mostly she is here to support me and to try to find her own place in this new family we have created. I’ve been a stepmom for eighteen months or so; birthdays and holidays are the hardest.
Just before we head to bed, my husband lays down the ground rules about no soda in the living room and staying in the house now that it’s dark. I know that at least one boy will break at least one rule; I’m hoping it’s the soda. The carpet needs to be cleaned anyway.
“Goodnight,” we call out as we walk upstairs. The boys barely respond, already engrossed in the NBA2K game they are playing on Xbox.
As I change into pajamas, I think of my stepdad, who died just a few months ago. My mom missed the boys’ party last year because she couldn’t leave him alone, weakened as he was by the cancer. My stepdad and I were very different. When I was young, we struggled to get along. But recently, especially as a step-parent myself now, I understand him more. I recognize all the ways he sacrificed for me. I realize how very difficult it is to love someone else’s children as your own.
More than half the Dairy Queen ice cream cake still sits in our freezer. The rest of the purple cake went with the boys to their mom’s house that night, when the one party became two. Two cakes really were too much; we realized that at the party. But now that it’s Tuesday, and we are back to our schedules and our joint custody and our boys switching between two houses, two cakes seems just about right.
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