06 July 2012

Accented Birthday Cake

Welcome back. Earlier, I pointed to a photograph of my grandmother and her outsized hat. Raised in Eastern Europe or possibly the Russian Empire, she could get by in a handful of languages. I don’t know about the other languages, but her English was heavily accented, which fit in just fine when and where I grew up in Upstate New York.
Warren’s grandparents, 1946.
Many grandparents and more than a few parents were first generation immigrants. At that time, I think the most recent immigrants were Eastern European and Italian. The early waves of Dutch and English, followed by Irish and those who mostly headed to the Midwest U.S., had already settled in. While nearly all of the immigrants passed through New York City, a large number of French Canadians came directly from Quebec to northern New York and New England.
Warren’s mother and grandmother,
New York City, early 1900s.

Proverbial Melting Pot 

The fellows who worked in my father’s store at different times were all 2nd generation--Polish, Irish, Italian.

If I were helping out in my father’s store, for lunch, I might cross the side street to enter the back door of a small food market. There, the owner would prepare some sort of sandwich for me and make up a price. He’d speak a mix of English and Italian to me and Italian to himself or a helper.

Or I might walk around the block to a diner, owned and staffed by a school classmate’s family. Whether cooking or handling the counter or few tables, the parents would speak English with patrons, Greek to each other and both languages with their children.

Where we lived, the house on one side was expanded to accommodate a small convenience store. The owners, French Canadian, would switch smoothly between French and English. In the house on the other side lived a young family on the first floor and the wife’s parents, who emigrated from the Ukraine, upstairs. Oh, the wife’s husband was Irish, at least 2nd generation. And so forth throughout the neighborhood.

Although I haven’t been back in almost half a century (wow!), I suspect the city hasn’t changed much as far as its melting pot goes even if the countries of immigrant origin have changed.

Anyway, I’ve strayed too far from my grandmother and her accent.

What’s in a Name?

It was my birthday. I was old enough that there was no need to go overboard celebrating, but my mother wanted to have a birthday cake. When she found herself too busy in the store to go home and bake, she asked my grandmother to pick out a cake and have it decorated at the bakery.

After dinner that evening, my mother began preparing for a birthday dessert. She found her supply of birthday candles and matches, set out her serving knife and dessert plates, took a scissors from the counter drawer, cut the string on the cake box, opened the lid, looked inside and…laughed.

“Warren," she called, "come here and look at your birthday cake.” We all crowded around. Filling the square white box was a round cake with white frosting, blue icing and red letters that wished Happy Birthday Vaughn!

Wrap Up

Of all the birthday cakes I’ve been honored to receive, the cake my grandmother bought is the only one I’ll never forget. And it was delicious.

Thanks for stopping by. Stop by again on Tuesday. I’m serving cake in the photo addendum.


A version of this post appeared on the grandparent stage of the Stage of Life website (www.stageoflife.com), 23 May 2012. I encourage you to visit this website, check out the writing on the various stages (high school to retired/empty nest) and even contribute. Registration is free.

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