That's a pretty amazing cake, isn't it? My best friend, Eilish, turns 30 today. But no, I didn't make it for her. She made it for me.
Two weeks ago, she packed up her car with her three kids, their mini-suitcases and their sleeping bags and drove the three hours down from the city to come for a sleepover visit and to bring me a belated birthday cake. It was worth the four month wait. In fact, I'd give up eating cake altogether for four months just to get my hands on one of her cakes. You see, Eilish is a goddess of cake making. In the last three years, she has made literally dozens of unique and incredibly creations. But I'll get to that in a little while. First of all I want to go back in time. Right back to as far as my memory will take me; to 1986.
The first time I saw Eilish was on a Sunday morning in the summer of 1986. I know it must have been a Sunday because we were outside church and I know it must have been 1986 because that was the same year we did the church musical and I know it must have been summer because we were both wearing shorts and sandals and little summer tops. Her family had just moved up from the country, all nine of them - mum, dad and seven kids. She was the second youngest at the time. In the days when it was still legal to travel in the back of a ute, they turned up to church en masse, mum and dad in the front with the baby, the other six all piled in the back.
As they all piled out, I stood there open mouthed, wondering who these people were and wishing that I had as many siblings as that to play with. Afterwards, standing outside the church, we noticed each other: we were both wearing the same identical outfit: the same pink summer top, the same pink sandals, the same pink and white spotty shorts. And we stared at each other the way a small child will stare when she recognises another child the same size as she is. And recognising that we were dressed exactly the same, we smiled at each other as if we already shared some sort of bond, a secret between us that no-one else could share.
Two years later, her family bought the block of land across the road from my house and began to build what to me seemed like a palace - a home for nine people. Sometimes I have wondered how different my childhood might have been if they had not come to be our neighbours. It is not a thought I enjoy because, in doing so, there began an incredible friendship. With the hindsight of many years, can I look back and recognise what a wonderful childhood we had growing up together. We were not exactly girly girls and we spent the best part of the next decade barefoot, up trees, climbing all over the roof, swinging of her mum's clothesline until it broke, playing cricket with a tennis ball in the middle of the road with her brothers and giving each other dinkies to the shop to buy lollies.
Hardly any photos exist of us together during that time in our lives. Parents didn't take as many photos back in those days and we were having too much fun anyway to ever stop still for long enough to have our photo taken. This one here was taken at my eighth birthday party, me on the left, Eilish on the right. The day after it was taken, her mum gave birth to her ninth (and last) child.
Despite having a house packed full of children, her mum never seemed to mind having extra children over to stay and I spent thousands of hours playing at her house. Sometimes, we just couldn't see enough of each other even after playing all day and we would beg our mums to let us have sleepovers. We sometimes had these in her basement and sometimes in the caravan at the back of my parent's block. We made the most of these sleepovers when we were allowed them: we'd stay up until we were so tired our eyes felt like they were about to fall out of our heads and ate midnight feasts that we'd stashed away in our pillow cases.
About a year before the photo below was taken, we made a time capsule. We each got a piece of paper and a pen and wrote down what we were going to become when we grew up: Eilish wrote that she wanted to own a bakery or become a teacher. I wrote I wanted to be a doctor or an actress. Then we wrote that we promised we would definitely never get married before the age of 21 (a promise we both broke) and that we would definitely always be friends forever (a promise we both kept).
We folded up the pieces of paper and put them in a glass jar and buried it underneath the rubble that was at the back of Eilish's house. I can't remember when we said we would open it. Actually, we pretty much forgot about it. Adolescence is a busy time and you rarely step back to look over your shoulder during those years. Our friendship remained just as strong throughout high school and although we eventually stopped climbing all over the roof and swinging on her mum's clothesline, we spent hours and hours just talking to each other, about everything and nothing. Like two old ladies, we'd make ourselves cups of tea and imitate the way we had overheard adult women gossiping kindly about each other. "Is she's coping??" we'd ask each other with mock looks of concern on our faces, nodding our heads, sometimes to pretend we were adults with serious issues in our lives and sometimes just to make fun of adults and how serious they always seemed to be.
Several years later, her dad had a swimming pool built over the spot where we had buried the time capsule. Then another few years passed and one day over summer when we were both home in Perth for the Christmas holidays with our families, Eilish asked me over to her childhood home for a swim. By that time, she had two kids and I had one and while all five of us were splashing around together, I suddenly realised that we were swimming around on top of that time capsule and we talked about what we had written and laughed about how things don't always turn out how you plan.
There are so many reasons why I liked Eilish so much when I was little and why I love her still today: she was gentle and patient and hated to ever see anyone being left out. I grew up in a house without a TV and was therefore quite naïve when it came to popular culture. If I asked anyone else at school who some celebrity was, or what some TV show was like or what some particular risqué word might mean, they would tease me for asking such a stupid question. Eilish would just tell me the answer and never once made me feel stupid for asking.
But what I admired most about her was how brave she was. When she was just seven years old, for example, she climbed to the very top of the Gloucester Tree. For those of you who are not from Western Australia, allow me to fill you in here: it is one great big mamma of a tree. The second tallest fire lookout in the world, it stands in a karri forest in Pemberton, in the south-west of Western Australia. Different sources give varied indications of how tall it is, but its official height is 61m (200 feet).
I saw and climbed this tree for the first time when I was 21. The only thing that kept me going all the way to very top was knowing that my best friend had done it when she was half my height and a third of my age. I've seen grown men climb about ten metres up then change their minds and come back down. It's scary.
I have many other stories to illustrate how brave Eilish was and is, but I must definitely include this one so I can share the photographic evidence! When we were 17, just after our final high school exams, Eilish shaved her head. Now that's a pretty darn brave thing for anyone to do at any age, if you ask me, but at 17 it's almost unheard of. I was there with her to capture the moment:
Even without her hair she was still as gorgeous as ever.
Some people become brave through the experiences they encounter but I believe others are just born that way. I think God made Eilish that way because he knew she was going to have to be brave to overcome the hardships that life had in store for her: she became a mother for the first time when still a teenager and two years later, she suffered the tragic loss of her own beautiful mother.
Three years ago, her husband was sent to Afghanistan on his second tour of duty with the Australian army. By then, Eilish had three children and was left alone for more than half a year to look after them. A challenge as great as this would be stressful for anyone. Add the fact that she no longer had her mum around for support and you could understand any woman in that situation crumbling under the pressure. But instead, Eilish decided that to make the time go past faster, she would enrol in a cake decorating class with the goal of being able to make a cake for her second youngest sister's 21st birthday. In just a couple of months, I'm pretty sure you'll agree she went above and beyond what anyone, even herself, could have expected. This was the result of her endeavour:
Requests came in for every kind of cake you can imagine and she made them all in her own kitchen in the spare hours she could find while being a full-time mum (often meaning she would stay up to 4 in the morning baking, icing and decorating to get a job done). Orders even started to come in for wedding cakes and she made some exquisite classic ones:
and some very original ones too!
The variety of requests people made for different cakes extended her imagination and creativity enormously and she found a depth to her artist ability she never knew she had. Take a look at this for example:
In three short years, Eilish brought so much joy to so many people through her edible art. Once, an old school friend of ours who migrated to Australia from India when she was 15 and now lives on the other side of the world in Boston, contacted her over facebook to ask her to make a surprise birthday cake for her mum because she couldn't be there to celebrate with her. Eilish turned up at the lady's house at 8am while the girl's mother was getting ready to go to work. It was the first time she had ever met her. Eilish told me that this will always be one of her favourite cakes because our old school friend's mum was so ecstatically happy that her daughter had organised this surpirse.
And while we were talking and eating cake, she told me that she's had enough of making cakes now and is just going to make them for family and friends from now on (although with 8 brothers and sisters, plus nieces, nephews, in-laws and many, many friends, I think that will keep her more than busy!). Then she told me she's moving onto her next challenge; she's enrolled at university this semester to start studying towards a Bachelor of Arts. After that, she plans to do a Graduate Diploma in Education and become a high school teacher.
I couldn't help thinking back to the time capsule. Maybe she didn't quite own a bakery, but she did an awful lot of incredible baking and brought an incredible amount of joy to so many people in doing so. And now she's going to fulfill the other goal she wrote on the list. It's funny how things sometimes do turn out the way you planned.
As for me? Well, I once played a very clumsy ballerina with disillusions of grandeur in a staff play at the first high school I taught at, but that's a close to being an actress as I ever got. And as far as becoming a doctor is concerned, let's just say that nothing even remotely close to that ever happened. I do know a very good home remedy for warts though!
As we licked our lips and our fingers and mutually decided that we'd better stop eating cake or we might actually explode, I asked her "what are your favourite cakes out of all the ones you've made?"
"My favourite cakes", she answered without hesitation, "are the ones I made for people I love".
So here are some of those:
(a chessboard cake for her son)
(a First Communion cake for her daughter)
(a juicy steak for her hubby)
(and a magnificent birthday cake for her nonna) Rest in Peace, Mrs Russo.
And here it is again, my very own cake, complete with our private little joke from our adolescence. I know it's a joke and it doesn't need answering, but yes, I am coping ... I'm coping because I have beautiful people in my life, people like Eilish.
So now, Eilish, I want to wish you the happiest, happiest birthday you have ever had in your life.
I can't make you a cake for your special day, I can't see you to give you the enormous hug I want to give you and I can't give you any gift that could possibly symbolise how much your friendship means to me, how much it has always meant. But I can leave you with these words:
I am a better person for having known you. Thank you for your friendship.