a while back, i posted an article on the amateur gourmet community blog about family and food - specifically, family food photos. i have, for a while now, been very slowly scanning my family's photos (when i'm not scanning my parents' books) to create an archive. sadly, what i've scanned so far is a bit of an organizational nightmare. i'm half-way seriously considering taking some of my 200+ vacation and sick leave time off just to organize my photos and ebooks.
however, just because i can't get my virtual act together doesn't mean i can't share with you what i think may possibly be my family's most ubiquitous family and food shot — the birthday cake photo.
birthdays are interesting events in their own right: they're mildly-arbitrary milestones. essentially, we're celebrating not dying. in itself, yes, that's an awesome achievement. but couldn't (or shouldn't?) we be celebrating that every day? ("i woke up this morning — awesome! i'm not dead!") using a yearly marker, however, does cut down on over-indulging in cake and makes our on-going survival a bit more of an accomplishment.
of course, celebrating birthdays is very much a cultural and traditional act. by celebrating them, we embrace heritage and reinforce community identity. it's kind of like saying, "awesome! not only have i survived this long, but i haven't been kicked out or ostracized by my community." actually, i may actually say that, word-for-word, on my next birthday. for some people, of course, birthdays are sources of embarrassment. so rather than exclaiming "awesome!", they may mutter something along the lines of "expletive! not only have i survived this long, but i haven't been kicked out or ostracized by my community." of course, both of these sentences can be retooled to match the specific situation of the celebrant.
when it comes to celebrating and reinforcing tradition on birthdays, participation in community occurs on multiple levels. general society in america encourages the observances of birthdays. hallmark and other such commercial enterprises market birthday celebrating throughout the year. many offices and schools encourage passive celebrations (which can either be very nice or feel like forced group bonding exercises). family celebrations can be much more specific and often tend to be based off of various amounts of cultural, religious, or ethnic traditions. or not.
think of it like soup. a big vat of birthday soup. every family seasons it differently. my family generally seasons birthdays with a birthday dinner (picked by the still-alive birthday person), a birthday cake, and presents. besides those basic key elements, there's the (mildly obnoxious) "happy birthday song" which, in my family, is followed by the full version of (occasionally more obnoxious, depending on your mood) "for s/he's a jolly good fellow." for a long time, we also told the story of the birthday person's birth. (but after a awhile, when it became overwhelmingly clear the story was not going to change, we stopped doing that.) and of course, during all of this — and getting back to the original point of this post — is the birthday cake photo.
there are two key elements to the photo: the birthday person and the cake. often multiple photos are taken. in my family, there's generally one of the cake with the candles lit, one with the candles being blown out, and one after the candles are out. of course, since we match the number of candles to age, there's a dating system built in to the whole process. when we take similar photos every year, it's kind of like creating a personal checklist or timeline: 2008 — still here, check; 2009 — still here, check; 2010 —still here, check.
where these photos become truly important is when that timeline ends. when we transition from celebrating birthdays to celebrating memories of birthdays, those photos are no longer mere reminders of survival, but reminders times spent and lives lived. each cake, each awkward hairstyle, each shot documenting the ever-increasing number of candles becomes a bullet point we can use to remember whole years, lost moments, and favorite memories.
p.s. happy birthday, uncle ja — as always, you rock!!
sorry i don't have a picture of you with a birthday cake to feature.