The One Cake Rule

Okay, I'm going to go ahead and say what may sound entirely self-serving. Know what's really keeping the whole herd of clatter-trapping humanity slouching toward anything that might resemble progress?


That's right, it's those of us who've settled into the less glamorous, non-starring roles as backup singers, largely unsung, as no one, in fact, is accorded less value in this youth-worshipping world of ours than any woman trending toward anything that might be considered old.

And sociologists agree with me, crediting what they call "The Grandmother Effect" with the beneficial halo surrounding an often explosive family dynamic. We offer not only the long view but the calming sense that we all share things, particularly children, as we've had kids and not only get them, we also get what's important, which is that kids are kept safe, well fed and feeling secure.

Spanish has a term - las commadres -- for women bonded by the grandchildren they share. All the cooperating grandparents taken together are los compadres, shortened to los compas. The moderating effect of having grandmothers around, sociologists tell us, comes from their imparting what's called "social wisdom."

So las commadres rock, and I -- as their self-appointed spokes-model -- am here to dispense the following wisdom: Since it will take for-effing-ever to raise a human child to responsible adulthood, the first steps are for everyone to suck it up, get over him or herself, and begin to get along.

What the Grandmother Effect has produced in our own complex and self-elaborating family is what's called "The One Cake Rule," necessitated by the fact that our three hometown grandchildren have nine active grandparents. It's through the interweave of divorce and remarriage we've arrived at four granddads and five grand-meres, including two women, together for almost a quarter century, who recently married.

Simply stated The One Cake Rule goes like this: you have a birthday, you get one cake, everyone's invited to have a piece of it, never mind that two of them might have once wanted to kill each other.

The social wisdom of las commadres states, one cake, one party, everyone's invited, be they step or half or full, and no matter that your old wife's standing next to your new one at the sink, they aren't actually talking about you.

So it is with birthdays in our kinship system, so too the holidays, that all y'all're invited. So too when you graduate or you publish a book, as I've just done. You get one book party and mine's today, Mother's Day. All eight of my fellow compadres are invited, many of them will come. My new book, The Wrong Dog Dream, is about all these intertwining relationships and they may be wondering what I've said about them.

As los compas we've now worked through not only our own divorces but the marriages of our older kids, also the deaths of parents, and there's nothing like a funeral to place petty woes in scale. So what that So-and-So ran off with that guy in the tight white jeans? or that your ex, out of spite, kept the A-L of your Oxford Two-Volume Dictionary? by now it's all water under the Bridge Over the River of a Thousand Sorrows.

When my current husband and I were Back East, living 3000 miles away from Berkeley, it was Jack's former wife Victoria who stepped up to become the primary overseer of the end-of-life care his parents required. It felt natural to her, she says, as she'd known these two people since she was fourteen years old and still called them Mom and Dad.

Another benefit? in learning to put our energies toward what resembles a cohesive family we've stopped making our kids endure yet another of the endless series of holiday dinners at which they must fake being hungry.

No one was better than John Updike at writing about how the heartbreak of a marriage going under will change the flavor and texture of food, lobster and champagne turning salty with tears no one at the table can see, as the man in the story is leaving his unknowing wife for their neighbor down the street, making this the last birthday they will all ever get to spend together!

What we've learned in our practice of accord? that all this happened so long ago it's now a struggle to remember. Also that the most basic work we do as a family is to try to be considerate.

And so what that everyone all down the long table isn't exactly your cup of tea? that So-and-So's so boring your eyes roll back? that that one specific compadre right over there is actually odd, even clinically?

Because over time don't we all grow to kinda like the Funny Uncle for being exactly as he is, and how by now generations of women and girls have been united by our wiping his sloppy kisses off our buttoned-up mouths, as what's a family for if not providing us with all this great, rich comic material?