My family loves to celebrate birthdays.
It doesn’t matter your age, if you are a member of this family, we will put something together to celebrate your birthday. It may not be on the same day as your birthday, and sometimes we combine two of them together, but it’s just what we do.
In my youth, when my mother was hosting the get-together, she’d always ask my brother and me what type of cake (chocolate with chocolate icing for me) or special dinner (any kind of pasta and sauce) we would want on our birthday. It’s a courtesy every birthday recipient gets, no matter how many previous birthdays they’ve had.
But for a long time, my cake always came adorned with a special topping. A small set of ceramic trains that held birthday candles.
Growing up in the East New York section of Brooklyn as a kid, I was always enamored with trains. I was born across the street from one of the MTA’s many train yards, and we later moved closer to where the 1-2-3 trains terminated at the raised trestle on New Lot’s Avenue. Even in Massapequa, we live just 300 yards from the LIRR’s Babylon Branch tracks.
When my brother and I were toddlers, my father would sometimes bring us little toys when he returned from work. He loved to see us smile when he came home, but there was something special about when he brought us a little toy.
One time, he came home with a mysterious box containing a set of small ceramic trains that had holes in the top for birthday candles. As my birthday was soon approaching, I couldn’t wait to see them on my cake all lit up.
My mother would take extra care to preserve the colorful trains for my birthday cake year after year. As I grew into an adult, I guess I forgot all about the trains, and I thought they might have just been lost.
During my birthday a few years ago, I asked my mother whatever happened to those trains? My brother remembered seeing them down behind the bar that my father had built in the basement of my mother’s house. He went to retrieve them (my mother lives next door) and returned with a little white box marked “Birthday Train Candles” in my father’s handwriting.
What was originally a six-car train was reduced to just four. Somehow, we had lost the engine and the coal car behind it. The remaining train cars, including the red caboose, were held together with little twisty ties from a loaf of bread. These trains were now more than 50 years old, but they still brought a smile to everyone’s face.
For my brother’s birthday this year, he requested my mother make him a chocolate pudding cake but also wanted the Birthday Candle trains that had always been reserved for my cake. After blowing out the train candles for the first time on his cake, he delicately removed the cars from the cake to clean them. Then, like a jeweler repairing a priceless watch, he carefully replaced the decrepit twisty ties with more sturdy wires. He placed a small cushion into the little white box and positioned the trains back in their place, where they would stay until the next birthday. He took great care to preserve this priceless family heirloom.
We never really knew where my father got those trains, but maybe we don’t need to know. These trains have lasted way longer than anyone ever could have hoped for, warts and all. They can never be replaced, only cherished.
Except, of course, if you look them up on the Internet, where we found the exact set, complete with engine and coal car, available on eBay and other sites for about $15. But they don’t come pre-coated with the memories of past birthday cakes.
Paul DiSclafani, a Massapequa resident, is a 2018 Press Club of Long Island award-winning columnist and an Anton Media Group contributor since 2016.