Some birthdays rot.
Really. When our family members can actually treat them like ordinary days. As if they have forgotten, despite our foibles, our crappy moods and possibly odd habits of collecting odd socks in wicker baskets, that they are super blessed by our earthly presence.
This year, we were all snowed in on my birthday. No school. Even Daddy couldn’t get to work.
For some reason I’d slept late. Hubby nodded at me over his coffee. His laptop screen beckoned.
“It’s my birthday,” I said.
He got up then to kiss me, as if I’d reminded him of an appointment. “I know. Happy birthday!”
Big Bro in his football footy pajamas, was already on his computer playing Minecraft, with earbuds in.
I took out an earbud and screeched in his ear: “It’s my birthday.”
“Oh! Happy Birthday Mommy!”
He put back in his ear bud.
Little Bro was the only one to wish me a Happy Birthday without prodding – which only reminded him that his own birthday is coming up “soon” (April for goodness sakes) and started telling me what kind of cake he would like, and what tiny little Brick Lego machine guns he wants me to order for him on Amazon, there’s a whole “packet” and it’s only fifteen bucks or something. . . .
Then came my presents!
Daddy is usually superb when it comes to gifts. He will even pay Macy’s to wrap them.
Not this year. No fancy gold lacy bows. And in an unfancy Macy’s box, a fourth pair of black pants – he’d just given me my third pair at Christmas.
“I already have black pants.”
He told me there’s something different about these, I don’t remember what.
In another Macy’s box: A matronly button-down plaid shirt. One whose red sales sticker he’d failed to entirely scrape off.
And the boys. They flapped handmade cards in my face; I love when my children make me cards. But not these, pencil greetings scribbled on construction paper maybe about ten minutes prior to this flapping presentation. Big Bro’s penciled scribbled sarcasm made my teeth ache: “You’re 20!!!” (Most days leading up to my birthday he had liked to remind me that I no longer will be 50.)
So it was time to throw a tantrum, and I did. “It’s my birthday!”
I reminded my boys of all the effort I put into their birthdays, the special home parties I throw and treasure hunts, and all the $$$ we spend on their electronic toys… and as for you Daddy, why didn’t you get on their case? And at 51, am I too old for a blouse that doesn’t button up to my chin??
I achieved the effect I was looking for: I humbled all the boys, large and little, in my family. Even the boy dog who didn’t need humbling, slunk under the table.
“My birthday was terrible,” I told my mother when I visited her next day. I was whining like a little girl who didn’t even get to play musical chairs at her birthday party.
And my mother felt terrible that my birthday was terrible as only a mother can. “Oh that’s terrible!” But then she brightened. “Well, Christine has a surprise for you.”
Christine? Her aide?
She leaned in to whisper to me. “She’s very excited about it. You have to know how excited she is. She made you a cake. Did you know she bakes? She’s even been to baking school.”
My mother is truly one of the most generous hearted people I’ve ever known. And for the first time, she seemed able to look past her resentment of this stranger now living in her house. Past her frustration in having to face up to the fact that she must now have someone help her to dress and bathe and wash all her sheets when she spills an entire mug of morning coffee – or a full gallon of liquid detergent when she can still insist on doing her own laundry. She was able to look past these cold facts to the one about her aide being an individual with feelings; one deserving of appreciation and admiration for her thoughtful baking efforts.
Her aide was indeed very proud of the cake, having had to “improvise” without her usual baking “tools,” shaping the flower petals with icing squeezed from a plastic sandwich bag, and edging the cake with the ridges of a paper towel.
The cake was truly impressive, and I shouldn’t have been surprised that this bright woman would have dreams beyond quelling frustrated elderly who might slam their bedroom doors in her face or insist on doing their own laundry so she gets to mop up gallons of slippery detergent.
So my mother and her live-in aide had made a “party” of it. Together. My mother had remembered one of her favorite tablecloths from when she was still able to entertain, one I’d forgotten about, but that she thought matched the cake, with its oranges and yellows:
And the three of us sat down together to eat the cake. Congenially. In peace. A peace that has been hard to achieve since my mother has had to adjust to this very difficult phase in her life, one of slow but steady deterioration and utter loss of independence.
My mother’s short term memory is . . . short. But not it seems, when it comes to those things that matter – like the fact that this woman who takes such good care of her, whether my mother wants to be taken care of or not, went to the trouble to make her daughter’s birthday more special than it would have been.
My mother remembered the cake for days afterwards. And that was the best present to me; to have my mother back. Oriented – right there for me, her daughter, as these days, most days, I must be the one there for her.
As to my boys: they learned a valuable lesson, that they are not privileged. As blessed as we most certainly are by their presence, they are no more or less deserving than anyone else on this precious earth. So Daddy took them out to pick out plants, balloons and cards for Momma, deeply heartfelt apologetic ones:
Daddy and I wound up having a nice dinner date, and he gave me a Pandora gift card, along with the gift receipts so I can go back and exchange the matronly for the more revealing. After all. I’m only 20 (smiley face here).