Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Everything I ever needed to learn about birthdays, I learned from my mother. She had a gift for making our celebrations unique, and there was something we knew for sure: our mother was happy we were born. I wish every child had that same gift. I meet children every day who have not been given that belief...and I fear they will spend their lives trying to find out if their existence matters to any one or anyone. Perhaps this is why my brothers and I each have tender hearts for children...we treasure what we were given.
The first birthday party I can remember happened when I turned 5. We were moving to Okinawa, and spent a few days at my uncle's house in California before taking a bus to Seattle and then a long flight through Alaska and on to Japan. My uncle was one of Merrill's Marauders, and had suffered through the Bataan Death March. He had the courage of a giant even though malaria left him nearly crippled. He lived in a little trailer park, and we stayed with him until our father sent for us from Okinawa. My mom said I could invite some of the kids in the trailer park, so I invited every single one. She was flabbergasted when 30 children showed up, and somehow she made that little pink cake stretch to feed the gang I'd invited. That was perhaps my first experience with loaves and fishes! My mom was a talented seamstress, and made all of my clothes. On my 7th birthday, she sewed my bedspread, dust ruffle, vanity and stool skirt, etc. out of pink dotted swiss cotton, and I was awash in girlhood. She believed in homemade parties, homemade cakes, homemade lemonade, homemade games...she coached us through pin the tail on the donkey and musical chairs. I remember her proud, happy smile when we managed to blow out each candle, making each secret wish. I'm afraid in our Chuck E. Cheese world, today's little birthday girl might be unimpressed with my mom's parties, but she made each of us the center of attention on our special day. As my children came into the world, I tried to follow my mother's footsteps. We didn't always have a big budget, but it was not about the presents, it was about the presence of people who loved and adored you, and were happy to celebrate your birth.
My mom told me she remembered only one of her birthdays. She hadn't seen her father for many years after her parent's divorce, and he showed up in Minneapolis with a little yellow dress and matching overcoat. The father she'd lost remembered little Ginny's birthday that year, but he stayed only long enough to give his gift. It was the last time she ever saw him.
A few days ago I came across the last birthday card my mother gave to me, three weeks before she died. I used to do her shopping for her, which included a trip to the store for birthday cards as she was strictly a Hallmark girl. She used a little flowered notecard for my birthday and wrote: "Dear Rob, I couldn't make it to Hallmark to pick out your card this year, but I want you to know that I could not be more proud of the woman you are today. We have become more than mothers and daughters, we are best friends. I love you 60,000,000 ways. Use this check to buy yourself something special--and you're not allowed to buy milk or eggs. Love, Mom"
Last weekend I went to Houston to help Avery celebrate her 9th birthday. Christi's got my mom's knack for creating special occasions. Avery had requested monster fingers for dinner, so after the Children's Museum, we picked up a couple dozen crab claws and steamed them up for supper. She'd requested an ice cream cake, so we had that ready for her, all 9 candles reminding me of the generosity of this life I've grown to love as a grandmother. I carried on our little tradition, buying a new charm for the silver bracelet I started for Avery a couple of years ago. Each of us made her the center of our attention...surrounding her with the love and laughter she so deserves. My mom's legacy is with us...I hear her voice in my head and my heart as I celebrate the blessings of grandchildren. I watch our little birthday girl fill her cheeks with one big breath, eager to extinguish all 9 candles in one attempt. Her eyes are sparkling, dancing, as she giggles and laughs with all of us. Watching my little birthday girl makes my heart ache for my mom, but I'm grateful, ever so grateful, for a mother who loved me so well.