As a kid, I loved my birthday up until I was about 8 or 9. I can’t exactly explain what happened, but I think it had to do with being old enough to realize what was going on. Like I was suddenly aware of how I was being treated.
My birthday became a day I loathed. It was always during winter break, meaning that my cupcakes at school were either before my real birthday but a week or more or at the beginning of March, which is not my birth. I do understand that summer birthdays also suffered this fate every year, but we had a big party day devoted to them the last week of school. Plus the weather was great for their actual birthdays during the summer.
The day I was born was unseasonably warm in upstate NY. A quick internet search tells me that it was actually 64F that year. In February. In the snow-belt of New York state. The story goes like this…I was overdue by two weeks. Or maybe one. There was some adjustment made to my mom’s due date that makes this a heated debate. But I was definitely overdue and my mother had to be induced. And I was facing the wrong way. And the doctor was threatening to use forceps. And a nurse helped my mom into some position “guaranteed to make baby turn.” I turned. My mom was suffering through the max dosage of pitocin for hours. I refused to come out. Eventually my mom pushed me out. I screamed and turned bright red. I haven’t shut up since…or so the story goes.
On this unseasonably warm evening after I was born, my father wandered out to a bar because fathers weren’t allowed to stay with the mothers all night in the hospital. He celebrated my birth. He stumbled home with his coat unbuttoned. And so he got the flu. This part of the story often led to my mother turning to me with “Always button your coat in the winter. Not buttoning your coat leads to the flu.”
Sure mom. It’s not germs or viruses that make us sick. It’s refusing to button our coats. Or not wearing hats and boots. Or going outside with wet hair. Or any of those dopey “I’m too cool for that” things I did in middle school.
My mother was not permitted to take me home to their house, because my father was deathly ill with the flu. His parents dropped off groceries to him and checked in on him every day, while my mother and I spent our first week together at her parents’ house. And here begins our long and complicated history of us not being all that attached to each other.
My mother’s mother was a very German woman, brought up in a very German home at a very bad time to be German in the United States. She often told me stories about being picked on for being the “little German girl in her German braids” in the post-WWI era. And so, as an adult, she tried to assimilate so no one would know she was German. But the one thing she couldn’t change was being cold at times and just doing what needed to be done. And that is the way she approached my mother that week. That, more than anything, interfered with my mom and I bonding. She was worn out from the day of labor and being in the hospital. She was very upset with my father because she didn’t have him right there with her to help. My grandmother would wake her up with me in her arms, saying “Your baby is crying. Why can’t you hear your baby? Get up.”
And this is the tale I got to relive year after year. I hated it. I hated how my mother would say she still resents my father for this experience. And even though I haven’t spent my birthday with them in years, I am sure they tell each other the story and she tells him she still resents him for getting the flu. (I have never mentioned that he possibly caught the flu from the hospital and NOT the bar, but it is very possible!)
In my extended family, my mom’s brother and his wife have early March birthdays very close together, so with that side, we celebrated their birthdays and mine at the same time…in March. As a child this felt so unfair. Why did I have to wait WEEKS to celebrate my birthday in the wrong month, while my brother sometimes got to celebrate with everyone on his actual birthday? Some of my family members used to go to Florida the week of my birthday, which is why we had to wait. Plus, they didn’t want two get-togethers so close together if it could just be one.
But it wasn’t just that side of my family. My father’s mother’s birthday was 20 days before mine and we combined celebrations the first weekend of February because her birthday was the 5th. I usually got one present from them while she had a stack. I got a small spice cake that she made that I loved and she had the huge store-bought cake. I remember the year I turned 11, I think. She was given a trip to Mexico, a fur coat, and something else and she threw a huge fit because 1. She only had three presents and 2. None were jewelry. And she stomped around so we left early. I was expected to be gracious with whatever gifts I received and if I dared to show any displeasure or lack of gratitude openly, I was whisked away to the back room of whatever house we were visiting, spanked, and told to watch my attitude and get myself together. Tearfully, I would return to celebration with whatever sentiment of gratitude I could muster after being disciplined. I remember being blown away that a GRANDPARENT would behave in such a manner. It was too much.
My parents got me gifts I liked and always made or bought whatever cake I wanted. But I was told I wasn’t all that special and my birthday wasn’t an excuse to act like royalty. I was expected to eat the meal and cake I requested, open my presents and express the proper gratitude, and then continue with the evening like it was any other day.
All that to say I realized around 8 or 9 that my birthday wasn’t special, nor was I. And so I started dreading my birthday. I wouldn’t tell anyone that it was my birthday and I pretended it was just like any other day. It was all to protect myself from the pain of knowing I was not special. I didn’t care what I ate, I didn’t care about the cake, no presents needed. And I deflected any happy birthday messages I got.
And then my wife’s grandmother entered my life. This woman knew how to celebrate a birthday. One of the best parts of her funeral service were the pictures on the screens of her behind a huge chocolate with the world’s biggest smile. There was so much joy in her face in her various birthday pictures. She felt special on her birthday and everyone could tell.
But there was so much more. She made it her personal mission to make sure her family felt special on their birthdays too. You got to be royalty on your birthday. She made whatever you wanted for dinner, no matter what it was. You got the cake you wanted too. And the birthday candles…she put the numbers on there in a secret code so that you had to add those numbers together to get how old you are. Those pictures are so joyful. Every time one of those funny candle pictures came on the screens, everyone raced to add the candle numbers to remember what birthday that was in the picture. It brought so much joy to my heart.
It wasn’t about the royal feeling or even the royal treatment. It was these moments that were etched in everyone’s memories because of how she made you feel. It was so much love and so much joy. Your birthday was special and you were special.
At her service I made a decision that I would work really hard this year to stop being awkward about my birthday. I’ve stopped dreading it since my wife and I got together. When the feelings of dread started, I was able to push them away because I knew she would make the day special. That changed to me feeling awkward, though. Like why should I get special treatment because I am not special?
But for her, the bonus grandmother I was so fortunate to have for these past almost two years, I finally feel like I can ditch these old hurts and haunted memories of long ago birthdays. I can have the special chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting inside, chocolate on top. I can request the complicated Cuban sandwiches that she makes with Boy #2 that starts the night prior. And I will get presents that are chosen just for me that I will love. I can do whatever I want and I get to be royalty. I get to feel special tomorrow and have not just a special day, but an entire special weekend. ❤️
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