Our extended family has just completed “birthday season.” During 12 days that bridge February and March, we have six family birthdays. During a three day span, in fact, we have four! In any family, that might be noteworthy, but birthdays in our extended family are a big deal. Truthfully, everything in our extended family is a big deal.
I have never been one to care too much about birthdays. I appreciate the sentiments, but it takes very little to make me feel as if I’ve celebrated sufficiently. For one thing, I cry when someone sings Happy Birthday to me. I don’t know why but surely something traumatic happened to me in my childhood while that blasted song was playing. When I was a child, we lived in an 80+ year old Tudor house. The living room was 30 feet long (while the closets, true to the era, were approximately 2 feet square). I recall being seated behind the coffee table with a lit cake while my family stood on the other end of the room, singing. And I remember sobbing. Every Kodak camera picture of me behind my cakes shows tears. Someday I intend to be hypnotized to find out where my issue with the Happy Birthday song started. (My gut tells me it has something to do with my brother David; after all, if he was evil enough to convince me we had a brother named Robert who was sent away for being bad, anything is possible).
But even though I’m not into the birthday fanfare, I appreciate the fact that our family gathers for every birthday, every graduation, every celebration. We owe this to my parents who were determined to raise siblings who liked each other. It’s a testament to my mother, especially, that our family gatherings have continued even after Mom and Dad left us. And so we celebrate and celebrate and celebrate some more, until we are all teetering on a diabetic coma.
My mother loved the hub-bub of birthday season. Really she delighted in any family gathering. The older I get, the more I understand that. There is something intangibly fulfilling about breaking bread together. My childhood friends enjoyed coming to our Friday night dinners (hamburgers, French fries and homemade butterscotch brownies). Although my mother was a fine cook, it was not the culinary fare that was the draw. It was the bantering back and forth—my father’s jokes and my brothers’ teasing me. These were far from fancy affairs, but for me that maple dinette set is synonymous with safety. It was at that dinner table that I was told all my flaws, and that I was loved regardless of them.
Now a parent myself, I see that it can be difficult to make family dinner times a priority. I’m thankful to my mom for setting the table, night after night, and calling us to it. I’m grateful my dad was always there. And I’m thankful now for a husband for whom family dinners are sacred. Even on evenings, years ago, when one of our daughters would not be speaking to another, or when milk would be spilt, or even on those nights when everyone was so exhausted that we ate in silence, a spirit of cohesiveness hovered over our table like a benediction.
I’m convinced that my daughters benefited from our nuclear family dinners and from the extended family gatherings. Surely they knew, from a young age, that grandparents and aunts and uncles were their “village”—watching, waiting, loving. When we assembled this week to celebrate birthdays, I knew this is what my mom wanted to continue. At every dinner table in every future moment, my parents will be the silent, smiling guests.
One special feature of my birthday is that my middle daughter Elena was born only two days after my birthday. In her childhood, at the family birthday dinner, she and her cousin Bradford (born one day later) would patiently wait through dinner for the opening of their gifts. One year they excused themselves from the table, returning with homemade signs that said, “Time for gifts?” I see my birthday buddy as a newer, improved model of myself. Elena is so many things I wish I were. All my daughters are extraordinary in their own ways, but in honor of Elena’s recent birthday, I’ll write today about her. She has the power to change a room—to make the light a little brighter just by being there. Once Elena became an adult, I could worry a little less because she worries for the rest of us. (Dropping me off in my parking garage, recently, she demanded that I text when I got up to my level—lest I get abducted between floors 1 and 4!) Elena’s heart has the unending capacity to care about everyone. If you are lucky enough to have Elena as a friend, you have a ready listener and enough laughter to fill a lifetime. I want to be her.
I thought of my mom often this week as we went through birthday season and gathered to celebrate. I thought of the pineapple upside-down cake she made me every year and our gift buying expeditions together. I thought of her, as well, in my first week in a new job. Last week I blogged about my difficulty with change. Driving to my new job last Monday, I realized this was my first “first day” without her—the first time in my life she wouldn’t be waiting for me to call her and tell her how it was. Now it’s me who wants to hear about first days; that attentiveness is something that is passed on through the maternal gene.
Ironically, when I walked into my new office, on my desk was a large orchid, a welcome gift from my boss. I immediately wanted to call and tell Mom, as orchids were her favorite indoor plant. I remember her oohing and aahing over my first corsage, a white orchid. “Being given an orchid means you’re special,” she said then. Birthday season and family dinners are my orchids; my crazy, often rowdy extended family are my compass.
George Shaw was surely right when he said, “The family is one of nature’s masterpieces.” Happy birthday to us all. Change is okay. Life is good. The orchid is beautiful, Mom.