I just celebrated a birthday. Truth is, I didn’t actually celebrate. More like ignored. I’ve been doing my best to ignore birthdays for years. Decades even. It all started with a Eureka moment. The proverbial light went on so I could clearly see this one pivotal fact. The road ahead wasn’t as long as it once was. This was both a frightening and motivating experience.
Either way it changed my perspective on birthdays. I determined that these annual milestones needn’t be marked with illuminated melting candles that no longer fit on a nine-inch round layer cake. No matter how delicious and tempting the icing may be. Furthermore, my ability to blow out that many candles in one go has long expired. It’s mortifying. I’ve lost all my candle-blowing gusto. I am no longer full of wind. I suppose that could be viewed as a good thing. Even Martha Stewart would agree.
Parties are out of the question. Especially ones involving a surprise. The risk of heart failure from shocks of this nature has increased exponentially with each passing year. Who needs that? Shindigs of any sort are frowned upon. And make for an upside down happy face. So does any other kind of hoopla or fandango. A simple card or birthday greeting from my family and loved ones is all that I will ever need. Just another day thank you very much. I’m grateful for them all.
It wasn’t always this way of course.
Little back story. A long long time ago and far far away in another galaxy I looked forward to this annual celebration. Waited with bated breath. And bubbly anticipation. I counted the days with irrepressible eagerness and unbridled enthusiasm. This other galaxy existed in a small Northwestern Ontario town on a street lined with wartime houses and Manitoba Maple trees. In one of these little wooden dwellings, number 204, Ma made party plans.
Birthday parties were simple affairs back then. At least compared to the extravaganzas of today. There were no bouncy castles. No rented movie theaters, ice rinks nor gyms with walls to climb. Nothing laser — tag, bowling or otherwise. No party rooms at MacDonald’s or Wendy’s. No zip-line adventures. Nor any combination of these things.
The birthday parties of my wonder years were held in the home. Or in the yard, if you were a summer birthday child like I was. I’m not sure if this is true or not, but I don’t recall it ever raining on my birthday. Even now I am hard-pressed to come up with a birthday that wasn’t warm and sunny. I either have selective weather memory or the sun has always shone for me on this day. I am indeed blessed this way.
Invitations were either purchased at Kresge’s five and dime or made by hand. Before I learned to read and write Ma filled out the invitations for me. After grade two I painstakingly did this on my own. It was a labor of love. Every kid on the block got one hand delivered at least two weeks before the big occasion. No one was left out. Not even those I didn’t care for much. Usually this was a boy. My parties were all-inclusive until I was around 8 years old. From age 8 to 12 there was a no-boys allowed policy in effect. During this brief window of time I believed boys weren’t necessary to have a good time. Before and after that single-gender period boys were a big part of the social scene. And have remained so ever since.
My upcoming birthday party was the talk of the neighborhood for those two weeks. Chatter abound. I was one of the lucky ones in that no one else had a birthday around mine. There was no one else to steal my thunder. Rob my moment of glory. My day in the sunshine. For this one day each year I was the girl of the hour. Or two. Which was precisely how long these birthday celebrations lasted.
On the day before my birthday Ma baked my favorite cake. Confetti Angel Food. Smothered and swirled in pale pink butter icing. Licking the spoon and scraping the bowl clean of every morsel of sweet goodness was almost as wonderful as the cake itself. These special once-a-year cakes were colorfully happy. Festive. And most importantly yummy. Nummy. Lip-smacking scrumptilicious. Mmmmm. Goodness aside, the other phenomenal thing about these cakes was the hidden treasures baked within. Little silver trinkets and copper pennies carefully wrapped in waxed paper and strategically placed throughout the cake so that every guest received one. No one walked away without a prize. We all felt like a million bucks discovering one of these. Oh the fun we had opening our baked gems. Winners all. Hip hip hurray! Enough to make pirates green with envy over our bountiful haul.
On the morning of my birthday, Ma got everything ready. She baked a batch of my favorite cookies. Shortbread. In the centre of each she carefully placed a red Maraschino cherry. Baking these traditional Christmas cookies off-season was just another way Ma expressed how dear I was to her. Imagine the depth and breadth of her love. One that knew no limits. So great that she was willing to violate custom, even go behind Santa’s back to bake these precious buttery rich jewels. I was thrilled. While the cookies were baking, Ma boiled up a pot of eggs for sandwiches. And not just any old egg sandwiches. These were fancy. The Old Man would bring home special loaves of bread that were cut lengthwise instead of in slices. Ma would then spread her delectable egg filling across the lengths, place a convoy of dill pickles at one end and then roll them up into perfect cylinders. She would place these eggy tubes in the fridge to chill and set until the party began. Then she’d pull them out, slice them into perfect circular wheels, and arrange them beautifully on one of her best china platters. They were exquisite. Divine. Out of this world.
Everyone dressed up for birthday parties. Only our best dresses and hair ribbons would do. New shoes and fresh white ankle socks. The boys in the crowd looked quite snazzy too. About an hour before my guests were scheduled to arrive Ma helped me get ready. Scrubbed from head toe. Hair curled and brushed to one side. Pretty party dress. Twirl and spin the crinoline.
At the precise hour indicated on the invitations my guests arrived, each carrying a beautifully wrapped gift with a card taped to the top. Ma greeted everyone amiably, collected their gifts, and set them aside on the coffee table for later. Once everyone was gathered, the games began. Drop the clothes peg in the milk bottle. Pin the tale on the donkey. Musical chairs. Simon says. Bingo! Such fun! We giggled and cheered. We clapped and chuckled. Then it was time to open the presents. One by one. Oohs and ahhs. Always a thank you after each one. Ma saved all their precious birthday cards. I still have the first decade’s worth taped inside the pages of the old Scrapbook Ma made for me. Tattered and torn. Kittens and yarn.
Then the piece de resistance. The moment we were all waiting for. The cake! Candles lit. Chorus of the Birthday song sung. Top of the lungs loud. Out of tune and off-key. Terrible and terrific. Candles were blown out in one single breath bringing a year of good luck to the birthday girl. Ma cut the cake perfectly, ensuring that each guest received the same amount along with their baked surprise.
Two hours passed and it was time for Ma and I to say goodbye to our guests. But not before photos were taken. Out to the front lawn we marched. There we posed before Ma’s Kodak Brownie. Group shots. Singles. Pairs of friends. Squinting into the sunshine. Shy smiles. And big grins.
It was the perfect day. Ma really knew how to throw a great party. Everyone agreed.
Thank you Ma for a lifetime of birthday cakes. I miss them dearly.