As you can probably tell, I take birthdays seriously. Notice I say “birthdays” and not “my birthday”. I certainly enjoy my own, but it’s not an exclusive syndrome. If you are my friend and it is your birthday, then I am probably plotting something elaborate for you.
My parents, God bless them, started all of this. I’m not even making fun. I am really glad that I give such good birthday. It’s like a talent. Legend has it that my Dad first made my Mom a banner spelling out “Happy Birthday Ellen” in the late seventies. He made it using pieces of origami and string … I guess back then no one had invented Happy Birthday letters. Primitive!
Anyway, who knows who started it, but suffice to say that we ALL eventually got birthday letters, and the tradition was that they would go up in the living room the night before your birthday and stay there for the duration of the month (the birthday month, for fairness’ sake, began on the actual birthday and continued for 30 days afterwards). On the morning of your birthday, you’d wake up to a birthday breakfast (which you got to custom order, last-meal-before-execution-style, from the Parents), during which you’d get presents (enough for four kids in a normal family) and cards. Then, you’d get a separate birthday dinner out at the restaurant of your choice. Needless to say, on your birthday you could pretty much demand anything at any time and Mom or Dad would get it for you. It was like gaining control of a small fiefdom for a day.
The best thing about birthdays growing up was the big deal my parents always made of them. I didn’t make up the term “Una Birthday Month”, if you can believe it. Each of my family members had their own Birthday Month and Birthday Week. During the Birthday Month you’d be reminded constantly that it was almost your birthday, and the other members of the family seemed so excited for you, they were like groupies waiting for a big concert. During your Birthday Week, you’d get to feel, essentially, like a celebrity. It was over the top, sure, but you’d be surprised how good it makes a person feel to get so egregiously pampered.
As we got older, my sister and I were able to reciprocate the birthday excess. We’d spend nights in our bedrooms, sending our parents away with cries of “We’re doing secret things in here!” We’d bake cakes and orchestrate elaborate breakfasts in bed and even, on occasion, offer ourselves up as slaves for the day. You think I’m kidding, but I’ll bet my Dad still has coupons for “1 hour of not bugging you” or “1 night of doing the dishes” in a drawer somewhere.
My father’s birthday always fell during our family vacation in Block Island, and he more than any of us treasured his birthday routine: he’d get up before anyone else was awake, bike out to a secret spot on the island, and read or meditate for a few hours (I still don’t know what he did those mornings, but since he’s a reflective type of person I assume he spent time thinking quietly, and, more recently, taking pictures). Upon his return, true to form, my sister and I would be waiting with bated breath, clutching our homemade trumpets (complete with paper flags to make them look courtly … and again, no, I am not kidding). We’d leap out and trumpet his arrival like we were receiving the king. Then we’d do the breakfast and presents as usual, and then we’d get our first clue.
Every year until very recently, my father made a tradition of buying us little presents on his birthday. The best part was that he would hide them somewhere in the house and leave us a series of elaborate clues to help lead us to the hiding place. The clues were always well-planned and often funny riddles, told from the point of view of the object the clues were hiding behind. My sister and I would run through the house, puzzling out the grown-up jokes, squealing as my father yelled “Cold!” or “Warmer!” to alert us to our progress. We would collect the clues and, after six or seven, would find two small, wrapped gifts nestled in the record player, or stuck in the spokes of a bicycle. In addition to the gifts, Dad would divvy up all of the change he had collected over the course of the vacation. We usually walked away with $10 each, at least.
I guess I never understand people who hate their birthdays. Of course, I understand the stress of getting older, and of having more to worry about year after year. I understand that some people don’t want all that attention. But my reverence for birthdays is so innate and unwavering that it borders on the spiritual. I could have gone without the presents, and I could have gone without the dinners out, but I’m deeply thankful for the joy of celebration that my parents passed down to me. Sometimes I send too much money on people. Sometimes my efforts get me into trouble (I once had a friend who mistook my overly thoughtful gift as a sign of repressed romantic love). Still, I’d rather give too much than give too little. I don’t care if people think I’m weird or spoiled as long as I can make them feel insanely special for one day a year. I know that when I have kids, I’ll continue the birthday traditions that my parents started. I’ll carry on the letter-making and the clue-writing. I’ll show them, like I was shown, that allowing yourself to feel special, and allowing yourself to feel loved, is a luxury that no one should be denied.