I have photos of three of my great grandmothers, two of whom made it to their late 70s, and of both my grandmothers; one of them lived to well past the age I became today. Since I’ve often mentioned that I was born in 1934, during the Great Depression and grew up during its aftermath, you shouldn’t have any problem figuring out that, today, I turned 78. In my head and heart, I’m still about 17. Funny, isn’t it, how our minds and our bodies grow old at different rates of speed?
I’ve been hospitalized so many times that I’ve lost count. Aside from giving birth to four children, they were all for fairly serious surgeries– and no, I’m not going to tell you about my operations. That’s for old ladies, and I’m not one of them– not yet. One thing they invariably do before even the simplest procedure in a hospital, is to ask you your name and birthday. This is simply to verify that they have the right patient for the pills, the drawing of blood, or the X-ray. (They don’t really care about how old you are, or when to send you a birthday card.) Sometimes, I simply say four-eighteen-thirty-four. Other times, after I’ve repeated this statistic dozens of times, I might say that I was born on the 158th anniversary of Paul Revere’s famous ride, known more commonly as Paul Revere Day. This seldom impresses anyone, but I’ve always thought that birthdays are easier to remember when they happen to fall on a holiday. (One of my teen-age romances was with a boy whose birthday was on October 12, Columbus Day, and yes, I still send him birthday cards. It’s hard to forget a day that’s highlighted on the calendar.)
Hospital personnel aren’t generally aware of the exact date of that famous ride, though those of my generation had historical dates pounded into our brains for thirteen years of public schooling. Even though Congress has seen fit to change some of the dates to the closest Mondays for the convenience of long weekends and uninterrupted work weeks, the original, officially-declared dates (even if possibly arbitrary) are the ones that stick in my memory. My birthday has occurred on Easter Sunday a few times, but Easter doesn’t occur on the same date every year.
Part of the reason I don’t mind the accumulation of so many birthdays, is that they were always so much fun to celebrate. My earliest memories involve home-made angel food cakes piled with seven-minute icing. This celebratory cake involved an extravagant fourteen egg whites, thirteen for the cake and one for the icing, and a day or two later, all the saved egg yolks and one additional whole egg got together in my mother’s famous orange sponge cake. All this cake was just fine with my dad, because he expected dessert with every meal, including breakfast, and, besides, from the time I was age eight, we had our own chickens and plenty of eggs for a family of six.
Birthdays always included presents. Not as many as Christmas, but there were always several packages to open; usually one from each member of the immediate family, an occasional one from a grandparent or favorite aunt, and Mother had a way of saving up essential things that she would have bought for us anyway, and giving them to us as extras for birthdays and Christmas. I guess most mothers do that. You know, new underwear or pajamas, a spring coat, the new dress we always got for Easter Sunday, the much-needed new hair brush or depleted school supplies. We always had to wait until after supper for the presents and cake so Dad could relax and enjoy the celebration with us. He usually had some special, unexpected treat that even Mother hadn’t known about. Sometimes it would be a few extra dollars above our usual allowance, sometimes a book or toy that had fascinated him (Dad was big on toys and he bought them partly because he wanted to play with them too.)
We always sang “Happy Birthday to You,” and tried to blow out the candles all in one breath. I never missed getting them all, from the time I was three and Dad let me practice blowing out matches for him, until I was fifty-nine and missed one. I haven’t tried since. One thing that never caught on in our family was the birthday spanking, one smack for each year and one to grow on. My big sister, the sadist, tried to get this questionable tradition established but since she participated with a little too much enthusiasm, and because our parents were non-spankers, it soon fell out of favor.
Somewhere along the line, someone told me that you had to get rid of all your birthday cake on your birthday or you’d never have another one. I’m not sure if that means another birthday or another cake, but I’m not taking any chances. Besides, it’s a good excuse to eat any leftover cake before bedtime and be able to sleep with a clear conscience and the comforting knowledge that there’s always next year.