Last Sunday was my birthday.
Now, suffice it to say, at this juncture in my life I do not mark these occasions with any great fanfare and, like so many of us traveling through mid-life at warp-speed, I would just as soon forget how many years have now ticked off.
Still, family members and a few friends were kind enough to remember and I enjoyed lunch with part of my family as well as a couple of phone calls and e-mails to commemorate the date.
I now experience a weird sensation on my birthday, though. I really miss my parents.
My mother has been gone 13 years now and my dad left this Earth four years ago this January. I think about both of them every day and there are all kinds of mental and physical reminders of them in my life, not the least of which is the fact that every time I look in the mirror I see my dad, almost literally, staring right back at me with the receding hairline and crooked mouth that are identical to his.
As a 50-something adult (an early 50-something adult, by the way) who has lost both of his parents – just as millions like me -- I carry on with them very much in my heart, but I no longer grieve their passing.
For some reason, however, my thoughts turn more toward them on my birthday.
As a child, I did not have lavish birthday parties. I might have had a few friends over, but there were never the “destination” parties that would take place at the skating rink or bowling alley, nor was there ever a clown or pony. And of course in the small town where I grew up, the likes of Chuck E. Cheese or any such hot birthday spots were unheard of.
My mother always made my birthday cake. It was three layers, either chocolate or white, always made from scratch. I loved to scrape the moist, leftover crumbs off of the individual pans after she tapped each layer out on wax paper to cool.
The icing was this really sticky white stuff that she made in a double boiler on the stove, and it got hard after it was spread on the cake. It had little swirls and peaks all over it and I have never seen one like it or known anyone else to make one that is similar. It really was a beautiful cake. The pieces were cut in perfect wedges and a scoop of vanilla ice cream right next to it made a delectable treat.
Although a great cook, my mother was not in any way creative or artistic. The most I might have ever gotten on the cake, other than candles, were those little hard, sugary letters that spelled out, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY BOB” or, when I was a little guy, since my birthday was close to Halloween, little miniature plastic jack-o-lanterns that held candles.
My mother would never, in a million years, have even attempted to decorate a cake beyond these simple measures, nor would she have ever purchased a cake. I am ashamed to admit that I sometimes envied my friends who had the bakery cakes adorned with footballs or cowboys.
My folks always gave me presents, of course, but again, nothing extravagant.
Birthdays as a teenager are a blur. I’m sure my mom still made the cake. I remember sixteen because I got my driver’s license. The rest don’t really stand out.
Funny, but it seems that as I got older my birthday became more significant to my parents. In college they would usually try to come see me if I did not go home. I kind of found it interesting that they wanted to be with me, or at least talk to me, on my birthday.
My first year in law school, when I was struggling a bit, I went home for my birthday and my parents had arranged for some of my college chums to be there. There was a huge dinner and lots of old friends. They loved that.
Later, after I had married and lived a couple of hours away, they would get the biggest kick out of calling me from a pay phone in town (long before Caller ID and cell phones), pretending they were at home making my birthday call, then knocking on my door just a few minutes later and yelling, “Surprise!” and just falling all over themselves with tears of laughter. One time they showed up with the aforementioned cake in hand, my mother advising Wife that it was my favorite cake. That did not do a lot for the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship but they worked through it.
My last birthday with my mother living was Oct. 18, 1996. She was in the final stages of cancer and under the care of Hospice, but she called me and sang the most beautiful version of “Happy Birthday to You” I have ever heard, stopping after a couple of lines and saying that was the best she could do. She handed the phone to my dad, who was unable to talk to me. She died one week later.
Dad did his best to keep up the traditions after my mother was gone and I had moved to Tennessee, but there were no more “favorite” cakes from my mom (though Wife has more than adequately filled the gap with an Italian Cream that is to die for) and no more showing up at the door, just a phone call and a card Dad had bought at the discount store with a hundred dollar bill enclosed.
Now that I have raised my own children, I have begun to understand why my parents always wanted to talk to me, and, if possible, be with me on my birthday as I got older. They had learned, just as we all do as we move along in life, that life is short and that there are no guarantees as to how many of those special occasions we have left.
And now, that has all come full circle for me. If I could have had just one birthday wish granted last week, it would have been to see them at my door yelling “Surprise!” and doubling over with laughter.
But what great memories.