During my late single years, there was a bad birthday when I thought my boss was inviting me to meet him for surprise birthday drinks after work – he and his wife did nice things for my birthday, almost always (cheaper than giving me a raise, I see that now) – but it turned out that he really did just need the paperwork he had asked me to drop off – no party for me. Another year I kept waiting for my Dallas relatives to do something for me, which in a way they did – when I stopped by their house they said "Oh, it's your birthday, isn't it!" and gave me hugs. I then went to Tom Thumb and bought apple spice pound cake and vanilla ice cream to eat alone in my apartment.
These same relatives, who actually do always remember my birthday, had a surprise Sweet 16 party for me. It’s not their fault that during the event I was frozen with a horrid mix of introverted social anxiety and teenage embarrassment. I could not get past the shock of a dinner outing with my stepbrother turning into a house filled with out-of-town relatives. A lot of the embarrassment came from not having friends to be invited – that was a very awkward age, I had maybe 1.5 friends at school and my dad stated rightly when my aunt asked him about invitations, that they (or "it," one girl and some vague other quasi-friends) would not be comfortable at a family party. Steve had told me to dress up, so I had on my pleather platform boots and gaucho pants and vest – yes, I was in fashion for once, 1977 fashion. My aunt had remembered I liked yellow roses and there were a lot of those at the party. I still struggle to make peace with this party memory, I so much appreciated the effort, and the memory of family guests, including a great-aunt and great-uncle who many years ago left my life is poignant, but I still have shame at my inability to enjoy that moment. And now, at my inability to appreciate the memory.
IN CONTRAST: With a mother-ful birthday I woke up to presents and a homemade cake at my place at the breakfast table – I can’t remember for sure if I routinely sat at the end of the table opposite the stove, maybe the birthday person sat at that end (kind of the head) of the table. But this is a birthday memory, so I was queen. This rich tradition occurred every year through the beginning of my 12th. Always there, those items – food and gift-wrapped clothes and toys and books – they were ready before I walked into the room to see them. This was experienced as delicious trust and confidence of knowing it would be there, but there was always a surprise thrill too – the cake flavor, the frosting color, the gifts themselves were specially chosen by Mother. The decorating scheme was homemade – one year Mother arranged Barbie shoes in a shoe-store theme. Yes, by age 12 I was at the early part of the age of criticism, and maybe I wanted something more polished (i.e. storebought, which only as adults do we realize is not superior), but Mother was inspired not just from thriftiness but also from knowing Sarah.
With a motherful birthday, even on a preteen year when all of the 5 friends I invited to the zoo happened to be coincidentally not available (it really was not a conspiracy, they had various real conflicts and their mothers were very apologetic), I still had a good time going with my mother and little sister. Both the Houston weather and my sister were on good behavior, and Mother bought me an alligator charm for my bracelet – it was not a bad day. Best of all, with a motherful birthday – I could take the birthday efforts for granted. I could even have expectations, requests (can you buy me this? will you buy me this?) and complaints that even if unvoiced, felt inwardly justified – Mother should buy me this.
Back then I didn’t feel guilty about wanting or asking for things, or attention. I knew this person, above all others, celebrated my birth. I wish I could take that for granted – from any living person – ever again, but I don’t think I’ll be able to. Life, relationships, are complicated. I have had wonderful mother figures in my life, but I had only one mother.
P.S. Regarding the alligator charm – another relative had given me a couple of dozen sterling charms the previous Christmas. I know he meant it generously, and knowing his shopping habits, I know he had fun buying them. But it was too much – charm bracelets are supposed to be built up slowly, with charms for individual occasions. My mother knew me, and she knew that. I think I still have a box of loose charms that I never attached.