Saturday, October 1, 2011

#8, a continuation of #7 - Birthdays with a Father

My 13th birthday, which was soon after Mother died, was celebrated with a Sunday lunch at our family friend Shirley’s house. She made a special effort that day, shopped for a nice 1970s preteen gift, a pale blue suede wallet set, and made a pot roast. I know she was not a confident cook and this entrée could not have been easy for her – I know that because I remember it being a little hard to chew. Well, so is my own pot roast hard to chew, even with a crockpot I invariably get the wrong cut of meat or don’t cook for enough hours (fortunately Craig would prefer meat to be too chewy than too soft, he is that kind of carnivore)…whereas an old-school cook like Mother made pot roast in a pressure cooker so it was consistently soft.

(I hate blogging without illustrations – none of the ones I found for pot roast were quite right but this image was the least fancy – sorry, Shirley!, but I don’t think you served it on a platter with parsley – so I’m going with this one.)

Actually I loved eating at Shirley’s house. We drank Cokes or Tabs (this was the era of Tab) on ice in tumblers, ate fresh brownies (yes, made from a mix but that seemed exotic since my family recipe, thriftily made with cocoa, always came out dry), chocolate chip cookies, and her breakthrough side dish, green peas mixed with mashed potatoes. (I remember her saying proudly, “I realized they get mixed together on your plate anyway.”)

I Googled to see what day of the week my birthday fell on that year of the pot roast lunch – actually the 19th was a Saturday, the day before our lunch with Shirley. My mother had avoided cake mixes for many years but at some point we discovered that spice cake mixes, especially with lots of homemade frosting, were very good - if I'm not mixing up memories my mother's mother, a true baking authority, tipped us off to that. I think it was birthday 14 when my sister made me a cake. She insisted she was old enough but she didn’t follow the directions enough to make a product that pleased me. I think the frosting was more like a glaze (maybe she melted butter instead of creamed it), which of course tasted fine but set off my perfectionism – that cake was one more disappointment (I felt disappointment even when I felt guilty for expressing it), one more thing in my young life that wasn’t right.

What was right was a visit to Shirley’s. Shirley made me feel she was treating me as an adult but there was a good amount of mothering in there too. I’m not exaggerating when I say that arriving at her house always felt like a 5-star hotel to me. It was perfectly cooled (our house had loud, uneven a/c) and lovely – a custom home in the woods. Of course I didn’t care about the outside, never went out there, but the green view was nice from the windows. She had clean carpet (I don’t remember her having pets) (and our house was all lineoleum), brand-new bathroom fixtures (my family’s bathroom tiles had green stuff at the edges), a wetbar ice maker, and a guest room TV with a timer that would take care of you after you fell asleep. Even when having my sister Rachel along was a requirement of me sleeping over at Shirley’s, it was worth it. (Shirley had been Rachel’s kindergarten teacher, and Shirley had been a good friend of Mother’s, and my brothers’ piano teacher – the connection was strong.)

Not too long after the Sunday lunch, my dad made the pronouncement, “I think you like to go to Shirley’s because she makes a fuss over you.” This was heard by me as a criticism and even with adult perspective, I believe it was intended as that. My self-employed, newly widowed father was struggling with his many responsibilities, including paying Mother’s medical bills (he did not have group insurance) and he probably didn’t see me as needy enough, in the family scheme of things, to be made a fuss over. I guess I had absorbed a lot of that perspective because on the night that Mother died (in our house, in her own bed as she had wished), when Rachel and I were sent to spend the night at Shirley’s, I remember feeling like a fraud, someone taking advantage of the situation. Mother’s body had been taken away already and I wasn’t consciously upset, wasn’t grieving, I had known Mother was about to die and now she had died and our household would continue its adapted routine of not being led by Mother. Sure, I would rather sleep in a room with its own TV set (Shirley’s guest TV was bigger than my family’s den TV) but did I “need” to be there?

I didn’t begin to understand how to relate to my dad until I began to help him with his writing, about 10 years ago. Typing the letters he wrote as a very young soldier to his family, and then editing his childhood memoir written in recent years, I finally understood my father as being an emotional person. A bright, curious, sensitive child, born in a family he didn’t quite fit in with, before the decades of psychological labels, self-awareness, the psychologized generation.

Here’s a very appropriate quote from his book, “Growing Up in Rose Hill (we were poor but didn’t know it)”, which in its 228 printed pages has only this one mention of birthdays:

"Birthdays on the farm were not celebrated often. If the birthday fell on a Sunday, Mother would invite one or two friends to come after church. I don’t remember having candles on a cake but several times we had hot cocoa served in tiny tea cups (my birthday is in October so the weather would usually be cool). I still have the tiny set of pitcher and cups. Usually on a person’s 16th birthday a “coming out” party was given. These were supposed to be surprise parties. In the summer they included “ring games” and in winter dominoes and card games. Homemade ice cream was usually served with cake. Neighbors and relatives came to our house for my 16th birthday, but I was so shy I probably didn’t speak to anyone."

Yep, I could make a lot out of that last sentence, and what a perfect follow-up to blog #7, which mentioned my own 16th birthday – I doubt my father thought of any connection to my birthday when he wrote the words above in 2004. My reading on introversion has taught me that parents of introverts – especially parents who themselves are introverted, to any degree – push their child not to be introverted, wanting their child to be part of the mainstream, i.e. extroverted. (Shyness is not always defined as similar to introversion, but I think my dad and I were both, so I won’t split that hair in this particular blog post.) My father’s sensitivities were not encouraged growing up, and he didn’t usually see it as part of his parental mission to encourage his own children’s sensitivities – on certain levels, I think he understood our complexities, maybe even felt a kinship – but it was not close to the surface most of the time.

Daddy and Mother had 4 children, and when he started dating as a widower he believed he was more successful when paired with women who also had children. One of my favorites of his dates had only one child, a daughter my age (he used to take me on dates with that mom and daughter and our outings always had Houston sophistication, once we saw a Tennessee Williams play – well, performed at a church), but he ended up marrying a woman with 6 children.

My stepmother did observe everyone’s birthday with cake and card and at least one present, but my father not only delegated birthdays to her from then on (after all, Mother had been the birthday planner when she was alive), but was heard to say things along the lines of – I admit this is not a direct quote – with so many kids you can’t remember everyone’s birthday.

Which is a philosophy that still rankles me. Granted he has multiple stepdaughters and he has numerous grandchildren - but he had 4 original children, 3 living today - his sister and brother and his parents are dead. Can he remember the birth dates of 3 original children? It’s not like he is too old and confused to keep track of dates (he rarely misses doctor appointments or TV shows), and I have heard him mention such a thing as a birthday calendar (maybe sometimes it gets lost under other paperwork - you would have to see his office...). In recent years I have finally mellowed about this and I find it funny when he calls me about something completely unrelated on 10/19 and has no idea that date is my birthday. And guess when his birthday is? Exactly 4 days later. Maybe it’s passive-aggressive that I don’t remind him it’s my birthday when he accidentally calls on the 18th, 19th or 20th to update me on some other happening, but maybe it’s also passive-aggressive when he doesn’t keep track of my birthday being 4 days before his.

I had 2 birthdays after I left the house for college and before I moved to Dallas (after which I counted more on my Dallas relatives for birthday observance). I have no complaints about the first one – I flew from New Mexico for a fun weekend in Dallas, and before I left Santa Fe my college friends gave me gifts, not bad for people you have known for less than 2 months – but the next one was difficult. I went to Dallas for the weekend again – able to drive this time instead of fly, since I had transferred to a Texas college, but the only notification I received from my dad and stepmom was a card that arrived in my college mailbox a couple of days late, signed with the names of all (the few, I am 3rd from youngest) family members still living at home, but all obviously in my stepmom’s handwriting. I think she also drew a couple of little pictures, maybe a flower and a butterfly, which was nice of her – but I was not appreciative at the time.

It wasn’t a phone call on the actual date – it wasn’t a Barbie cake. No child wants to be lost in the crowd of siblings – we don’t ask our parents to have more kids, those decisions are nothing to do with us. We want to be treated as unique.

OK – thank you for listening to my toddler self say that. Whew, this post has been freeing. (Although I felt guilt as I wrote it.)

I like to end posts with an image – I tried and tried to find good examples of vintage teacups (not fancy, probably scratched or cracked) like the kind my dad sipped cocoa out of on his childhood birthdays, but nothing was quite right. The image below is not right in any way at all other than it being “vintage” and “German” – but I like it because the set looks orange. Actually it’s described in the eBay text as painted red, but it looks orange when photographed, so I gravitated very strongly toward it.

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