We’ve just celebrated her seventeenth — the last birthday my elder daughter will be spending at home for the foreseeable future. Next year at this time, she’ll be god-knows-where, at college.
About a month back, I asked her what she wanted to do for her birthday. “Seventeen isn’t so special,” she sighed. “What do you mean?” I said, taken aback. “Well, sixteen is special. And eighteen is a big deal. You get to vote and get a tattoo without permission. Seventeen is … well … ” she sighed again. She’s tired. There’s a lot on her plate this year. College applications, an intense senior-year course load, twenty hours a week rowing crew.
But still, no celebration for the birthday-party queen? Ever since this girl was a toddler, she’s loved her annual birthday-fest, and I’ve been flipping through the pages of Family Fun, organizing and executing these parties for sixteen years now. This is my last chance and I’m not about to give it up. I know, I know. Birthday parties are consumerist and do nothing but create a spoiled child. Some people think that. But I have a real Thing about birthdays.
I was adopted, and so the word “birthday” holds a high-volt charge for me. Some adoptees choose to ignore birthdays altogether; it’s too painful. But a long time ago I decided to take a defiant stance. So what if it wasn’t an altogether joyful occasion way back when? So what if there were tissues instead of champagne when the rabbit died. (I think this is how they diagnosed pregnancy, back in the day.) I’m here, I’m alive, damn it, and plenty of people think that’s a fine thing. So we’re going to celebrate.
My husband came from a seriously anti-birthday family. He didn’t have a birthday cake or a party until the first one I threw for him, on his 36th. Now that’s some serious birthday deprivation. But over the years, he’s come to enjoy birthdays along with the rest of us, and he loves the teetering Mickey-Mouse multilayered chocolate cake the girls make especially for him. He sees now that it’s good to have an excuse to eat cake, and to say, Whoopee, I’m here! I’m alive.
When I was growing up, birthdays were mostly a family affair, with cousins and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and cake. I always had a frou-frou dress and new patent leather shoes. When I turned the momentous double digits, I had my first slumber party. We feasted on Tootsie Pops, watched Creature Feature horror movies (does anybody remember “The Black Pit of Dr. M”?) and did a midnight flashlight walk in the backyard, scaring ourselves to bits. Even when I grew up and went away to college, and later moved across the country, my parents and grandmother continued to celebrate. They’d buy a small cake from the A & P, call me up to sing the traditional song, and then they’d eat the cake, hundreds or thousands of miles away. I knew they were glad I’d been born.
My oldest daughter came into the world after a year of terrible loss: a previous pregnancy, a little boy, had been lost due to pre-eclampsia at six months. I spent her pregnancy on near complete bedrest, as my blood pressure pulsed up, up, up. She was born a month early, the minute her lungs were deemed healthy enough to breathe. I exploded into relieved, overwhelmed sobs when I heard her raspy cry. To say I was glad she’d been born is an understatement.
So on her first birthday we celebrated with a cupcake, and our one-year old housemate was the sole guest. This led to the two-year playdough and wading pool splash party with some neighbor toddlers. Three years old, we took over Gymboree — jumping and bubbles and the rainbow parachute. At four, the teddy bears’ picnic in the park. We spent the fifth birthday at Fairyland and she got the tiara onstage at the puppet theater. This was followed by the dog-theme birthday, the miniature birthday, a series of sleepovers at the youth hostel out by a lighthouse. Every year, she wrestled with her guest list starting around Labor Day. The biggest group ever was the 23-girl sleepover for her 15th.
But now, at almost seventeen, she was tired. She was overwhelmed. I was not ready to hang up my parental birthday-party-planner hat, though, not just yet. I had just heard about a new company that brings spa services to your house. “How would you like,” I asked her, “to just be pampered for a few hours?”
She liked. “Ohhh,” she exhaled. “That sounds… so… nice.”
So the massage therapy ladies from Spa-dee-dah arrived on a Saturday morning, just after the crew team finished running, blowing out their lungs on the rowing machines, and racing a few laps around the Oakland Estuary. My birthday girl and her boatmates had been up since six, as they always are on the weekends.
I got up early, too, to cut up onions for a frittata. We prepared a breakfast bar on the kitchen counter, with three kinds of granola, fruit, yogurt, and two kinds of birthday cake. The massage ladies fixed up their tables in the bedrooms and I lit vanilla candles and put ocean-waves music on the CD player. The girls lounged around the family room in their bathrobes, watching movies, eating granola with their fingers. They took turns going upstairs to the massage rooms and came down sighing.
And then it was over. I didn’t cry like I thought I might, but when the last girl went home and the helium-filled balloons started drooping, I sighed too. Seventeen years of birthday-party planning. Done.
Next October the four of us remaining at home will buy a chocolate cake from Ladyfingers. We’ll dial the long-distance number (she’s not applying anywhere that isn’t long distance). We’ll sing off key into the phone and cut into the cake, wishing her a happy birthday, wherever she is.