Thanks to a recent birthday, I am now closer to 40 than to 30. I joked with people that I was actually turning twenty-something. I don’t like getting older.
I do like birthdays, though. I now recognize them as historical reference points. They are the signposts by which I can chart my path from there to here, the dog-eared bookmarks in life’s little lesson book.
On my eighth birthday, my parents invited my entire second-grade class to our house for a backyard party. I lined up to participate in a mock sword fight against Mark. Nathan gave each us of a plastic baseball bat, and counted down. I purposefully swung early, catching Mark off guard and landing a hit on his cheek.
I learned that cheating wasn’t worth it, and that I hated being the reason someone felt hurt.
When I turned 10, I had my first sleepover. We played truth or dare, and I always picked truth. Jen was one of my guests. Jen is now married to Mark.
I learned that I am risk-averse and, many years later, that the world is small so that life can be sweetly sentimental.
My 18th birthday coincided with the opening night of the spring musical. I had a big role, and I was not a natural singer. I wasn’t nervous. I was scared. Just before I left for the show, the doorbell rang. Aaron was on the other side of it, with a cake he’d clearly made and frosted himself. He curtsied, held it forward to me, and beamed. I immediately felt better.
I learned that a friend and a smile can cure almost anything.
I was enjoying a semester in France when I turned 21. The boy I had a gigantic crush on was there with me. The feeling wasn’t mutual, but we were friends. He gave me a small framed print of the park where we would often meet after dinner with our host families. I still have it somewhere in the house we now share as husband and wife.
I learned that an expensive gift isn’t required to melt a heart and, a few months later, that he may in fact be into you even if he used to act like he just wasn’t that into you.
This year, we went out for breakfast. While we waited for chocolate chip pancakes, I told my children the stories of their actual birth days. The taxi ride to the hospital for one, the punctual due-date arrival of the other. Their eyes sparkled as they watched me recount time-lines that are now almost seven and four years old.
I learned that being responsible for someone’s birth is also being responsible for their birthday. I am the stage manager, offering up props for them to choose from when they are old enough to draft their own narratives. About themselves, but also about me and my husband.
My mother once made one of my sisters a cake, which she topped with purple frosting and bugles, those corn chips shaped like dunce hats. It was meant to look like a princess castle, and it magically did. That’s why I considered my mother a creative genius.
She arranged a birthday celebration for another sister that consisted of a trip to the soft-serve ice cream machine at the gas station. A small group of tomboys and boys-boys enjoyed the treat at a picnic table overlooking the pumps. My sister still considers it one of her finer birthdays. That’s how I know my mother can convince us of anything.
Yet another sister hosted a group of friends at the Ground Round restaurant for a meal. They were over-served Shirley Temples. As my dad car-pooled everyone home, one girl had to make a pit stop at each house to use the facilities. That’s when dad taught me that logistics are best handled with a sense of humor.
Birthdays are the breadcrumbs from the journey. I reach into my pocket, make a fist around them, and squeeze. There they are, firm but never stale.
Now I watch crumbs fall in my children’s wake, and I wonder which ones they will pick up.