Birthdays come and birthdays go.
This has been a quiet birthday for me, except for the opening of my eyes in gratefulness at meeting a new day. Some of my family had forgotten that it was my birthday, which isn’t odd given that we usually celebrate mine the following day along with my son’s birthday. My day, I’ve found, is more of a day of reflection. I have had a few memorable birthdays, though, that always come to mind on this reflective anniversary and are remarkably similar, though separated by 24 years or so.
One July when I was about six-years-old, we were at our family cabin nestled in the woods of mid-Michigan along the banks of the Tittabawassee River, and my Grandma Cowan was with us. That was unusual, as I recall. I think my mother must have needed her help that summer, for she normally didn’t take trips ‘up north’ with us.
My mother’s mother had been a ‘flapper’ during the roaring 20s, a totally modern girl living in Detroit in its heyday! She was the
first female insurance agent for The Royal Neighbors Insurance Company, and all her life had a keen business mind and was involved in helping the community. She married ‘old’ for those times, at thirty, to my grandfather, a tall strappin’ man who escaped the isolated simplicity of his Tennessee farm life to venture to the ‘Mecca of Prosperity,’ Detroit. After some work in the factories, my grandfather became a Detroit City police officer, affording his family security and a respectable middle-class life. My grandparents had two children, my mother and my Uncle Harvey, and lived that kind of ‘1940s ideal life’ one sees in those Spencer Tracey or Myrna Loy movies of the times, complete with stylish clothes, a strong work ethic, religious devotion, order and tradition, and even had their Polish Busha and Jaja living in the house with them. Family warmth and love were a given.
In the 1950s, when my parents married and brought forth eight children into the world, my grandmother was called upon to aid in the transportation of us kids and to give my mother all the support she could. She was a good grandma, always kind yet orderly, in control but generous. She would have us over to her stately but comfortable home in Detroit two-by-two, where we would enjoy outings to the Polish meat market and German bakery and get the kind of attention we didn’t get at home in house full of kids. On Sundays we’d trail behind my grandma and her elderly sister Maxine in their pearls and prim dresses as we walked to their church, Our Lady of Good Counsel, lit candles and learn to sit still. Back in her small but cozy kitchen ripe with the fresh tomato and green pepper smells of a summer garden, we’d enjoy fresh ham and cheese sandwiches on Jewish rye, Lorna Doone cookies, and then out to play in the then safe neighborhood and flower-lined alleys ways. She kept a bag of blocks and other toys in her front closet for us, and saved all her used cartons, dish soap bottles, and cereal boxes for us to play ‘store’ in the back yard. At bit of a gambler, she let us use her Po-Ke-No chips, which in this case were small multicolor tissue paper discs, as money or just for whatever we imagined. She kept round pink and white mints, sugared orange slices and mint leaves, and sometimes Circus Peanut candies in her china cabinet, and would give us a treat of them when she felt it was time. I can still see the cabinet filled with pink and green Depression glass, the spotless glass door slowly opened by my grandma, and us standing there patiently waiting for our reward for being good little guests.
Because my mother didn’t drive in those years when she most certainly needed to, my grandma would come to her rescue in her well-kept pink AMC Rambler, hat in place on her pin-curled hair, earrings on, boxy purse in hand, and she would get us around in her sturdy shoes and ironed shirtwaist dresses, far from the flapper flair of her 20s, but still classy. She was always willing to go the extra mile to help her only daughter, even to a musty old cabin. Something I completely understand as I now follow her example of devotion to my only daughter.
But it was during that summer in the early 1960s that my grandmother, Clara was her name, was staying with us at that musty old cabin where I was presented with a birthday gift that totally caught me off guard. It was a big box, for starters, and all lavishly wrapped in pink with a big pink bow! God, I was overcome with joy even before I opened it. In those days of dime-store gifts like a lace hanky, or a comb and brush set, maybe a paint-by-number kit and a multitude of handmade gifts from my other young siblings like a dog’s head carved out of an Ivory soap bar or a potholder made from a child’s weaving kit, that big pink box was a big deal!
When I opened it, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a beautiful baby doll swaddled in a soft pink blanket. I thought I was in heaven, for I loved dolls and rarely got one of my own. I remember holding that doll continuously after that point; for many years she was my dear child. I was so grateful to my sophisticated grandmother and happy as I watched the proud look on my mother’s face as well. She was apparently just as excited about my receiving such a special gift as I was.
It wasn’t until I was 38-years-old that I would receive another baby as a birthday gift. In labor all night on my birthday, my son was born just into the next day, saving him from the awkwardness of having to share his day with his mother for the rest of his life. Oh, and what a gift he was. Unexpected after the premature death of my father, an easy-going, mild-mannered child, who has grown into an honorable young man; he has always been my personal expression of celebration. As it is, I willingly gave up all the fanfare on my day for the next 19 years and will continue to do so, in order to celebrate my birthday baby!
Those two memories stand out above all others…including overtures of love from fumbling, good intentioned young boys, sun-burnt birthday picnics, drunken parties with girlfriends, and the traditional birthday cake and ice cream with loved ones. Perhaps, it’s because they all involve mothers, my mother, her mother, me as a mother, and our dear little babes in arms….real or, in the case of my six-year old summer gift, perceived real. Certainly, they are involved ‘real’ love.
I spent this birthday by myself, for the most part, with the memory of my mother. It was easy and natural. After all, she was the only loved one truly with me as I was ushered into this world through her labor, and she has been with me all along through the pain and struggles of my rebirths, as well. It would seem unnatural for that feeling to stop, simply because she is no longer physically present on earth.
Just a few months ago, I was struggling with despair. I had too many thoughts in my head and nowhere to take them, too much planning, work, and daily demands on my plate, and had reached a point of sleeplessness and exhaustion. I was trying to nap one afternoon, and somewhere between sleep and being awake, I heard my mother walk in the room calling out my childhood name, “Cindy,” as if she were trying to wake me up in a gentle fashion. It was so real. She was so real. I could smell her perfume as she slowly came around the end of my bed and sat down beside me. She was dressed in one of her nightgowns with an old-fashion ‘housecoat’ covering it much like the one I had admired for its sensibility during my last visit the summer before she died. She had gotten it from Sears or The Vermont Country Store, someplace where one could still get those sensible kinds of garments that allowed modest women to make breakfast, do a few chores, and even venture outside before actually getting dressed for the day. In soft feminine pink, it had little floral edged pockets and snaps as buttons. My always sassy mother giggled and told me it was kind of sexy in that way. I had to agree. When I was leaving that last summer day, I found the housecoat washed and lovingly folded on the top of my things in my luggage. She told me it was a going-away gift, as she proudly peeked around the corner to see my reaction, so much like her face when I receive the gift from my grandmother years ago.
That sleepless afternoon, I sat there looking at my mother’s pleasant face as she sat next to me, not young, not old and sad, just angelic-looking. I seemingly was awake, yet not in shock at seeing her or overly emotional, just completely given over to her presence. She said to me several times, quite simply in her familiar voice as she patted my leg, “Everything will be okay, Cindy. It’s all going to be okay.” When she walked away she gave me her signature girlish smile, reassuring yet joyful at what would come next, and when I came to the place where I thought I was indeed awake, I felt at peace, solid, reassured by my mother’s visit. Who else could do that? She was there at my first breath, and like today, she walked with me silently whispering that simple truth as a puttered around the house, during my exercising and getting ready for the day, and while I received lovely messages from friends. That was enough of a gift, and just as memorable as my baby doll and beautiful boy.
Birthdays are mostly lovely, but sometimes hard, especially as we get much older. There comes a point in life that you don’t need
a big pink box to feel special, you just need to feel loved. Today’s gift was a simple reminder, that “It’s all going to be okay.” Everyday gives us a chance for celebration; we just have to be willing to receive those small gifts as they come. There will be more babies to hold, boxes to wrap and open, grateful sunrises, memories to share and wisdom to pass along.
Like my mother and her mother, my task is to pass those gifts and love along to my children, washed and folded neatly or sugar-frosted as candy, and that proud reassuring peek around the corner for the courage to carry on through all the birthdays of their lives.