My mother loved birthdays with the enthusiasm of a child. She was the youngest in a family of eight, growing up during the Great Depression. There wasn’t enough extra income for gifts or even special meals or desserts, so she and her siblings always received a nickel from their father on the occasion of becoming one year older. Mama always said that she like to take her new found wealth to a bakery nearby where she was able to purchase a big bag of broken cookie pieces that she swore were just as good as the ones that remained intact. As the years passed by she and her brothers and sisters would faithfully send a birthday card to one another that always contained a nickel taped inside. I sometimes sensed that she enjoyed that tradition even more than the more expensive gifts that she received.
Today would have been Mama’s ninety second birthday. She often bragged that she and Queen Elizabeth were born in the same year, and somehow that fact made her feel a kind of kinship with the monarch of England. She noted that they shared a kind of resemblance as well, along with the fact of having their first born children in the same year as well. My mother always alerted us to the Queen’s birthday as a kind of hint that hers was on the way.
She was a stickler for celebrating her natal day at the time of its actual place on the calendar. She didn’t like the idea of waiting until the weekend, so even if we planned a party for her when everyone would be able to attend, my brothers and I still had to make a big deal on the correct date. I suppose that’s why I still think about her on June 27, even though it has now been seven years since she died. I think it would please her to know that we have not forgotten how special this day always was for her. In fact, we decided after she was gone that we would gather at her favorite restaurant each year to raise a toast in her honor. As it happens the place we chose is the Cracker Barrel in League City where she spent many a happy time enjoying the homey atmosphere and the kind of cooking that she might have prepared herself.
In an effort to look after our mother while she was still alive my brothers and I agreed to visit her at least once a week on different days. She usually wanted to go out to eat when we arrived, and sometimes she was even waiting eagerly on a bench that stood on her front porch whenever we drove up. That’s how excited she was about getting out of the house, but that was not the case on her birthday. On that day she wanted all of us to come to see her at one time so that it was like a party. She put me in charge of providing the cake, ice cream and candles. She preferred German chocolate or devils food cake, but she was always okay with a change of flavor. God forbid, however, that I would forget to bring the ice cream or the candles. Those things had to be done just right.
She was exceptional at providing us with festive birthdays even when her income was sorely stretched. She made a habit of shopping all year long and setting aside things that she had found on sale. Her gifts were always quite practical and long lasting, but most of all thoughtful. She was sure to come knocking at the door bearing all of the trappings of a big to do, even as we grew older. I never knew how she managed to be so generous, but I always understood that for her a birthday was supposed to be special no matter the circumstances.
When Mama turned eighty we decide to give her a surprise party. We had little idea at the time that she would die less than five years later. We only knew that we wanted to make her day bigger and better than ever. We sent out invitations to everyone in her stable of friends and family, and they all came. My home was crowded with people who loved her and were excited by the idea of letting her know how they felt about her. They had written letters to her that we placed in an album. We huddled anxiously as she walked up to the door and shouted with delight upon her entrance. She cried tears of unmitigated joy and bore the expression of a delighted child as she opened each gift and read each card.
We all miss my mom. She was the heart of the family and a continual source of fun and laughter. She suffered more than most with the loss of her husband at the age of thirty. Her loneliness, lack of income, and mental illness pushed hard to defeat her spirit, but she battled long and courageously to avoid defeat. Somehow no matter what else was happening in her life, she always rallied on her birthday. It was as though that occasion gave her new energy, new joy, a new beginning again and again.
We’ll be going to Cracker Barrel tonight. Not everyone comes each year, but I do my best to keep my calendar clear so that I will be able to make it. I know that the eldest of her grandchildren will be there along with some of their own kids. The people at Cracker Barrel seem to get a bit flustered when we arrive with such a large group. They don’t seem to understand the importance of the occasion, but we believe that Mama is smiling down on us from heaven. The party is for her after all and we intend to celebrate just the way she would want us to do.