Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Carryin' on an old family tradition

Somewhere around 8 p.m. on Sunday night, in the brief hours where Logan's birthday gives way to Atticus', Mr. Blandings and I looked at one another and admitted something we never, ever thought we'd say:

If we'd known how many children we were going to have way back in the beginning, we sure as heck would have kept the whole birthday thing a whole lot simpler.

You know how sometimes, we decide (consciously or otherwise) that we're going to do things completely different than our parents did? At my house growing up, the first rule about birthdays was that we didn't talk about birthdays. See, I highly suspect that my mother is bi-polar. Why? Take this into consideration: one year, for your birthday, you wake up to her singing in the kitchen, telling you how you changed her life, and asking you what kind of cake you want. The next year, she forgets your birthday entirely, then a week later takes you to K-Mart and tells you that she's got $15 with your name on it. It was enough to make me dread my birthday. And frankly, my dad didn't make it much better. Never much for anniversaries in general, the best I was likely to get from him was a hug and a nod, maybe a ruffled patch of hair from where he told me that I had grown.

True story: when Mr. Blandings and I began dating in college, he asked me when my birthday was. I hesitated, then relented.

"It's in a week," I admitted.

"A week? And you weren't going to tell me?"

He seemed shocked. I was shocked that he was shocked. I mean ... birthdays. Don't they just bring out the pain in everyone?

Turns out, no. His family was the complete opposite. Cake, ice cream, special parties, family events, cards from your great-great-great Aunt Millie you haven't seen in 20 years, people calling at all hours of the day and night to thank you for being part of their lives.

Creepy stuff when you've spent the first 18 years of your life just hoping that someone, somewhere might remember that you were born and say those two magic words: "Happy Birthday."

By the time Mr. Blandings and I welcomed Jo into our family, I had just about recovered from my former birthday phobia. I expected good things on my birthday. Every year, Mr. Blandings called me and blasted "Birthday," by the Beatles in my ear before 8 in the morning. He bought me little goodies. His parents called me up to wish me well. I was over-the-moon thrilled. Birthdays were fun. And, by golly, I was going to make sure that my children never had any reason to doubt that they day of their births was something to celebrate.

But there was one little problem. When Jo's big day rolled around for the first time, we were broke. Flat broke. The kind of broke that leaves $20 in the budget for groceries and diapers. The kind of broke that has your phone shut off on a regular basis, no gas in your car, and leaves precious little left over for anything remotely "happy" or "birthday."

Desperate to not repeat my own childhood, I scrimped and saved and went to extreme lengths to make sure that my baby girl knew that we couldn't quit rejoicing over her birth. I managed to pull together all of $24. It took me six weeks. The day before her birthday, I went to the dollar store and bought two colors of streamers, paper plates with her favorite characters on them, an decorative tablecloth, and a helium balloon. I already had her gift--a video I had gotten for review. Feeling spendy, I threw in another dollar and picked up two Little Critter books from the 50 cent shelf. And there it was. My little girl's party.


See, not wanting to let the day pass without note, I had invited a whole hoard of people to our house. House? It wasn't much of a house, to be honest. As I said, we were poor, and the only rental we could afford was former factory housing in a furniture town. The place reeked of varnish and rocked every time the train rumbled by. There was a hole the size of a grapefruit in the linoleum covering the kitchen floor, which I covered over with a strip of packaging tape to keep the critters out. But hey, it was a roof over our heads, and it was cheap enough that we could get by without me bringing in a paycheck. So it was home. And, most importantly, it was where Jo's first birthday party was held.

Using the remains of my $24 stash, we were able to buy hamburger meat and some hot dogs. My in-laws provided the buns, and my mom made potato salad. All that was left was the cake. But believe it or not, I had no money left over for a store-bought cake featuring Jo's favorite character. In fact, I couldn't afford a cake mix. In desperation, I pulled out my grandmother's ancient recipe and whipped one up from scratch. It was my very first attempt at making a cake that didn't come from a box, and it taught me a lot. First of all, you can actually make cakes in shapes. It doesn't take a professional. Second, you can make one without the help of Betty Crocker. And third, it really isn't all that hard. My last lesson came from a guest, who asked me if I had made the cake myself, and said that she could tell the difference--in a good way. I was flattered, and felt vindicated that I had managed to fete my daughter without sending us that much further into the poor house.

By the next year, things were decidedly less tight, but still financially dicey. Mr. Blandings and I had committed to eliminating the debt we had rung up in that lean season of literally surviving on credit, and every spare penny went to paying off credit cards and loans. So when Jo turned two, I headed back to the dollar store, stocked up on streamers and a balloon, and made ready. There was dancing to "Birthday," a breakfast of whatever junk she wanted, and a homemade cake that I poured my heart into. Usually, some sort of major field trip followed: the zoo, a horse ride, a trip to the lake.

And so it went. Every year. A total production from start to finish: Birthdays with the Blandings.

But fast forward almost 13 years and people, these birthdays are hard to maintain. Why? Because we have so many of them, and in such rapid succession. See, Logan's birthday is May 22. That was Saturday. Then, just two days later, Atticus turned 10. That was Monday. And guess what? Next week, we'll celebrate Mani's. In ten days' time, we have three birthdays.

And it doesn't get any better come fall. Jo and Bee share a birthday in September. You know ... right around the time that Seven is due? Holy birthday madness, Batman!

Oliver is the only one who can be completely celebrated just on his own. His day falls between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but hey, I'll take it!

We figure we've purchased 36 balloons in the past 12.5 years (some years, they get more than one to signify special milestones). I've made birthday brownies at least 28 times, and the rest of the days have been celebrated with either cinnamon rolls, blackberry cobbler, or apple pie--all before 7 a.m. The Beatles have helped us dance in hotel rooms (Jo's 5th), hospital birthing suites (Atticus' 2nd), and via Skype (Oliver's 2nd). We have taped countless yards of streamers to the doorframes of six different bedrooms in shades of green, purple, blue, yellow, and white. I have made cakes in the shape of monster trucks, flowers, rabbits, the Titanic, and the Thinking Chair from Blue's Clues. We've toured Reptile Zoos, aquariums, parks, gone canoeing, flown kites, and eaten sushi.

So yes, if an angel had whispered in my ear all those years ago that I would be running to buy balloons for a week straight in May, and making more desserts than I generally crank out in a month in a matter of days, well ... I probably would have scaled things back a bit. But would I change the sentiment behind it? Not on your life. My kiddos look forward not so much to their gifts, but to their celebration. To the utter, joyful embrace of YOU ARE LOVED. YOU WERE WANTED. YOU ARE A PART OF SOMETHING BIGGER. AND WE WOULDN'T TRADE YOU FOR THE WORLD.

If I had money all those years ago, I never would have gone to such lengths and gotten so creative in crafting the traditions that we now all take for granted. I would have done what I wanted to do: bought a picture-perfect decorated cake, decked the house in an elaborate theme, purchased something that ended up on a shelf as a momento. What we have instead, I think is far more rich. And far more personal.

Even if it is a wild and crazy ride for a few weeks every year. :-)


Carol said...

Love this post! I just might be inspired enough to make a cake from scratch:)

Kindred Blessings said...

I think you have incredibly sweet and special traditions. Balloons, a homemade cake, dancing to the Beatles, a special field trip and a few gifts aren't over the top. It's important to make each child feel special and loved and you do this so well! Even the Duggars with 19 children do similar things for each of their children. You do a great job on focusing on each child.

Please let the people who know you IRL(especailly your cousin who deeply cares about you!!)know what's going on, WHEN it's going on! At the time of Jo's 1st b-day, I had NO IDEA things were so finiancially dire for you! I feel so bad that I didn't know what was going on; I would have helped! The hand-designed cake you made for Jo that 1st year was precious and tasted A LOT better than store-bought ones! I thought you were highly creative and felt like Anne's store-bought cake wasn't nearly as special as Jo's! I remember that party with fondness. It was so nice to hang out together and celebrate.

The Reader said...

sounds like pure bliss....what precious birthday memories you are building with your family.

Sarah said...

Happy Birthday!

Anonymous said...

Oh I can relate!

Somewhere in the midst of our fostering experiences we had a child leave a couple days before their birthday. So from there I got the idea we should celebrate for a month. Yes, I said a month.


I was sure at that point I'd never have children... if I did it would only be one so hey, why not??

So here the whole month of your bday you are a little extra special... you get to use the bday cup, choose the movies on movie night, and in general everyone looks for little ways to show some extra love to you.

Then the day of your bday of course is an all about you bash.

It is crazy! But oh what a blessing!

Julie said...

LOL, we signed up for the Disney go free on your birthday promotion last year and we took each kid on thier birthday. We only live a couple of hours away so it was a day trip.
They had fun but I went to Disney March 10, April 14 and April 19. Do the math at one point I was at Disney twice in one week. I was a little tired of Disney. LOL Fortunatly I did not have to go again until September and then January. Still that was a lot of Disney.
We have done the lean times birthdays as well. That was this year actually. But I do try to make sure that each kid feels special on thier birthday.