Sunday, October 11, 2009

Midlife Birthdays: Hold the Candles, Please

Every birthday, my brothers and I try to out do each other with funny cards about getting older. But this year, the award for most on-the-money aging sentiment has to go to my sister-in-law who sent this  "Miss Menopause of 1957" card, courtesy of the creative folks at Clayboys (

Despite the fact they seem to come sooner every year, and I anticipate them with as much enthusiasm as my annual mammogram, birthdays in our family are still whoop-dee-doo occasions that demand we stick to rituals, one of which is the "what-do-you-want-to-do-for-your -birthday?" dilemma.

Inevitably, it's my mother who plays the role of party planner and tradition keeper. It seems inherent to our jobs as moms to make sure birthdays aren't forgotten, shrugged off, ignored, locked in a closet, or, God forbid, not acknowledged in some manner we've come to treat as a ritual.

There are upsides and downsides to this whole birthday-celebration -tradition stuff. The first downer is that birthdays remind us that we are, in fact, older than we were a year ago. Really--I thought fifty-three was just fine; why do I have to turn fifty-four? Plus, since there are several family birthdays preceding mine, the conversation at all these other celebrations will get around to the inevitable question I'd rather not think about: "And what do you want to do for your birthday?"

Um--Is kidnapping Harrison Ford for a wild weekend in Paris an option? No? How about frosting all the mirrors in the house so my reflection will look perpetually fuzzy and a bit less wrinkly? Or, here's an idea: a gift certificate for Botox injections. Maybe there's a doctor out there offering a two-for-one deal.

These suggestions will fall on deaf ears. My mother will scoff and say something like: "Wait til you get to be 76!" You bet, mom. I'm going to take that advice to heart and wait. I'm going to wait and wait and wait some more.  I figure if I wait long enough, by the time I get to 76, it will be 2099.

On the upside there are things to look forward to because we do have traditions. There will be a free meal. Either dinner a la familia or out at a nice restaurant. Whatever the final outcome, I don't have to cook on my birthday celebration day. And there will dessert. This is the one time of year I allow myself to abandon my fear of fats, sugar, and empty calories, in favor of something decadent, sinfully rich, and preferably chocolate. I'm not nuts, however. I know that that slice of triple chocolate cake will mean three pounds on the scale tomorrow. Instead, I make my brother order dessert and treat myself to a bite. Or two. Okay, maybe three, but that's my limit.

There will also be presents. Sometimes a gift card; sometimes cold hard cash. Either one is fine with me, just for future reference. Usually my daughter gives me something that comes in a gift bag with tissue paper and a very mushy card that gets me all teary-eyed. I'm all about the gifts.  In fact, it's my opinion that people, in general, greatly under-estimate the glee of a gift.  I particularly love gifts bags because they're like a movie trailer: a hint of what's to come without giving away the whole story.  And it really doesn't matter significantly that the gift is something I already have, have no idea how to use, or is a complete mystery--it's the element of surprise combined with total narcissism. Everybody gives to you on your birthday; no mutual reciprocation is expected like on Christmas.

So my mother and I go through the ritual of deciding what we're going to do for my birthday. We haggle over restaurants. I suggest someplace we haven't been to before and she immediately nixes the idea.

"You won't like it," she says. "It's very Italian."  (Yes, just like my father, which makes me somewhat biased towards Italian food.  If he was Japanese, I might be suggesting sushi.)

"They make everything with cheese," my mother goes on to explain. Which is the real deal-breaker because my mother is allergic to dairy and therefore large quantities of cheese.

I acquiesce to a restaraunt that everyone in the family likes and has enough menu items that don't cause wheezing, sneezing, abdominal discomfort, heartburn, or a need to break out an epi pen. This is our tradition, afterall. If it wasn't, I would be sitting alone in a Thai/Vietnamese restaurant sucking down noodles with some coconut milk spiked tea.

Given the two choices--even though I'm the honored guest at this celebration of my aging--I choose the all-American fare because it will bring us all together. Even though five of my family members reside within a few miles of each other, birthdays and holidays are generally the only time we're able to convene face-to-face.

We email; send photos; connect on Facebook. But it's only in person that I get to see my sister-in-law crack up laughing so hard it's contagious. It's the only time I get to hear how much my daughter looks more and more like me--a fact that is more thrilling to me than it is to her. I can see firsthand that my parents, in their late 70s, are looking healthy and fit, and that their recall of events is far better than mine--sometimes embarassingly so when it comes to the less than admirable habits of my younger days.

My brother will order some kind of artery-clogging dessert so I can get my sugar-fix. There will be cards to pass around the table that will have us hooting like a pack of hyennas. We will be noisy, stuffed, and the waiter will get a sizeable tip. And somewhere between the main course and coffee, my mother will say to my daughter, who's next in the birthday lineup: "What do you want to do for your birthday?" And so the birthday ritual continues. We've just decided to fore go candles. At this point, we're up to double-boxes and the potential for a three-alarm fire.