I ponder this concept on my 41st birthday. Forty one. Not entrance into a new decade like last year but another notch on the old tree I imagine where my brother and I would carve our birthday lines. Yes, located in the same field down the short hill from our house, it was the same geographic location where we became blood brother and sister. The tiny scar still on my wrist from that birthday and the intermingling of our blood.
Ironic, isn't it? My closest genetic link and yet, we added another layer of bonding. I am thankful for that event as so many more we may have shared never came to fruition, the graduations, weddings, and children. I must have been about nine at the time and remember the pride I felt as his left hand pressed into my my right, below the thumb and the raised tiny scar still there to remind me and remember. Not a birthday tradition but certainly a memory.
The birthday tradition of my childhood was built upon a family meal. Often my own parents and brother joined with our cousins down the street, their family of five combined with us made for a lively dinner around the formal dining table. Or we may gather on the old brick patio at the wrought iron table that graces my own patio now, often moss and leaf covered, its' brick a bit more crumbly. The birthday celebrant chose the menu and always the type of cake.
Steak and Kraft macaroni and cheese was my ensemble year after year and always strawberry shortcake, the cake foamy and store bought and kool whip the sticky glue, perfect to hold the pressed fresh strawberries. The making of the cake was as fun as the eating and I can remember assisting my mother who usually chased us from the kitchen or encouraged us to stay outside until the light grew dim.
The first birthday I remember was my fifth. It was in Key Biscayne and though much of what I remember is from photographs, the few tucked in plastic sleeves of a old photo album, I still remember the sharp details of opening my gift. There is a photo of my small very blond self, dressed in blue gingham and my mother scantily clad in shorts and a tank top kneeling down at my eye level and smiling brightly, holding my fluffy white cake with the clinging strawberries. My own pudgy hands had placed them there, their pattern distinct though I do not remember doing it that year.
No, but I do remember opening a shoe box sized wrapped package, it had been covered with the Funnies, haphazardly held together with what appeared to be a roll of almost translucent scotch tape. I am sure my brother and cousin, ages 9 and 10 respectively, awaited my slow opening with as much glee as my own. I have often thought myself that giving a wonderful gift is more fun than receiving one. Beneath the taped paper, I lifted the lid of the cardboard box and low and behold, hundreds of brightly colored gum balls. It was like stepping into Willy Wonka's factory and I remember those colors and the sound of the marble sized gum balls rolling in that discarded box. Hundreds of them and what they meant and the story that goes with them has always been the real gift.
My mother still smiles as she shares the story of my brother and our cousin, their pockets loaded with pennies as well as Ziplock bags clutched in their hands, off to fulfill their birthday plan for me. Long ago in Key Biscayne there was a family owned drugstore, Vernon's, and like many of its' time, had a bar where you could order a delicious grilled cheese as you waited for your prescription prepared by Mr. Vernon.
At the front door was the collection of penny machines and I imagined from my mother's lively description, my brother and cousin standing and shifting from foot to foot. I imagined the time they spent inserting each penny, turning the knob, and plucking the prize from behind the tiny though weighted metal door and into the box would go another.
The act of love is what I am left to remember though I am sure I enjoyed the gum balls too. I remember thinking though that my big brother had given me a piece of himself, his precious money I thought then. And now, I know the gift was the time and the thought that was behind the gift of gum balls.
What better way to acknowledge a birthday than with a gift that if offered from a place of love and excitement or time spent together? This tradition does live on in my family as we encourage our children to be kind in ways that aren't measured with gold or silver, the story of the gum ball experiment has been shared many times over. A gift of the heart, what I hope will be remembered as our family tradition.