Because we are a family of artists and intellectuals, we are selective about the shows we watch. With the exception of Tired of Being Youngest, who takes to the screen the way a tongue sticks to the frozen pole, we limit our time staring at the backlit rectangular shape and make sure that when we do sit for long periods of time absorbing mindless drivel, that it is quality mindless drivel.
My favorite show is Wipeout, the gigantic obstacle course that involves ordinary people jumping over, crawling under, and squeezing through assorted oversized balls, shapes, swings, and padded items, many of which incorporate foam and water. Yes, I shamelessly laugh at other people falling down.
In a recent show (“recent” in my vocabulary meaning something less than ten-years-old, such as our “recent” automobile), an exuberant contestant announced, “It’s my BIRTHDAY!”
Oh, I love this man — (He won, incidentally — Happy Birthday to You, Happy Man) — because another hallmark of our intellectually artistic family is that we get excited, really Really excited, about people’s birthdays.
This is not a Norwegian tradition but of Polish extraction, originating with my mother, the Venerable One, who treated my four siblings’ and my birthdays like the special days that they are. A spot on the fireplace ledge was reserved for gifts — properly wrapped in genuine birthday paper that was different for each child — and a homemade cake of the child’s choice — chocolate or vanilla — capped off the meal.
For the day, a truce was called in sibling rivalry, and each of us attempted to be nice to the honored one. Jealousy regarding gifts was never a problem, at least for me — my three older brothers’ impossibly complicated and boringly grey model battleship haul was only interesting when they shot the completed projects to pieces with their BB guns; my older sister’s posters of the Monkees and Bobby Sherman caught my eye ten years later, when I, too, was a teen — by which point I was enamored of Neil Diamond.
But the Birthday Tradition was firmly entrenched, and when I found myself married with four kids (actually, I didn’t just wake up one day and find myself in this situation, although some days it felt like it), I continued what my mother had started, with variations.
Take the festive wrapping paper, for example. Generally, the newspaper, brown paper bags, white freezer paper, and plastic bags were called into service; when the Dollar Store arrived and I occasionally purchased real paper, it was cycled and recycled through the three May birthdays and into the July one. The September recipient occasionally found crumpled Christmas paper from nine months before, IF he were lucky.
The cakes remained, with the same choices, although depending upon a whim I would “decorate,” a well-remembered favorite being the dog park complete with plastic figurines and little raisins scattered about (this was before the days of plastic poopy bags). The dinner meal of choice was instigated, and somehow, with extended family parties and friend parties and nuclear family parties the length of the birthday was extended as well, sometimes for as long as two weeks around the actual date.
Presents were and are supplied by not only the Norwegian Artist and his Polish Siren, but each sibling provides a gift as well, generously reaching into their allowance and babysitting funds — Tired of Being Youngest for years shopped the sales at the Dollar Store. The crowning point of the day is the hour — often a literal hour — in which the Birthday Person slowly opens the gifts, one by one, admiring and commenting on the selection, and thanking the giver. Giver and recipient both glow.
And I started a private tradition of my own, taking time through the day to reflect on the moment of the Birthday Person’s birth and special memories of our time together. Knowing that some people have had to live with the horrible words, uttered in anger or thoughtlessness, “I wish that you had never been born!” I determined that those I loved would not hear those words from me, ever, but rather the opposite, and sometime during the day I make a point of taking the BP aside and saying, “I am so glad that you were born.”
I recently celebrated my own birthday, physically surrounded by people dear to me and feted via Facebook, phone, or letter by other treasured ones unable to be in the same room. Chaos reigned as someone sautéed shrimp, another brewed tea, a third set the table while the Toddler unsettled it. Doors opened and closed and cats ran in, uninvited (when you own six of the things, this tends to happen). It was noisy, messy, tumultuous, exuberant, and full of joy.
And we hadn’t even got to the presents yet.