When I was growing up, my extended family on my mother’s side all lived within five miles of my house. So birthdays always involved a large chaotic get-together. The thing I remember most about these parties was how 25 people squished together on one side of our dining room table. And the birthday girl (or boy if it was my brother’s year) stood on the other side, separate and alone. Cousins (or annoying little sisters like me) often edged their way toward the birthday side of the table in order to squeeze in the pictures or get a good look at that delicious cake they would soon be inhaling. The group sang in unharmonious tones with big smiles on their faces, while my mother hid behind a large black camcorder that rested on her shoulder, her eyes unseen but her mouth clearly reciting the words with everyone else. The song went on forever (what family sings four verses of the birthday song?), and I swayed back and forth to the melody and rolled my eyes in humiliation at my doting family. My grandfather’s deep scratchy voice stuck out among the sweet twittering of singing. I’d eye the melting wax as it started to drip on the blinding white frosting and will the song to be over. And then it was. And it was quiet. I’d pause and contort my face to look as though I was deep in thought. Then I’d take a breath so deep that I’d hold onto the edge of the table for stability so as to not fall backwards. And I’d blow. The room became dark as wisps of smoke streamed up into the chandelier. Applause and cheering ruptured the silence. And I’d smile.
A picture my brother found of me edging into his birthday cake picture when we were young
Now I live much further away than five miles from any of my family members, immediate or extended. Though my brother and I are well over 30, our mother still bakes pans of brownies for the occasion. Mine come in the mail, often squished and crumbled. She lives closer to my brother, so she’ll hand deliver his while he’s at work and lovingly embarrass him in front of his coworkers.
My brother tries to rationalize with my mother and say he’s too old for such things. But birthdays are not days to celebrate being adults. Birthdays are days to celebrate birth, not death.
Often, she’ll wrap a box from her attic filled with trinkets of our childhood, things we’ve forgotten over time—grade school drawings, Young Author entries, honorary awards given to all participants, or (for me in particular) old baton twirling trophies. These portals back to childhood help us forget that we are getting older.
The gatherings still take place every year, too, with only immediate family, though. My husband’s birthday is only a month after my own, so to help everyone save on gas, we do one joint party. The traditions of two families converge together in one grand hoorah. My mother often wants to bake a boxed cake which she would carefully write a birthday message on in frosting using grandma’s antique icing dispenser kit from the ‘50s. My husband’s mothers wants to order a cake from their local bakery, the best cakes in the town, with billowy frosting and glistening appliqués. My husband and I order cupcakes to avoid having to choose between our mothers. We set new traditions when the old ones are unable to blend together.
We no longer have the formality of the dining room table, the segregation between honored person and audience. Instead, the dining room table is covered in snacks and appetizers, which people graze on throughout the day. The cake, aflame in too many candles to count, will be paraded out into the living room and handed to us. We hold it tenderly, trying not to catch our hair on fire or accidentally blow out the candles as we laugh, while everyone sings only one verse of “Happy Birthday,” which is quickly followed by the Polish “Sto Lat,” a birthday tradition of my sister-in-law which our family has happily adopted.
We recreated the picture a decade later
Likely, there will be a toast sometime in the day with a shot of Crown Royal, a holiday tradition of my grandfather’s which wasn’t used on birthdays (except for his), but since he’s passed, we mark every occasion with this token of remembrance.
It’s interesting to think about how traditions have evolved. Oftentimes, I ache for those family parties of my youth. How I took it all for granted, having family so nearby, the comfort of knowing so many people loved me and wanted to celebrate with me. And yet, as I grow older, I’ve really gotten to customize the birthday experience—pick and choose what traditions I love, celebrate in my own house with those closest to me.
I try to imagine the birthdays of whatever future children I or my siblings will have. What traditions will we have morphed or constructed by then? I want to mourn for their missed opportunity to have that exact memory I have of my childhood birthday.
I rest easy, though, knowing we can only evolve for the better and that my family will always come to celebrate, no matter how far the trek.