Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What else is new?

I wasn't going to talk about this with anyone, but I need to get it off my chest, out of my head, and forget I ever heard it.

But before I tell my tale, I must warn you... it may offend. Or, it may not make sense, particularly if you were the product of available parents and a loving home. It may not compute if you were raised in an environment of encouragement and acceptance and affection. In fact, if you had any kind of "normal" childhood, even in the most modest sense, this will be foreign to your understanding.

I could begin this story several different ways, with several different prologues. But instead, I'll cut straight to the chase, telling you about my recent Thanksgiving...

Every year, the responsibility of hosting Thanksgiving and Christmas falls directly on the shoulders of my sister and myself. We tag team. And as a general rule we enjoy the ritual, despite there always being that cloying possibility of family disaster hanging in the air. Like last year, this Thanksgiving was mine so the family collected at my house and we spent a lovely holiday together. Mostly, that is.

As we sat around the Thanksgiving table feasting merrily, my mother asked, "Do you remember the birthday cake I brought to Thanksgiving last year?" Oh God, I thought to myself, closing my eyes gently. Who could ever forget that. It was a topic of much discussion before, during, and after the holiday. It was the saddest, maddeningest, most controversial cake ever made. And it was one year gone, yet the ghost of the 2010 Thanksgiving Birthday Cake had materialized once again and was seated at my Thanksgiving table.

"Of course I remember, mom," I said, swallowing.

It was a very lovely cake, truth be told. That wasn't the problem. It was four layers high ~ a fresh strawberry confection frosted with what appeared to be cream cheese icing and decorated with musical notes, a music clef, and a rose ~ all in a delicate pink. It was also the cake I asked my mother not to bring. Mom argued that it was baked in honor of all three of our birthdays... hers on the 26th and my twin brother's and mine on the 23rd. Thanksgiving was in between and a birthday cake just seemed out of place and unnecessary. I insisted that we had all manner of pies and autumnal desserts already planned and that nobody is really interested in eating birthday cake on Thanksgiving, so suggested she just keep it for herself.

The cake came anyway and was - as expected - inscribed with her name alone.

You see, my mother and her birthday always want to be the center of attention and a large Thanksgiving audience makes it all the more appealing to her. In normal families that's no biggie, but in our family it's the thing that gets stuck in our collective craw, like a big sharp jagged bone. The thing that no amount of spitting out or upchucking or hacking or Heimlich will dislodge. Because in our family, no one else's birthday has ever been quite as important as mom's.

Now please hear me out... I love my mother and have nothing against celebrating her birthday and lavishing her with attention, joy, pomp, circumstance, fawning - whatever it is that makes her happy on her day. And if that day happens to fall on Thanksgiving, great. But I don't think the focus of every Thanksgiving should be redirected to her, and pumpkin pie be replaced by birthday cake. Especially since Thanksgiving already gets short shrift with Christmas encroaching ever closer. No, I definitely think the focus of Thanksgiving should be on, well, Thanksgiving.

"Well," my mother continued, "I never got to tell the story of how that cake came to be. My friend John Mark baked it for me because of a limerick I wrote. A limerick which I will be happy to recite, if you're interested." My brother groaned under his breath.

"Sure mom," I said, because after all, what's better than dinner and a show?

"Okay, ready?" she asked, waiting for our full attention. I nodded. My brother sighed and poked at his turkey, eyes turned downward. Then mom proceeded to recite in freakishly over-enunciated meter:

There once was a gal named Nadine
whose birthday was past Halloween
And so for the sake
of Thanksgiving, no cake
for this celebration was seen

Now to add to this sad "cakeless" state
two children appeared near this date
You'd think it would make
a big difference - no cake
did appear in spite of their wait

Now, sir, I've a favor to pose
on Thanksgiving there's no time to doze
So if we're all living
on this Next Thanksgiving
Please bake us a cake with a rose

Mom beamed, and I cheerfully applauded. The least I could do since last year's Thanksgiving sympathy birthday cake went so unceremoniously ignored - save for the sliver mom cut for herself. I tried to warn her. 

Now, a year's worth of hindsight later, I realize how much that cake meant to her and that it probably should have meant more to me too. It did, after all, weigh heavily enough on her to bring back up a whole year since for a second chance to recite her poem. Ironically, cakeless again. Why couldn't I have allowed her a bit of pre-birthday glory last year, despite sibling pressure to the contrary? I still wrestle with that knowing in my heart that I am a terrible daughter. I should feel guilty for begrudging an elderly woman a smidgeon of birthday cheer a day early instead of gloating victorious that we avoided being manipulated onto the Birthday Or Bust Express. I'm certain I really would feel guilty, too, if it hadn't been for what she said next.

Mom started recalling the day my brother and I were born, and how our early arrival was not only unexpected, but how it also overshadowed her own birthday which followed a scant 72 hours later. And. Ever. Since. She did not reminisce about how blessed she was to give birth to two healthy, albeit preemie, newborns. Nor that we were the best birthday present she could have ever hoped for. Nor even how wonderful it is to share November birthdays with her very own twins. She complained. Worse than that, she repeated the four words that came out of her mouth just as I came into the world - me, the first of two babies given to her that day - me, a new baby daughter to join her other two beautiful daughters...  when the doctor delivered me - daughter number three - and announced its a girl! mom said, "What else is new."

What else is new, and cigars all around!

Thank God my brother followed five minutes later to make up a little for the birthday thunder we'd stolen from her. Fifty-three years later, and we're still not caught up yet.

Oh well. Happy Almost Thanksgiving Birthday anyway, mom. And cheer up because in only four short years, your 2015 birthday will be the real Thanksgiving deal. I'll even bake you a cake!