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!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


I remember high school like it was a kind of phantasmagoric nightmare peppered with the occasional rise to glory. I was not popular. But I did things popular girls did and then I did some things popular girls dreamed of, but were denied. Regardless, I would forever be a square peg in a round hole. Up until this very minute I still am, and truth be told, I abide well with corners.

But back in the day, and in spite of my extremely humble rung on the prosperity ladder and complete lack of social status, I did manage to do a few remarkable things. I was a good student, first and foremost. I routinely made the AB honor roll and then in high school became a member of the National Honor Society. I had a few extracurricular victories too, making cheerleading all four years I tried out. Sometimes even beating out a few popular girls. In my Sophomore year I was elected Captain of the JV Cheerleading Squad by my peers. So it wasn't all bad. Unless you count having to cheer with some first class bitches. Not all, but some. Okay, better than half. 

Yet, in my Junior year, I was sponsored by the Varsity Cheerleaders to compete in our high school pageant:  Miss Terry Parker, which I won. This catapulted me to the next competition: Miss Senior High of Duval County, which I also won. A thing as surprising to me as anyone, since the pageant was participated in by all the winners of all the high schools in my extremely wide county. It was a heady experience. Being unaccustomed to winning anything - I was beginning to like breathing the semi-rarefied air of teenage success. Suddenly, I was developing some street cred and was ever closing in on touching the fringe of popularity. It was a good time. People were nice to me for the most part. I also got a little bit of attention which, for the first time in my life was a very nice, albeit unusual, thing. I went on to win the next competition that I was obliged to participate in: Jacksonville Junior Miss. And from there, I traveled to Pensacola to perform in the state competition: Florida Junior Miss. This being the only title I was even remotely interested in capturing, since the winner received a fully paid four-year scholarship to the Florida college or university of her choice. I came in third.

So, it was back to high school and to the limited shelf-life of my small and fleeting fame. The closer I got to graduation the more quickly it swirled the drain. At least I went out somewhat of a success, but I can't say I wept any bitter tears leaving it or my classmates behind. Because, aside from those brief respites, high school was still torture.

You will not catch me at any high school reunions either. I went to two, when I was still naive enough to think it was a good idea. I remember my five-year reunion as awkward since, beside the pregnant former classmates who finally found their calling, there was nothing of any magnitude we'd accomplished quite yet. The trade of interesting stories was sorely lacking. But give it another five years and that awkwardness morphed into the full-blown horror of realizing at my ten-year reunion, that I was a miserable failure by comparison. Boring too. No one gave me the time of day or any length of conversation at all, apart from the rehearsed bulleted talking points of their personal good fortune and a quick gotta go. It didn't help that I was alone. My husband at the time, who was a good 13 years older, had nothing in common with the babies of my alma mater, so I didn't press him to accompany me. It was a disaster. I probably don't remember accurately since it was so long ago, but I do remember my tear streaked makeup upon arriving home and a vow to never return to another reunion. I haven't and I won't. Even after, quite by accident, bumping into a former classmate at the grocery store and being admonished for "not represent'n." Emphasis on resent. After all... I was Miss Terry Parker!

Now, at almost 53, I'm happy to be done with all that. Happy to be done with caring about and being miserable over high school and all its peculiarities. Like not/being popular. Not/being accepted. Not/being good enough. And yet, even in the comfort of my lovely life with my amazing second marriage and two grown children, with my extended family who I love quite a lot, I still get tripped up now and again about who I am and how I fit into the world. About what I've accomplished or not accomplished. About how I stack up. How I compare today.

I look at magazines and acquaint myself with the newest host of celebrities and "it" people. They're all infants. Infants making untold fortunes, but for what exactly? Because they learned how to beat box a rhyme in the ghetto (isn't that marvelous!) or received surgical breast implants big enough to choke an elephant (that's hot). Or best of all, are famous for nothing more than scandals or sex tapes or being born into an exceedingly indulgent family that groomed them into fame whoredom, à la Kardashian. I see who our youth are looking to as heros and idols and examples and it's quite frightening. I see how little it takes in this world to become the adoration of the masses. Popularity, it seems, still rocks. It's still the barometer of success whether you're in school, or college, or out in the world trying to make your mark. To be liked. To be accepted. It's still a dangerous drug. And yet, I still wonder...

I wonder what it's like to wake up as George Clooney or Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. Or to live one day as Julia Roberts. To be yes'ed all day long and have throngs of adoring fans love you no matter what. I wonder what it's like to live inside the head of Madonna where the world in general is but a nuisance. I wonder what it would be like to be whisked here and whisked there, to dine in the finest restaurants, to be put up in the finest accommodations, to fly 'round the world on a private jet. I wonder what it would be like to be so popular that you almost forget you're human, or worse - subject to the same laws of limited longevity.

Then it hits me all over again that I am so very blessed to live a quiet unpretentious ordinary life. With correct balances and good Karma. With love and respect and ups and downs and normal things. I am so happy to be the un-est of unpopular. Then, now and forever.

Maybe it's better to be unpopular after all.