Perfect – A birthday story

When you get to be my age, birthdays are really no big deal.


After all, I am well past most of the significant years, the ones that are generally remembered with celebrations.  This year my age didn’t even end in a zero. Why then, did my weekend begin with such a feeling of disappointment?  And why do I now feel the need to apologize to my spouse for the next 12 months?

Let me explain.

When the girls were living at home, birthdays here on the Hill were a pretty big deal.  I always tried to make the day extraordinary for the recipient.  We had many traditions that our family followed from year to year. They received a small morning gift before school, the faded “Happy Birthday” banner was brought out and hung in the kitchen on the night before the big day and there was a large family birthday celebration complete with the honored person’s favorite cake. They each had parties with friends invited on those extra special birthdays…5, 13 and 16.  In a word, I tried to make the days memorable for them.  Perfect. Over the top? Perhaps, but we really didn’t do much for them individually at any other time of the year, so it felt good to spoil them on this one day.

As a matter of fact, all of our birthdays were celebrated with a family dinner and a cake; even the adults. We usually had the get-togethers here – we had the space to spread out and it was much more convenient when our children younger – but even when we went out to a restaurant we usually returned here for the cake.  Several years ago my father added his own little extra – he bought everyone one lottery ticket for each year of their presence on the planet.  Each gift had a guaranteed minimum; he would buy any of the losing tickets back for the dollar it cost – but if the recipient actually won anything they got to keep the winnings as a bonus. The whole family would sit around the kitchen table after gifts and cake and scratch the tickets together.  Unbelievably, there were never any big winners (even when my mother received 60+ tickets!), but we still enjoyed the ritual.

In the years since the children have left home and my mother has been gone, the lottery tickets have been replaced by single dollars, usually sent in the mail in a card, since everyone has moved far away. The big family gatherings have been less frequent.  The year that I turned 50 I decided we needed to go to Mexico to celebrate, so there was no family gathering at all.  It didn’t really bother me that year, so why did I feel so blue this year?

It has been said that I am difficult to surprise.  This is true.  It does seem that every time that someone tries…I figure it out.  I definitely do not do it on purpose – I spoiled far too many Christmases when I was a child by searching for my gifts.  I LOVE planning surprises, so I am always trying to think of new ones. There was the year that I bought my husband a dog, or sneaked my oldest home to be here for his birthday one summer. We even had a surprise “Sweet Sixteen” for our middle daughter at a beach bar in Mexico one year. I love to plan surprises – I am  the official “planner” of the family – but I am inquisitive by nature, so I inadvertently stumble upon things.    This does not keep me from  hoping that one year they will “get me”.

This year my birthday fell on the weekend,  so there was the possibility of something special.  Since nobody had asked me what was happening that day, I was sure that there must be something brewing. I tried to ignore little things that I thought might be clues so as not to spoil any pending surprise. On the day before my birthday when family members began to ask me what I was doing on Saturday it became apparent that there was nothing in the works. I have to admit that I went to bed on Friday night feeling a bit disappointed. I felt sad that I wouldn’t be seeing my children. I had planned a lunch with my sister and my nephew, which was nice, but mostly it felt like my “big day” would be just another day.

When I woke up on Saturday, this is the first thing that I read.Enjoy life now, don't wait for the perfect moment It made me start to think.

I had overreacted the night before when I allowed myself to feel the way that I had. I do tend to always look forward to the next big thing, building it up in my mind to such a production that I am bound to be disappointed.  I am always thinking “we could have”, or “I should have” instead of enjoying things just the way that they are right now.

Sunflowers make a wintery day feel like springWhen I came downstairs, I was met with a wonderful bouquet of flowers sitting on the kitchen table.  As I was drinking my morning coffee my husband suggested that we take a drive. The little monster in my head immediately began to think…”sure…there is no real plan”, but I kept my composure and agreed.  I called my sister to cancel our lunch (sorry Sis!), and we were off.  As we were driving we started to discuss where we would actually go.  We tossed around a few ideas, but since we were both starving we decided that lunch would be first on the agenda. We settled on the Melting Pot, which was located in a large mall just outside of Buffalo – about an hour and a half from home.

The Melting Pot - Dark chocolate and peanut butter dippersWe enjoyed a wonderful meal and the two glasses of Pinot Grigio that I consumed (it was after 1PM, and it was my birthday, after all) definitely improved my outlook.  Jim told the server that it was my birthday and we were enjoying a “spontaneous” day.  She seemed impressed and congratulated us and he gave me a wink because he knows that I am not a particularly spontaneous person, but I played along.

We wandered around a bit and did a little shopping – an outfit for Fee and three pairs of work pants for Jim – before I had enough of the mall. After that we stopped at the Home and Garden show, hoping to find some inspiration for a few summer projects. It turned out to be a bit of a bust, but we did still find it amusing to watch all of the people.

It had been an easy and enjoyable afternoon and we were ready to go home and relax, but since the shopping in Buffalo had not produced any significant finds, I asked Jim if we could stop at TJ Maxx on the way home. It seems that I can always find something in this store and that day was no exception. I found a dog bed, some bath mats and a sweater.  I ended up in the home decor section on my own and I found a wall sign that I liked.  It said “I Love  You More”, which is always my response when someone tells me that they love me.

When Jim came around the corner, I showed him the sign and told him that I thought I would buy it.  He responded with “you don’t want that”. This annoyed me. Yes, I DID want it.  It was my birthday and it wasn’t very expensive. I insisted.  He said “Honey, you really don’t want that.” When I stared to object again he finally said to me “You actually already have it at  home”.  I was confused. I had never seen the sign before; how could I have it at home?  Then it struck me. He had already purchased it for me – as a gift.  I had spoiled the surprise, once again.

I put the sign back and we drove home laughing.

Once we got back home he disappeared for a few minutes and came back with not one, but several packages.  As I opened them, I discovered that each one contained a small but meaningful gift.  The sign, of course, and some oil and vinegar from a special shop in a little town that he passes when he is on the road.  A magnet with a picture of a yellow lab, a wrought iron cross for my collection and a witches ball like the one that I have that was my mothers. The perfect gifts

I felt like a real heel.  He had actually been planning my birthday for days.  In his own way. As I apologized for being such a brat (for the first time), he told me that he had wanted to make the day special just spending it with me.

I am lucky to have such a thoughtful caring guy…even if I don’t appreciate him enough.  I have been blessed.

And my birthday?

It was perfect.

Going away to school

College campus

Yesterday we took our youngest back to school after her spring break.  These trips are tough…it is at least a six hour round trip and it is still always sad to leave her there, even though we have done it so many times before. Our schedules this time made made it difficult to spend much time together, but it was nice to have her home for a spell. I like the idea of knowing where she is, and coming home from work at the end of the day to find her on the couch, with the dogs, watching television or studying. I will miss having her around – at least until she returns in a few weeks for the Easter weekend. I don’t even mind the laundry…much.

The trips to our children’s college campuses over the past 10 years have also been hard for me for another reason.  I never “went away” to school.  When I was in high school contemplating my future (if I really did think about it at all), college wasn’t really a big part of the picture.  My parents, especially my father, did not see a great urgency in college for women.  I remember him commenting that if I didn’t intend to be a teacher or a nurse then why bother? Most of their generation graduated, got jobs, had babies and lived in the same community for the rest of their lives.  It seemed like only the wealthier families sent their children away to college.

I attended a local community college, and while I lived in an apartment with a roommate the second year, I never had what I considered a “real” college experience.  No dorms or tree filled walkways, no sororities or fraternities, no meal plan.  It was about the time that my sister – who is seven years younger than I am – started thinking about college, that I realized I felt like I “missed” something. By that time I had already entered the world of marriage and family and mortgage – well past the resident student stage.  I strongly encouraged her to “go away” and she did, to a college a few hours away from home.  She indulged me a few times during her four years away, and invited me to stay with her in the dorm, but I always knew I was a fraud. I had left my babies at home with my husband so that I could go there and pretend to be a student.  We had a great time, but I wasn’t fooling anyone, especially myself.

When it was time for my own children to visit schools, I was extremely enthusiastic.  I thoroughly enjoyed touring the campuses and always asked a ton of questions.  I am sure that I embarrassed my girls on more than one occasion with my queries.  They each chose picturesque campuses with tree lined walkways and bell towers.  I was in heaven!

Shopping for their dorm rooms was such fun for me – picking out comforters and towels and trying to figure out everything that they would need was a so exciting! I imagined  exactly how things would be set up and daydreamed about what their lives would be like with their new friends in their new surroundings.dorm room

I know that I have romanticized the experience to the point that it has the makings of a sloppy co-ed novel, but I can’t help it.  I am very happy that my children have had this experience that I never had.  Even if it isn’t half as wonderful as I may have  imagined for them to live on a noisy hall with twenty other students, sharing messy bathrooms and eating food that is a far cry from the wonderful meals that were served on visiting days, I am glad that they have done just that.  Although these years have also included things like dealing with inconsiderate roommates and dormitory drama from time to time,  I hope that someday they will look back and remember their college days fondly. I know that they have all made life-long friends and it is my wish is that their experiences will help them to be a little better prepared to deal with the challenges of adulthood than I was.

I expect that their education will also include things like tolerance for others from different backgrounds, and the ability to compromise and get along with others.  It was also my intention for them to learn how to be independent and use good judgement. I know that this is the last chance for them to enjoy their friends and have the feeling of community that will fade so quickly when they become caught up in the hectic day-to-day of work and responsibility.

In the meantime, I will continue to live vicariously through my youngest daughter’s last year and a half.  Maybe I can even sneak in a weekend visit (staying a respectable distance away at the local Hampton Inn, of course) and not seem too lame. I am sure if I add a Wal-Mart run and take a few of her friends out for dinner then I will be welcome.  We only have a short time left!

Dear Fee

Well then.  Today is your first birthday party! Poppa and I are so sorry to be missing it, but I am sure you will have a wonderful time. Your Mama and Daddy have a great reason to celebrate with their friends. Your little family is one year old!

We have been very lucky to have been able to see you in person a few times since you were born. (Here is a link to your Mama’s post about your birthday and the lovely slide show that she made that documents your first year) Each time we were together it was amazing to see the changes that had taken place since the last time.  The fact that we can’t see these things happen gradually is the hardest part of living so far away from you. Skype is good, and I am very glad that we get to visit with you a few times a week, but it doesn’t make up for the lack of cuddles and kisses. I haven’t been able to steal you away from your parents for some special time alone (for you and me and for them), and I haven’t had nearly enough time to spoil you properly!

I have seen you transform from that tiny wiggly creature with the great shock of straight black hair to a busy, active curious little girl.  I love your happy laugh and your rosy cheeks. Even your temper tantrums make me smile! We have enjoyed visiting and blowing kisses, and I was lucky to see a few firsts – the first roll over, the first tooth, the first crawl and the first steps. We play pat-a-cake and I love to listen to your animal noises.  I am most impressed with the elephant.  I watched you feed your breakfast to Max and Moe (much to your Mother’s dismay), and even got you to fall asleep on my shoulder – one time. It has been such a joy to see your Mama grow and change as well, and your presence in our family has brought back many memories for your Poppa and me from our own first year as parents, so long ago.

I want you to know that I have great plans in the Grandma department. I can’t wait to spend time with you as you get older, doing fun things together.  I hope to have sleepovers and shopping trips and special secrets.  I plan to braid your hair and take you for ice cream and slip you a little “pocket change” when you get older. You, like your mother, are my first, so I am sure that I might make a few mistakes along the way, but it is my understanding that a Grandmother’s sins are always forgiven, right? You will be the one who teaches me “how” to be a Gram, so your future siblings and cousins will benefit from our time together, I am sure.

Right this minute you are probably enjoying your “smash cake”, opening presents and giving your parents and Godmother a great photo opportunity. I am thinking of all of the fun that we will have when you come and visit us this summer. I really hope that today it is a lovely day for you all and I want you to know how delightful it has been to get to know such a special little girl this year. Congratulations on your first birthday and I hope that the next 12 months are filled with happy things for you.

I love you more than words can say, sweet girl.

Fee Birthday Balloons

Love and kisses,


Rested and…

Ahhhh....It’s official.  The mood here on the hill is definitely “Post Isla Depression”.  I believe that since our last trip was so long ago, we forgot about this stage.  We both feel tired and out of sorts, a bit of a cross between coming down with something and exhaustion. It will pass, I know, but for now I am wallowing.

In the meantime, here are a few (mostly unedited) pictures from our trip. We had a wonderful, relaxing time. We ate too much (and I only gained TWO pounds!?!), watched countless sunrises and sunsets, visited with old friends, met new friends, walked, swam and enjoyed each other’s company.  It was blissful and relaxing and it ended far too soon.

Only 11 or 12 months until we can do it all again…..and so the countdown begins!

Photographs and memories

I have no photographs of my mother and me together.  There may be some from when I was a child, but I do not have them in my possession. It makes me sad that I can only visit our time together on this earth in my memories.Mom

The relationship between mother and daughter is a tough one.  Women, in general, tend to be comparative beings.  We measure our worth and our esteem based on what we see in other women. Our mothers are our first love and our first rival. As the mother of three daughters, I have experienced this relationship on both sides and since my own mother’s death I have spent a lot of time thinking about the various complexities of how mothers and daughters relate.

As the oldest daughter, I know that I took my mother for granted.  She was a woman born and raised in a different generation. Her experience was of marriage and family and friends.  She had made some life choices that she was not happy with, but she did not feel empowered to modify them.  This was difficult for me to understand. During my own adolescent years the world was beginning to teach girls that they could do anything.  If my mother was not happy with her circumstance, I could not see why she would not just try and change it. As a perpetual “fixer” this frustrated me, and on that level my mother and I did not communicate well.

Despite this conflict, there were areas in which I envied my mother.  She was a friend to many while I have struggled with the ability to maintain female friendships my entire life. She lived in the town where she grew up and those people who were part of her core group had been with her for most of it.  They had strong, long standing relationships based on shared experiences and memories.  They talked and gossiped often over hot coffee at the kitchen table. They sent each other cards and gave each other small gifts of books and trinkets. I remember sitting at the table with them when I was a teenager and feeling like a part of the group. When I became an adult many of them provided me with advice about children and parenting, always available to lend an ear to my problems. I was friends vicariously with many of her friends for a time and it made me feel good to know that they were interested in my life and my own family.

My mother had a wonderful sense of humor.  She was witty and funny and her self-depreciating style was amusing to all who met her.  Mom being sillyShe would do and say the most absurd things.  We have photographs of her with a hundred toothpicks in her hair, or wearing a dirty cowboy hat from my father’s garage, always smiling and laughing.  One time when she and I visited my sister in her college dorm for a night we actually started to write a book of silly things that she said. Funny statements and sayings like “Do you think the rain will hurt the rhubarb?” As I sit here now, I can’t remember most of them, but my sister has them written down – we talk of having them printed. Sometimes I will open my mouth and her words and voice will come out, especially when I am talking to my granddaughter.  It always startles me when this happens, as if she were actually here with us.

I was a difficult teenager and I am sure that it was not at all easy to parent me. My mother seemed to take it in stride, though, and she let me make many decisions that I know were not easy for her to watch.  She was often the “middle man” between her children and our father, who was always the head of the household and had the final word on any issue. This was taxing to her and made her job as our Mom even more demanding. She did the best that she could with the circumstances and I do believe that her biggest hope was that we would all be happy and content with our lives.

As I became a mother myself, I began to realize how challenging her job had been.  I have to say that I was not quite so diplomatic at times, and I chose to be much more involved in my daughter’s lives and decisions.  Sometimes my mother and I disagreed on the choices that I made as a parent, but for the most part I relied on her experience and wisdom during many times of uncertainty and struggle with my children.  I feel that often times her guidance was my saving grace during those years, even if I chose not to take her advice.

Mom and the girlsMy children were very fortunate to have had her in their lives.  She is a very large part of their childhood memories.  Our family gatherings were always centered around her presence and we have struggled to continue on without her, as many families do when they lose their matriarch. Holidays and Sunday suppers are just not the same without her laughter and her smile. She took great joy in her grandchildren and always made them feel special.

The last few years of her life were difficult for the both of us.  We did not agree on a few issues, and that caused us to be at odds.  We still maintained close contact, and talked to each other regularly, but we didn’t see each other as much as we should have – mostly due to my stubbornness and inability to understand her situation. As a result, her friends, who I once considered my own had distanced me, and while I understand their reasoning – they were merely being protective of her – it hurts me to have lost them as well.

I knew that her health was deteriorating, but I did not focus on it.  I felt that by acknowledging her weakness I was giving her permission to give up. My mother was a constant to me, and I refused to admit that she would not always be there. Sometimes I feel that I failed to listen to the things she was trying to tell me.  I didn’t hear her voice because I was too busy justifying my own.

At that time I believed that the struggle we were having would pass and we would regain the closeness that we once shared.  I have a picture in my mind of the two of us a few years from now.  My children are grown and we are watching them and our (great) grandchildren playing on the lawn after a Sunday Supper. I cherish this picture, even if it is not a real photograph.

I always thought that we would have more time.NCL Hands Almost Touching