Some years ago, when we first moved to North Carolina, a neighbor-friend, who was also the mom of two small boys, was telling me about some plans for her oldest son’s birthday. They were keeping it low key, she told me, which seemed reasonable enough. But then she went on to add that “they try not to make a big deal out of birthdays.” That struck me as odd, somehow, and I turned that phrase around in my head for a while. It could have meant any number of things, so I didn’t want to judge her in a negative way, but it seemed the antithesis of the way I feel about birthdays—especially my children’s.
I like to make a big deal out of birthdays, and out of most special holidays, actually. I like to write special notes for my kids to find on their special days, and to make birthday breakfasts for them—waffles, or silver dollar pancakes, or cinnamon-sugar toast. To me a birthday is a perfect excuse to make an otherwise ordinary day a big deal—and we all need days like that. When we grow up we mostly lose the excitement over presents (a sad reality of growing up), or at least we need and want less. We grow up and into an understanding of what’s important in life, and we learn quickly that turning a year older isn’t such a great thing anymore.
This past weekend we packed up the kids and the dog and drove to visit my family in Maryland, so we could celebrate my birthday on Sunday. This is a Labor-Day tradition in my family, this annual trek to Maryland. I’d been feeling glum about my birthday for weeks now, though. Usually I try on a new age weeks in advance of actually turning that age. I practice the sound of it in my head, so that by the time I actually become that new age, it feels as familiar as the old one. But this year 39 just wasn’t doing it for me. I hate the sound of it, really—39 sounds heavy and clunky, and is much too close to 40 for my comfort. I loved my thirties—they were years that meant so much to me, in many different ways: I had my babies and I watched them grow into toddlers and then children, and this time next year, when I close out the decade for good, my littlest one, T., will be in kindergarten. I’ve been feeling the weight of all these transitions for some time now, and it’s hard to hold onto the magic of birthdays when you’re looking ahead in a doom and gloom way to all that change. And I didn’t want to feel the doom and gloom! I’m usually a glass-half-full kind of person, and I love the challenges of new experiences, and new roads to take. Despite this, though, I’ve been feeling low and melancholy and grumpy about 39. Am I alone in this?
After breakfast yesterday, the kids and I crossed the lawn to the back of the yard, where my dad has built a goldfish pond. It stands in the exact same spot where a twisted old mulberry tree used to be—the one I climbed all the time when I was little. The contours of the backyard have changed tremendously over the years, as my dad has worked his gardening magic and planted fruit trees and roses and put in this beautiful pond. But the yard is still just as familiar to me now as it was those many years ago when my brother and sister and I played “Hobbit” in the ivy. Yesterday we fed the goldfish and T. nearly fell in, and we ate figs from the fruit trees. My brother and his wife came over with their kids, and my sister and her husband came, too, and there was noise and chaos everywhere for hours. I thought about how many birthdays I’ve spent in my parents’ house, and away from it, too; how no matter how much older I get, I’ll still find the shadows of my young self everywhere—in the yard, on the porch, in my old bedroom. It’s comforting to have the thread of all that sameness.
And the best part of yesterday, by far? When L. crept into my room at 6:30, just bursting to tell me Happy Birthday—that was the best gift I got all day.
Somewhere--in-between L.'s birthday wake-up whisper and hug, and the sight of the orange and white goldfish skimming the surface for food, and the Happy Birthday email and messages from friends, and the almost-Septemberish feeling in the air, and the vanilla cake and dinner out--39 started to fit a little better. If it's not a perfect fit yet, I think there's lots of good room to grow.