It’s my birthday.
The very first in my life without the woman who birthed me. I’d post one of those photos here. You know the kind with the mother kneeling beside her daughter or son, as they blow out their candles, but I don’t have a single photo of me and my mother on my birthday. I doubt Brother John or Sister Tater do either.
I don’t know if it was just the kind of mother our mama was, or just that back in that day parents didn’t make a fuss over things the way the parents of today do. My friend Tara wrote an aching essay recently about facing her first birthday without the woman beside her. Tara said her mama once made her a crossword puzzle cake.
Mama liked to work the crossword but she never made me a cake like that. Once in a while she would make me banana pudding. It was one of Daddy’s favorite too. I don’t typically like banana pudding but I liked the way my mother made it, with the meringue crisped golden in the oven. And Nabisco vanilla wafers. Only those would do.
Whatever cakes she made are long forgotten. There were no parties with pony rides, ever. Birthdays in Hawaii were spent at the beach. Most birthdays were celebrated with a cake after supper and whatever gift we were going to get. Birthdays with Mama were not all day affairs. I have among my belongings some of the birthday cards she sent me over the years. Those are the true treasures because my mother was not a writer. If you received a card with more than “Love, Mom” on it, that meant she was really trying to let you know how much she loved you.
The year before Mama fell ill she called me on my birthday and told me the story of my birth. How the ambulance came, blaring just like those sirens on TV in those foreign films, she said. Because I was a face first baby – wouldn’t you know it? – and because she had spent a long time in labor, Mama had to be transported from the base’s Army hospital in Stuttgart to a more specialized hospital in town. At some point the doctors told my father I might not make it. Or that my mother might not.
I don’t have any idea why they didn’t do a C-section but they didn’t. Mama did say that because the birth was so difficult for her she didn’t really want much to do with me that first day out. So it was my father who fussed over me.
There was no family in Germany. Nobody to help the young military family. No meals waiting when my mother arrived home from the hospital. No baby showers given and celebrated. No grandmother nearby, eager to be of assistance. I don’t even know if my mother called her mother when I was born. Our people were a poor people. Phone calls were expensive.
We left Germany when I was six weeks old. My 19-year-old mama on a big ocean-liner with a three-year-old son and a six-week-old daughter. When my sister was born two years later, my mother took a taxi to the hospital. Our father was in Korea.
In truth, my mother spent most of her life alone, doing for herself. A lot of the military spouses I know are just like Mama that way. Independent. Headstrong. Unwilling or unable to let others do for them. The only community they’ve ever known has been a military community. Cut off from that, they make do for themselves.
They are all strong women.
I am not strong that way.
Sometimes I think I’m not strong at all, not really.
I need friends around me, cheering me on, helping me out, telling me “You go, girl.” For years now a veteran I have never met sends me a birthday card from Wisconsin. One year Ray and his wife Kathy sent a red, white and blue afghan. Ialways call them after I get the card, and we talk about the local politics and our kids. He remembers the names of each one of my children and what jobs they had the last time we spoke. He buys every book I write and actually reads it. He has a deep laugh, the kind that uproots the tree. I look forward to these annual phone calls. I worry about the day when they will cease.
My daughter told me the other day that my love language is gifts.
Yes, I am now at that age when my daughters are trying to figure out what makes me tick. Fortunately for them, I’ve left a wide path littered with words and stories.
Usually I am flying home from DC on my birthday, seeing how it bumps right up next to Veterans Day. This year I left right after the ceremony and woke up to quiche, grapes, & gingersnap cookies, all made by this little man’s mama:
Sullivan and I had our first real conversation this morning. There is an orange truck on his dresser. He was pointing to it.
“Do you want to drive the truck?” I asked.
“No,” he said, shaking his head.
In ten years from now, if I am still here, I probably won’t remember any of the gifts of this birthday but I bet I never forget our first “conversation.”
Stories swapped. Food shared.
Life’s a party.