I’m back! I plan to resume posting on gender and queer stuff next week, but for the moment, to mark my 45th birthday, here is a post about my best childhood birthday memory.
I never have been much for celebrating my birthday as an adult and the few times I’ve tried to specifically do something for my birthday things haven’t gone well. Nothing really tragic — no hospital visits (though one close call), no breakups (even that once when I really wanted to), no arrests (haven’t even been close on that one), but not much good either. I feel like that tradition was established long ago, in what is now my favorite childhood birthday memory. Mind you, it was not a favorite at the time, but I have come to adore it.
It was a milestone birthday, made to seem all the more significant by its position near the beginning of the milestone parade: I was turning 13, that most awkward, angsty, and Judy Blume-est of years. It felt like a bit of a big deal to me, as most everything does when you’re that age, despite that fact that birthdays in my family were always fanfare-free.
Early one morning a few days before my birthday the phone rang and when my mother hung up, she was crying — not uncontrollably, it was more like she was choked up. My grandmother had died during the night. Her death was not expected but it also was not a surprise. She had been in nursing homes for a few years and her health was declining for several years prior to that, but there was nothing about that particular time that made it seem like her death was imminent.
I was never close with my grandmother, though we visited her somewhat regularly; nothing about those visits was warm or comfortable though. The interior of her house looked ready for a rainstorm, encased as it was in plastic. Thick vinyl carpet protectors lead from the door into the absurdly over-filled living room. There was more furniture than the room could reasonably hold and every surface was crowded with tacky knick-knacks and collectibles. It was a gauntlet of breakable terror, but if you followed the center of the carpet protector pathway with laser-guided precision and kept your arms and hands tucked closely to your sides, it was possible to safely reach a piece of plastic be-sheeted furniture, where you could remain affixed to your seat (in the summertime, quite literally) for the duration of the visit, relatively certain of not breaking anything. Unless you had to use the bathroom, then god help you.
She must have had some incredible stories to tell, spending World War I in Paris, coming to the U.S. alone and pregnant shortly after the war, trying to raise five kids on my grandfather’s meager coal-miner wages. Even if it had occurred to me to ask her about such things, I probably wouldn’t know much more than I do now. Somehow her French accent was still so thick I often couldn’t understand what she was saying, especially as her hearing and overall health deteriorated. I do know that she always called my sister and me her “beautiful girls” which indicated to me she was either losing her eyesight or her mind, because I was never in any danger of being beautiful. At the very end of her life she didn’t remember who we were but when she was reminded, then we were again her beautiful girls.
Her funeral was the day before my birthday. It was the first funeral I’d been to and I had no idea what to expect. The big buffet that followed the service was especially confusing and seemed inappropriately festive, more like a family reunion than the anticipated show of grief. There was, of course, far more food than necessary and among the leftovers was a sheet cake with a big picture of Jesus in the middle and only a corner piece cut out. My parents, with their Midwestern practicality, decided that it would make a serviceable birthday cake for me.
Though I thought this was a terrible idea, we were taught not be complainers. The ethos in my family was to expect absolutely nothing and be grateful for whatever we did get. If I had expressed the slightest misgivings about having leftover cake for my birthday, the solution would have immediately and unquestionably been to have none at all. So the cake came home with us and my mother set about turning it into a birthday cake. When she peeled up the cardboard Christ, He left behind a large unfrosted rectangle in the middle of the cake and smears of the blue piping that had surrounded Him. There wasn’t much to be done for the missing corner piece, but I thought she could at least have gotten some white frosting and spackled over the exposed cake there and in the Jesus-vacated center. Candles and a little plastic Happy Birthday were all that was needed to complete the transformation.
I told myself that it didn’t bother me so much that I was getting a second-hand cake, but rather that it was second-hand funeral cake; somehow this distinction made me feel less ungrateful. The problem was the incongruity of a funeral/birthday cake, the mixing of events that shouldn’t be mixed. It was just so morbid after all, this chocolate cake with the dead grandma frosting.
In the end, I blew out candles, ate cake and ice cream and opened a few presents, just like every other birthday of my childhood. The one thing that made it memorable, that made it special, was that slapped-together cake. It was the ideal metaphor and symbol. It was awkward and ugly, much like I was at that age. It perfectly encapsulated my upbringing, nothing fancy but at least it’s something. My one regret about that birthday is that I don’t have a picture of the funeral cake with its cardboard Jesus frosting hole and missing corner piece, but I guess it doesn’t matter because I’ll never forget it.