I remember when I was a kid and birthdays were a big deal. As a child, birthday parties ranked right up there with celebrating Christmas. In fact, right after Christmas I started thinking about my January birthday.
As you read this, I’m probably walking around the house humming a little birthday tune and trying to feel celebratory. I must admit that birthdays aren’t the same at 70 as they were at seven. As a child, I used to feel like a queen for a day on my birthday. Then, getting older was a good thing. Now it’s kind of scary!
Probably the best thing about current birthdays is the memories of birthdays past. Filtered by innocence, I remember my childhood birthday experiences as magical and sprinkled with fairy dust. Sure, my memories are probably grander than the actual events but that’s why selective memory is a wonderful thing!
I can still feel the excitement of waking up when I was seven years old and knowing that it was my birthday! Mother braided my hair and I carefully chose the dress that I wore to school. As the birthday girl, I wanted to look especially nice when mom brought chocolate cupcakes for the class to enjoy.
After school, my best friends went home, changed clothes and came to my house for a party. Dressed in our frilly party dresses and black patent leather Mary Jane shoes, we played ‘Pin the tail on the donkey,’ ‘Ring-Around-the–Rosy’ and ‘Telephone.’ There were no Party Bouncers or hired clowns to entertain us. We entertained each other.
As I recall, a lot of oohs and ahhs went on while I opened my gifts. Some of my favorites were paper dolls, coloring books, jump ropes, tiny baby dolls, dish sets and Jacks. After they were carefully opened, the paper was neatly folded and saved to be used again!
The party culminated with my favorite homemade buttermilk cake, layered and spread with a fluffy boiled frosting that was topped with coconut. It was presented ablaze with candles for me to close my eyes and make a secret wish. After the candles were blown out, the cake was cut and served with vanilla ice cream and punch.
Each departing guest was given a party favor and this birthday girl stored enough happy memories in her heart to last a lifetime.
At that age, I didn’t realize that those happy birthday parties took place in the dark days after the Great Depression near the end of World War II.
My family lived in Los Angeles and those were tense times up and down the west coast. I vividly remember nighttime Blackouts during bomb scares. We lived at the top of a hill, in a two-story house. At night when I went to bed, I would peek around the black curtains to see — nothing. A city of one million people was eerily dark.
Food rationing impacted folks of all ages and income levels. Highly prized commodities like meat, dairy, coffee and sugar were hard to come by. Coupon booklets and stamps were issued for different categories of rationed food to ensure that everyone had equal access to them. Lots of trading went on: “I’ll trade you one coffee for two sugars …”
Dad worked long hours in the oil fields and mother was a stay-at-home mom like most women of the day. My grandparents lived across the street from us. Grandpa raised a big Victory Garden in the vacant lot next door and grandma canned the excess produce. Home canners were eligible for additional sugar as an extra incentive to conserve fruits.
I now know that mom couldn’t just go to the grocery store and pick up the ingredients that she needed to make the homemade chocolate cupcakes that she took to school or the delicious buttermilk layer cake that I remember so fondly. One had to have both money and a coupon for rationed items. She and grandma would save up or trade their coupons and stamps to make the meals and desserts that brought so much pleasure to our birthdays and holidays.
Cookbooks and recipes were printed on how to get the most from different cuts of meat. Eggless cake recipes were all the rage. Tires, cars, gasoline and rubber footwear were rationed. Everyone was urged to drive under 35 mph to preserve their tires. The average citizen was only allotted 3-4 gallons of gasoline a week.
Anything that would help the war effort was rationed. Fabric rationing limited the choice of clothing styles that my grandmother made us. Oleo or a lard-like substance that came with a capsule of yellow food coloring replaced butter. Ordinary household grease was saved. Scrap metal drives were held and Boy Scouts collected old newspapers.
All around the world there was suffering and sacrifice. And yet, everyday life went on. Birthdays were still celebrated even as we mourned the loss of life “over there.”
Today, on my birthday, we’re at war again. “Over there,” young men and women are dying for their country. “Over here,” there are different problems. The financial picture looks grim. Jobs are scarce. Prices are high. Families are hungry. The homeless population is growing. The prophets of gloom and doom are alive and well.
Nevertheless … we need to celebrate our birthdays! To celebrate a birthday is to honor life and its constant journey of ups and downs, joys and sorrows. To celebrate a birthday is to acknowledge a vibrant organism — our past, present and future. To celebrate a birthday means that there is hope and life goes on.
So, ‘Happy Birthday, 2010,’ everyone! Enjoy your journey and if you can’t enjoy it right now, hang on for the ride! It’s worth the trip.