City Sprawl: Growing Out of Birthdays?

The years are marching on and we can’t help that. But do they have to diminish into the background?

City Sprawl: Growing Out of Birthdays?
Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

The years are marching on and we can’t help that. But do they have to diminish into the background?

By Susan Anspach  •  Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

The 25th of this month marks 30 years previous I was born in Northern Virginia. I know exactly where in Northern Virginia—which spot in the ground over which hospital room used to stand in Prince William Medical Center. They rebuilt the Labor and Delivery unit of that hospital, but before they did, my dad and I would take walks in Manassas in the evenings and he would point it out to me.

There are three children in my family and we all know the story of where and how we were born. We know how, with my brother, my grandmother came to keep watch over the house and the family before the big day. How after my sister was born, my father asked what he could bring to my mother. Her request was a pomegranate and he found it for her and she ate it. Sometimes we were told those stories on our birthdays.

Isn’t there something lovely about that?

When my son was born, my husband brought me food, too. He brought me Pop-Tarts from the hospital vending machine, although at 3:41 a.m. and after nine hours of labor I think my specific request was “literally anything. Chewing gum. Anything.” So I guess with my kid, we can talk about that.

Something I’ve realized lately about birthdays is that it doesn’t matter if I live to be 140: As of September 2 of last year, every one of my son’s birthdays—every one of my son’s days—will always outweigh every one of mine.

I’m a big believer in growing old. Growing wiser and more fruitful, more Zen; I’m a huge believer in Zen. But there is something lost through birthdays as we age further from our literal birth days and as more birthdays begin to separate us from our own. Maybe that’s part of it? Or maybe I’m not there yet in matters of wisdom: At its most depleted, I choose to re-nourish my body with chewing gum.

My parents did celebrate my childhood birthdays—to an extent. We’d invite eight kids over to eat cake and roll around in the grass for a while. Do kids’ party invitations still list an end time? Mine always did. If that’s the case today it would shock me, since limits don’t seem du jour in the case of young birthdays. It’s a self-licking ice cream cone and I’m not trying to be the one to fix it. You don’t get the bouncy castle and then expect me to roll over and play with non-helium-filled balloons. I’m getting the helium. I’m getting the bouncy castle and I’m getting the bouncy pirate ship, for overflow. I’m getting the most god-awful noisemakers money can buy and sending them off in the goodie bags.

Here’s what my family does for grown-up birthdays: Still eat cake. Eat some other things with sugar in them; still set the kids loose in the yard. Sing the Dutch birthday song, since my father is Dutch, though Dutch is such an impossibly difficult language that replacing the lyrics with a mumbled “Now we sing the Dutch song/ Now we sing the Dutch song” has become, over the years, acceptable. Other, smaller traditions accrued over the years. Having a balloon tied to the back of your chair in the kitchen. Getting your choice of supper that night.

The Dutch song was absent on my 18th birthday, which fell on the same day as my high school graduation. (I spent senior year at a boarding school, and to pull off the Dutch song you really need group vocals.) My parents, the traditionalists, remembered that birthday. Not many of my friends did, too consumed with the circumstances of their own big day. My mother and father, however, bought me a silver locket and a beautiful dinner that I appreciated exactly zero percent, absorbed with the horror of having to part ways with my friends. Are all teenagers like this? Now that I have a child, I live in fear that they might be. Eighteen-year-olds don’t deserve exquisitely engraved lockets. Eighteen-year-olds don’t deserve birthdays. Skip directly from 12 to the year you start missing the balloon chairs and special dinners and most especially the Dutch song, the year you think to go dig out that locket and give it a shine.

Some birthdays’ importance seems to persist in our grown years, but without the annual regularity I wonder whether the pressure won’t become too much. My friend’s great-grandmother is about to turn 110, and to her family I say, ‘Good luck with that’. I have nothing planned for my 30th this month. My husband’s been stressed out since February but won’t admit it because whatever he does is supposed to be a surprise, as if maybe we’ll both forget all about it. There are worse things than forgetting, I suppose, like remembering and planning an elaborate surprise party only to accidentally leak the secret two weeks out and neither of you wanting to disappoint your friends so both of you fake your way through the whole thing. My bad. Last year I threw him a 1920s murder-mystery dinner and accidentally messed up the clues so the puzzle was unsolvable. We ate enchiladas, for some reason, amidst fedoras and a general air of confusion.

The upshot of that birthday party was the upshot of every party we throw nowadays: For weeks afterwards, we never want for red wine. It’s a symptom—as the years march on, the birthday gift exchange becomes increasingly sticky territory. The best birthday present I got as a kid was an outrageously pink, outrageously oversize glitter-sticker set. I don’t know that I’ll ever again feel the kind of frenzied joy that $15 inspired—that gift made me so happy I spent three days sick to my stomach. When did we become so hard to please? It’s as if the whole world collectively decided to throw the towel in at the same time and pass a mid-range bottle of Bordeaux to whomever happened to be sitting to the left.

There are exceptions to any rule, and to them the rest of us have this to say: Cut it out, please. You’re making the rest of us look bad. You know the guy who spent six months planning a secret Alaskan ice-fishing expedition for his father’s 60th? I do. I know him personally. You’re casting a real pall over my L.L. Bean sweater vests, bud.

My dad is notoriously hard to shop for; the sweaters are no indication of how much I care. (If I can’t surprise him, I can at least wrap him in a cashmere-lambswool blend, yes?) If we’re lucky, we do have people in our lives about whom we care deeply enough that the red wine just doesn’t cut it. We want their birthdays to be the best they can be, regardless of whether they’re rounding out an arbitrary decade. I’ll have balloons for my son on his third birthday, when he’ll love it, and on his 13th, when he’ll hate it but I’ll still be tying them to the back of his chair.

And if the day of my 30th passes us by without so much as a whimper, there’s always the nighttime, after the baby’s asleep and we’ve uncorked one of our 25 bottles of red. The Dutch aren’t known for their wine production, but it’ll pair fine with a song I know.

@CitySprawlNVMag is celebrating her third birthday on Twitter.

(May 2014)