Back when I worked an office, celebrating coworker birthdays was always quite the affair and one I usually coordinated because, well, it meant cake.
As we enjoyed bites of frosted delight for one coworker/friend I’d gone to college with, she told the story of how her dad used to sit at the edge of her bed the night before every birthday and tell her this would be the last day she’d ever be whatever age she happened to be.
I knew her dad and could picture him doing this, delivering it with the perfect blend of poignancy and humor.
That’s a good tradition, I thought.
But, I’m also no copycat. So I tried to think of a way to capture that same sweet, wistful sendoff to a year. I decided watching home movies featuring the birthday kid, from birth to present, was just the ticket.
The trial run on that tradition was No. 1’s momentous fifth birthday. I fired up the CD player and popped in the video of her official arrival into our hearts and home.
She watched for a few minutes and then her face crumpled.
“TURN IT OFF! TURN IT OFF NOW!” She was so angry, tears spurted hard like they were being sprayed from one of those Super Soaker water guns. I was stunned, yes, by the strength of those waterworks but also the mightiness of that little girl’s emotions.
When she was calm enough to talk, she said she didn’t want to get older. She liked how she was. She didn’t want to grow up. Growing up was scary.
So, that tradition bit the dust.
I’ve been thinking about that memory a lot lately as we go through this holiday season. It’s happy, yes, and gives us a nice break from the typical feelings of anxiety and worry we’ve been living with in 2020, but it’s also kind of painful.
When the kids were decorating the tree the other night, gleefully razzing each other about the homemade ornaments they’d made in preschool, they just looked so big. Huge. The kids, not the ornaments. Two out of three are legit adults. They don’t vibrate from excitement and struggle to sleep the night before Christmas (well, truthfully one still does), and they’re all infinitely more patient about waiting to take turns to open presents. We used to block them from the tree and presents with a baby-gate barricade, so they couldn’t rip into the gifts until Mom and Dad were good and ready.
They used to jump up and down on the other side, begging to be set free. The grand tradition of the gate started one Christmas Eve when No. 1, not quite 2, woke up and toddled down the hall while we were just starting to tuck freshly put-together presents under the tree.
“Is that a kitchen?” she asked, rubbing her eyes, and we both spun around, shocked to see her. At midnight. It was indeed a pink and blue Little Tykes kitchen from Santa we had just placed front and center of the goods.
We quickly scuttled her back to her room, upset that the wow factor of the Big Gift and probably Santa was no more.
That was a pretty sucky Christmas.
The heat went out — and it was seriously cold that year — and when we tried to use the fireplace, instead of giving off heat, it smoked up the entire house. Now that I look back on it, that year was a lot like 2020, actually. Not because there was a pandemic, but there was that same sense of overall anxiety and angst in our own house that can only come from struggling to wrestle jobs and marriage and little kids and life.
The only bright spot that holiday season: It turns out an almost 2-year-old’s short-term memory isn’t fully developed at that age, and she had no recollection of seeing her parents putting out her kitchen.
All this stuff was swirling around in my head when I crept out of the house the other afternoon for a much-needed escape. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy everyone’s home, but there are finals and work and high-level stress and every single member of the family but me tends to be holed up in their respective individual rooms, doors shut, and so it’s not especially satisfying to be home but there aren’t a lot of other options either, this being a pandemic and all, except for heading outside for a stroll. And on this day it was way too windy to mess around outside for someone who’d invested time and effort into her hair for the first time in weeks. That is no small thing. So, I did what any person feeling squirrely from being under house arrest with little outside interaction would do — I drove to a park and sat in my car.
I found a parking spot in an empty lot that I didn’t actually know existed at this particular park even though we’d pretty much lived at this place when the kids were little. It was a huge part of their childhood. They played soccer games and tournaments there, had their birthday parties there, including the one all the guests probably still consider the best party ever because we ate chocolate cake for lunch when it became clear the pizza delivery guy was lost.
On weekends, when we needed to get out of the house but didn’t want to bleed money at Build-A-Bear, we’d take them to the park where they could clomp across the wooden bridge and whoosh down the less-scary of the slides.
I sat there, in the front seat, and read. I watched the orange leaves sway with the wind. I listened to the metal buckle of the cargo strap clank against the car that — with dozens of empty spaces — pulled up next to me. And I cried. I let the nostalgia and bittersweet sadness of watching my kids grow up kick the crap out of my heart. And you know what? For once, it made me feel a little misty for those pandemic pangs of annoyance and anxiety because those seem way less soul crushing.