Picking the cake

Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, March 1, 2019


Growing up, we didn’t have birthday parties. Not the kind with party hats and streamers and balloons — where you and all your little banshee friends tore up the house while the adults looked on indulgently. I don’t remember going to birthday parties at all, in fact, or having cupcakes at school, let alone helium balloons, which seemed about as farfetched as being in the circus, the only place I knew of where one actually had access to such things.

Years later, when I saw home movies of my daughter Celine’s father, Gary, at the birthday parties his parents threw, I actually felt indignation rising at what was so obviously an utterly impoverished childhood in comparison. The old Super 8 movies showed full-on cowboys and Indians birthday parties, parents laughing, participating in shoot-outs and such. It was the ’60s, OK? Almost baffling in its political incorrectness. Yeah, the adults were busy having their own party: early cocktails, smoking and passing that movie camera around to get the whole thing recorded in the warm flicker of 8mm film.

Looking back, I wondered if the differences could be explained by comparing East Coast to West, or WASP to Catholic families; or if it was simply a matter of the social norms of the time and the neighborhood. We were not by any means impoverished; in fact, I grew up believing we had everything we could ever need. I do remember being able to pick the kind of cake I wanted and my family singing happy birthday, the warmth and light of candles near my face. I remember what a big deal it was to pick that cake.

Nevertheless, fast forward a bunch of years, when I have my own child and find myself getting really worked up about these birthday parties that never seem to stop, one after another, year after year! Six months in advance, I am stressing about themes, colors, activities and the bleeping goodie bags, stuck in the throes of some not-good-feeling complex that has to do with all the parties I now realize I never had. Oh, she’ll have birthday parties, all right; she will have parties she’ll never forget. (Of course, everything is relative. Other kids will have fire trucks and fieldtrips and entire restaurants. But no one will ever say I didn’t put energy into those birthday parties.)

The runaway birthday train probably started with my mom buying a store bought cake for my one-year-old — decorated with four cones filled with frosting — and then putting it in front of her “to see what she’d do.” Whaaaaah? This was a kid who had had zero sugar. Zero. So. By the time she was four, in 1997, I’d boarded that runaway train and strapped myself in. We had the Rocky Mountain Ark over, Melissa Margetts and a bunch of her animals traipsing into the house and all the kids taking turns to hold the baby river otter, the maimed turkey vulture, to herd the chicks, to watch a goat clop through the house with a diaper on. And then came the fawn — without a diaper — scattering pellets on the floor as all the moms watched, transfixed by the scene. Ding-ding! Winner!

Hard to live up to that one, but we tried. We had the rainbow party, the carnival party, the amusement park party, the crafts party (her least favorite) and the solve-a-mystery party. In my mind’s eye, I see my daughter Celine’s little face at each of these events assessing whether she is having fun, whether others are having fun, whether or not everything is fair, whether she feels good at the center of all the attention — or not.

In contrast, I think of her racing home one day at the age of 5 or 6 from her friend’s house — she was wearing a bandana on her head — and breathlessly explained that a group of four of them had been pretending to be poor girls and all they had to eat was a single hardboiled egg and a glass of water each. This ingenious mother (I’ll let you guess which German friend) had given them a lesson of a different kind: how it feels to be grateful for something exceedingly simple when you are not only literally hungry, but hungry from having climbed the highest peaks of the imagination.

In March, my birthday month, I try to feel the sweetness of glowing like the sun for 24 hours, everything and everyone in orbit around me as life fizzes and fusions in the vortex of being human. And I think of all the kids and grown-ups I’ve known (including my own and me), who in a moment of receiving too much lose much of the feeling of enough. Of parents, particularly, trying to meet expectations, exceed expectations, almost as if we are in fear of their being disappointed.

One can always add deer pellets to any party for comic relief! But what we really want for ourselves and our children is that simple, wide-open feeling on your birthday of picking the cake, and then actually getting to eat it, too.

Dad vs curation nation

Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, December 7, 2018


They come roaring in, these lists upon lists of gifts upon gifts, 10 best or dozen most useful or most quirky or most coveted. Gifts for the cook, the couple, the bookworm, the humbug, the athlete, the gentleman, the millennial, the techie, the bacon lover, the beef lover, the vegan, the gardener, gifts for every kind of kid and connoisseur and aficionado you can think of, as well as, of course, the zen koan-iest gift curations of all — gifts for persons who have everything.

At some point, usually around the time I’m actually starting to believe that life might be measurably better with a certain thing I don’t yet have, I flash on my father, a bigger than life military man I’ve written about many times before. For whatever reason, and against all odds, Jim Curry, liked Christmas.

He passed away over 30 years ago, so I’m not completely sure he wouldn’t have eventually gone the way of the Grinch, especially given today’s subscriptions boxes and animal adoptions and thematic gifting and blogger posts and celebrity curators like Oprah and Ellen and corporate ones like Amazon and BuzzFeed. He certainly would have put his foot down at the pressure imposed to spend, to splurge, to agonize over what others have pitched as the perfect gifts.

Not to mention the religious aspects of the holiday he was never quite on board with. At the dinner table one night, after a heated argument about religion (me from my perch as a Catholic high school sophomore at a school he’d enrolled me in), he declared he would never set foot in a church again. As a self-proclaimed nonbeliever, he rarely went anyway, but with my mother’s French Catholicism backdropping the raising of the kids, he had always managed to put the suit on for the occasional church wedding and for midnight mass. No more midnight masses. Maybe no more weddings.

So, it wasn’t entirely clear to me why he liked Christmas. He’d grown up relatively poor in the Depression years, a father gone, his mother and grandmother raising him. And yet, he wasn’t a man who wanted much, except for the very best of anything! (This became ever so clear in a pile of letters he wrote to my mother in the 1950s during 10 years’ worth of tours of duty. He was buying suits in Hong Kong he could not afford while she was literally buying bolts of material to make clothes for three kids. )

But at Christmas, all personality rules seemed to be off, and in a beautiful you-never-know-about-people (especially your dad) sort of way, he settled into the season. He might have been done with midnight mass, but he created a memorable tradition of Dad’s Christmas on Cascadia Avenue. Old school, spare and oddly curated — part Charlie Brown, part king-of-the-castle, and all of it commencing with the clearance tree we’d go buy for $1.99 at the local variety store in Seattle and then drill holes into in order to fill it out more (seriously).

Sacred rituals? Excessive tinselizing of said tree (tinsel was made of lead back then). Ornaments that never changed at all, not in 30 years. And, at some point mysteriously slotted into the delicious days before Christmas, he would disappear into his office, a cozy little smile on his face, with the ribbons and scotch tape and the limited assortment of wrapping paper we had back then, and carefully wrap all the presents he’d purchased for the family. It was the bows I remember best, a simple type of little flower bow he would make by wrapping curling ribbon around and around his hand, tying it in the middle and then fanning out all the loops into petals. Every single gift got one. Every year.

Curation for the girls (there were two of us, and two boys) was very simple and did not waver much: dried fruit assortments from Harry & David (platters that came with a two-pronged plastic fork that included dates and maraschino cherries, apricots and pears and such). A silk scarf in a small box, with tissue. And some kind of bath item like powder with a puff — usually a respectable, well-known scent.

These gifts were old fashioned even back then! But thinking back on it, I loved what he brought, for his daughters especially, at Christmas: delightfully simple things that were, in their own way, quintessential and right. Care spent in making them ready. And the simple tag accompanying each one of them that said our names and “Love, Dad” in his own loopy, big-boss-man handwriting. In fact, it was probably those two words in juxtaposition — “Love” and “Dad” — that, along with his little gift, reminded us that he had a beating heart, after all, and that it was a soft and tender one.