Many happy returns
In her post this morning, Elizabeth asked for favorite memories of childhood birthdays.
Because my birthday is in the middle of the summer when people are on vacation, I don’t think I had too many birthday parties with friends. At least, I don’t remember many. I have more memories of my brother’s September birthdays, where I was often called upon to help out. Somewhere I have a picture of me and the girl who lived across the street. We’re both dressed up in crazy wigs and hats and clown make up and giant fuzzy slippers, one each in pink and blue. We were the entertainment. I do remember that my birthday cake was always an angel food cake topped with a white meringue icing, the secret family recipe of a neighbor who lived across the street from us when I was in elementary school, and fresh strawberries.
On my birthday, we were often at my grandparents’ house in Michigan. The birthday I remember best is my 9th. We were about to move from our house in Connecticut to London and we were in Michigan to say goodbye to my grandparents. My grandmother had met someone in her small town who made spectacular cakes. It was the first cake I remember having for my birthday that wasn’t homemade and it was gorgeous, covered in icing flowers that were so detailed you could identify the variety. For a present, I got a Kodak brownie, with which I documented the party and my years in the U.K. All the pictures of the party are striped with lines of over-exposure, because I couldn’t keep myself from opening the camera to check out its internal workings. My great grandmother, who lived in California and whom I didn’t see often, sent me a beautiful Madame Alexander doll– Meg from Little Women — and a hatbox printed with butterflies with a blue silk cord. Inside the box were dresses and more dresses and blouses and skirts, rompers and tiny pairs of underwear. There was even a small plastic box full of tiny necklaces and bracelets. The piece de resistance was what I called “her Betsy Ross” dress. It was made of blue taffeta with ruffled sleeves. The panels of the skirt were lined in red satin. They parted like flower petals, revealing an underskirt made of rows and rows of tiny lace. It came with a lace mob cap with a tiny red satin bow.
My great grandmother was a beautiful seamstress. My mom grew up with her — she and my grandmother lived with her when my mom was young — and has very fond memories of her. But to me, she was a somewhat remote and not entirely trustworthy figure, dropping in and out of my life unexpectedly, sometimes sending no presents at all, but sometimes sending things so extravagant that you stood there gaping at her effort. Another year she had sent a box of 21 rag dolls, all different colors with different embroidered faces and yarn hair styles. One rag doll would have been a beautiful present, but a whole boxful was so outrageously over the top, that you could only be amazed. The present I got from her for my 9th birthday was one of the latter type.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. At 9, while I still loved dolls, I was starting to feel like I should be outgrowing them. I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of someone giving them to me. Did she think I was a baby? But at the same time, I was head over heels in love with Meg and all her tiny things. When the time came, a few weeks later, to pack up the house, my parents told my brother and I we could each take one toy with us and the rest would be shipped overseas. With no hesitation, I took Meg and her hatbox full of treasures.
As it happened, there was a dockworker’s strike after we moved and our furniture was tied up at the port for months. Meg was my sole companion on my journey to a new country. We spent a lot of time together.
My great grandmother sent me other dolls. Sometime when I was in junior high, she sent me a beautiful Sasha doll, and a another handmade wardrobe, not quite as large as Meg’s, but still impressive. It included an elegant ball gown made of gold and black lace. But by then, I was too old to play with it. I admired Sasha and her things, but they sat in the box. I had moved on. My great grandmother died not long after that.
Years later, in the attic of my parents’ beach house, Meg has sat with her hatbox. My nieces played with her when they visited and admired her wardrobe just as much as I had. Now my parents are packing up everything in that house. And my nieces are growing up too. One will be in high school this fall, the other is approaching the age when I received Sasha. Meg’s days are numbered.
As we’re packing up our own house and preparing to make a big move, I’ve been thinking a lot about Meg and about my great grandmother and the way in which our objects become imbued with their histories and ours. I wonder what birthdays AJ will remember, what toys he will think of years later. Last weekend, as I was helping him go through some of his belongings to give things away, he turned to me over a stack of picture books and said, “Mom, I just feel very sensitive about the things from my childhood.” It was a moment where I thought I might have had to smother a smile. At 11, he already sees his childhood in the rear view mirror, even as he still sleeps with his blankie (shhh, don’t tell), which these days looks more like an unraveled ball of yarn tied back together in knots. But I didn’t smile, because I knew exactly what he meant.
“I know, AJ. It’s hard. But if there are special things you want to remember, we can always take a picture.”
The picture from my ninth birthday party was taken by my grandfather with my grandfather in my grandparents’ back yard. There’s my grandmother, her hair tied back in a kerchief. There are my parents — my smiling mother, my father during his brief mustachioed period. there are my two aunts, one holding up my little brother who is holding, I think, Spotty Dog, another great grandmother creation. And there’s me in my party dress, holding Meg in her gingham gown with the tiny cameo sewn at the neck. Our faces are dappled in the shade of the tree, but it is one of the few pictures from that day that isn’t washed out from a nine-year-old girl clicking the back of the camera open and shut.