Thursday, September 20, 2018 is my 51st birthday.
I mention this not because I want you to post a semi-automatic “Happy Birthday’ message to me on Facebook or Twitter. In actual point of fact, I’ve marked my birthdate “hidden” on Facebook and on Twitter… because I’m a total grouch about my birthday.
I have a hereditary sense of self-pity where my birthday is involved. My father, who clearly suffered from undiagnosed depression much of his life, tended to spend most of his birthdays in bed in a darkened room. Some Father’s Days as well. Birthdays and Father’s Days didn’t always start that way, but in my recollection more often than not Dad would get his nose out of joint at not receiving sufficient respect on his day of days… and next thing you know he was sulking in the bedroom. Head under pillow, as it were, lights out, curtains drawn.
I don’t exactly do that. But I certainly don’t look forward to my birthday.
When I was a kid, the general rule was that you’d get up in the morning on your birthday and there’d be a heap of wrapped presents on the dining table waiting for you. Then, that night, everyone would go out to a restaurant of your choosing. In principle, that sounds good, right? What really sucked about birthdays in my family was that in all other respects, your birthday would be just as rotten as any other day.
My father was pretty abusive. Emotionally and physically. Mom enabled him in many respects. She didn’t do the bullying, but she didn’t stop him from doing it. Dad never made the connection between it being my birthday and maybe letting up on the abuse for a while. The irony just drove me up the wall. Irony in the sense of “Happy Birthday” being said, but “you pathetic loser” being the meaning. From what I understood, birthdays weren’t supposed to be like that.
It definitely led one to develop a nice strong sense of self-pity. That, and Dad’s absolute refusal to ever compliment or say anything nice to any of us kids ever. I wound up as the all-time Grand Champion of low self esteem.
What really iced the cake, so to speak, was my 17th birthday. I got up in the morning, went out to the dining room to see what gifts were waiting for me, and there was nothing there. Not a card, not a package, not anything. I wondered if perhaps my parents were planning a surprise, like having a car waiting for me when I came home from school. I doubted that — my older sisters had never gotten anything like that for their 17th birthdays. But I didn’t want to say anything and have them go “impatient, aren’t you?” So I went to school having said nothing. Some kids at school remembered my birthday, which was nice, but still, I spent the day going “WTF?” about my family. That night, once again, nothing. No one said “so, where do you want to go eat?” No one said “you’re probably wondering where your presents are?” Nothing.
Not much I could do. If my family cared so little that they forgot my birthday, going hat in hand and saying “pretty please can I have a birthday celebration please” would just have been pathetic.
So I said nothing. For a while I wondered if at some point they were going to look at the calendar and think “Hey, wait a second…” Given that my mom’s birthday was on September 4 and mine was on September 20, they were usually thought of as “the September birthdays” (we had the three March birthdays and then my brother’s was in July). Mom’s certainly hadn’t been forgotten… so why had mine? Anyway, day after day went by and they never did remember.
So finally, about a month after my 17th birthday, I went to my mom and asked a contrived question: “Do I need to register for Selective Service within 30 days of my 17th birthday or 18th?” She said “18th, I think” and I said “OK” and wandered off. A few minutes later, the shoe dropped. Mom came and found me and asked what they’d given me for my birthday. Finally, I had the opportunity to really revel in the absolute nadir of self-pity. Of course, I acted like it was no big thing. Shrugging, I said “Nothing, Mom. I guess you forgot.”
She went off and called Dad at work to let him know. They decided between them that since they’d forgotten it at the time and for a solid month thereafter, there wasn’t really any point pretending to care and having a belated celebration. They apologized and that was it.
Isn’t it absurd that I still recall it so vividly?
When I went off to college, and then grad school, and then went off into my adult life, birthday celebrations more or less went by the wayside. It wasn’t the kind of thing you could ask your friends to do for you and what friends I had never took the initiative. And thank God, I was never so wretched as to buy myself a birthday cake and sing Happy Birthday to myself. At least I had that much self respect.
Then I got a steady girlfriend and got married. A chance for a new start, birthday-wise, right?
Carole, bless her heart, had a mother who managed to even exceed my parents’ birthday management skills. She tended to shop at Big Lots a lot and would come home with random crap that was on sale. Then, when it was Carole’s birthday, her mom would remember at the last minute and go up to the room where the “crap bought at Big Lots box” was kept and would arbitrarily grab a few items. Really haphazardly-chosen stuff. So, that was where Carole learned about gift-giving.
For the first few Christmases and birthdays we were together, Carole would go to the local bookstore and buy a few remaindered books and then would wander into a clothing store and buy something off the clearance table. Usually whatever she bought didn’t fit and the books had been remaindered for a reason, but at least she tried. Kinda.
On the other hand, I was expected to make up for decades of awful birthday gifts from her mom… and I wound up buying a metric ton of gifts for her each time, in hopes that one of them would really knock the ball out of the ballpark. Each year I had to do more and more because she’d look so disappointed if she didn’t get something really awesome.
And that wound up being how things stayed. I’d get stuff off the $5 table in the front of the Wal-Mart and Carole would get an embarrassment of riches. Eventually I told her to just stop. I’d rather get nothing than get something that so patently shouted “I DON’T CARE”.
The only time it really hurt was when I turned 50. I’d turned 40 onsite at a customer while onsite at a business trip and when I got home a few days later we went out to eat, but that was it. On my 50th, though, I was really hoping for things to be different. I knew there was no way Carole would remember to do anything unless I reminded her, because in addition to having learned awful gift-giving at her mother’s knee, she’s also the queen of procrastination. So I politely reminded her every couple of weeks for months leading up to my birthday. She understood that I really wanted, for once in our time together, the kind of birthday other people get. She’d say “I know, I know, you can stop reminding me.”
You already know what happened. I turned 50. I got: a cake.
So basically, I hate birthdays. Mine, anyway. I’m more than happy to celebrate others’. I still get Carole lots of nice stuff and try to make her day of days really special. But I’ve given up on my own ever amounting to anything.
And as I type this, I realize — as far as birthdays are concerned, I’ve turned into my father.