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Jewish World Review
August 18, 2011
/ 18 Menachem-Av, 5771
Celebrations full of love and buttercream
Celebrations tend to be more for the celebrators than for the one who's being celebrated.
My mother always said she did not want anybody making a fuss over her birthday. Which was good, because nobody ever did.
But on the last birthday of her rocky 70 years, as she lay bedridden and weary from battling lung cancer, she finally relented and gave us permission to throw her a "little" party.
As parties go, it wasn't much different from any of the other big family meals we had gorged on over the years.
Sunday dinner was a tradition in our family as far back as I can remember. It started in my grandmother's kitchen with my mother, her eight sisters, their current husbands and countless children, all elbowing in, talking at once, laughing and arguing and eating our fill.
After my grandparents were gone, gatherings grew fewer, but they continued on occasion at my mother's house -- come one, come all, potluck style, G0d help you if you showed up empty-handed.
What made this meal different from all the rest -- aside from the pallor of my mother's face and a shadow that played at the edges of every smile -- was the buttercream comfort of a birthday cake with three candles, one each for past, present and future.
When I told her what the candles stood for, my mother laughed and rolled her eyes. She always loved a good joke.
We sang "Happy Birthday," then she gave a little speech.
"I hope you all live to be as old as I am," she said, "and I hope you never get cancer."
Then she wrinkled up her nose at my cousin. "Sandra, honey," she said, pausing for effect, "what the hell did you put in that potato salad?"
Clearly, my mother knew how to work a crowd.
That was 16 years ago. I thought of her recently in one of those odd moments that flare up in my memory like the glow of her cigarette in the dark.
I was standing on the lawn at the home of my youngest and his wife in a big, beaming circle of family and friends, singing "Happy Birthday" to my first grandchild. Named for his late grandfather, Randy was born one year ago on what would have been, had she lived, my mother's 85th birthday.
I wish you could've seen him.
Wearing shorts and a Golden State Warriors jersey (with "Randall #1" on the back), he stood alone (a new trick he recently mastered) barefoot and ankle-deep in the grass, copper curls glinting, eyes shining, looking around the circle, taking it all in. When we finished singing, we clapped and cheered and he clapped a little, too.
Then his mom handed him his first-ever cupcake and I thought, "Help me, he's going to gag."
The boy gags at everything, unless it's something he is not supposed to eat. But he did not gag at that cupcake.
He ate all the frosting, except for the part that ended up on his nose and cheeks and chin and hair. Then he dug into the cupcake with both hands and ate most of that, too.
Finally, when he finished, he looked up at all the people who love him -- some present in the flesh, others only in spirit -- and gave us a buttercream grin.
Clearly, he knows how to work a crowd.
Celebrations don't really require a cause -- a birthday, anniversary or other milestone. Any excuse for a party will do. All you need is someone to love.
Will my grandson remember his first birthday? Does my mother remember her last?
I don't know. But some of us will never forget them. And that is something to celebrate.
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© 2011, SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE
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