Birthdays are a big deal. No matter how old you are. If you are lucky, you have a party (if you want one). With friends. Family. Neighbors. There is usually cake lit up with candles (when you had a grandfather like mine, sparklers instead). Presents! Hats. Favors. Games of some kind. Pin the Tail on the Donkey when I was 5. A “Ouija Board” and levitation when I was 15.
My children always had a birthday party – sometimes more than one if you count “family party” and “friend party.” We did Pin the Tail on the Donkey a few times, but soon realized that was SO old fashioned. However, cake and candles never go out of style. Especially the trick candles…
And…speaking of trick candles…the following is one of my favorite party photos. My daughter’s 4th birthday.
The photo below is from my 4th birthday party. Trying to set up the group shot. The pointy hats are an interesting coincidence.
My southern grandmother – who was born and raised in Tennessee – had a boy’s name first and a girl’s name second. But everyone called her Eva. Apparently this was customary at the time (1892) in USA southern states. She had a sister named Jimmy Ruth. Her brother’s name was Creed.
Johnny Eva was Grammy to me – my paternal grandmother. As a child, I was somewhat mystified by her. She had very long dark wavy hair – almost down to her waist. I’d sit and watch her comb it out, coil it up and then secure it with combs or clips. I never knew another older person with such long hair. Not one for makeup and frills, she wore sensible dresses and sensible shoes. We had that in common.
I only saw her sporadically when I was growing up because she lived in Ohio and we lived on the east coast. After my grandfather Papa died unexpectedly in 1964, Grammy would come and live with us for a month or 2 several times a year. She didn’t always have alot to say, but she’d look over your shoulder to see what you were doing and comment. (As I recall, this did not go over well with my mother!) An excellent seamstress, she repaired anything that needed mending…and sewed dress-up dresses for my sister and me. And fancy clothes for our baby dolls and Barbies.
She loved to watch The Lawrence Welk Show on TV and rarely missed it. Frugal to a fault sometimes, she would insist on buying day-old produce and bread when she went grocery shopping with my mother – even if the quality was poor. She was always generous with her family though; slipping me a few dollars when she thought I needed it. I never took advantage of this; but it was comforting to know that she “had my back” – and her help was always offered without judgement…an unspoken underlying connection between us.
I often wonder now if she had some undiscovered underlying medical issues. She would often disappear into her bedroom to “rest a spell” during the day. I also suspect she may have suffered a level of chronic depression that only worsened after Papa died. I often sensed a real melancholy about her.
When I told her I was pregnant with my son – our second child – her reaction was…”why? why bring another child into this terrible world?” Needless to say, that’s not the kind of congratulations I was expecting; but I was not altogether surprised and I wasn’t upset with her. Unfortunately she passed away the week after he was born, at the age of 95.
I had forgotten how much she kept in touch with me.
In my treasure trove of letters I have found dozens from her. I don’t think she went to school after the 8th grade, but her letters were full of detail & vivid descriptions. And, most importantly to my childhood self, full of genuine interest in and love for me.
She wrote the following letter 2 years after Papa died, when I was 12. It was near Thanksgiving. She was staying in her childhood home, where her sister was still living in Tennessee. Apparently with no heat.
It was expensive to make long distance phone calls when I was a child, so letter writing was the only way to stay in touch. And I am so grateful she did.
Growing up – and into her adulthood years – she loved to go fishing.
Beefeater’s martini straight up. No ice. Lemon peel on the side – if I wanted lemonade I would have ordered it.
That’s how Opa ordered his drink – the first order in the first round of drinks – when he took our family out to dinner when I was growing up. It sounds kind of rude, but I would imagine if time after time he got the lemon peel in the drink…well, he ran out of patience. I would wait with great curiosity to see what the waiter or waitress would bring. The fancy stemmed glass filled with a clear liquid served on a small plate…where a few slices of lemon peel hopefully (!) would rest. I don’t remember where the olive was supposed to go. Worst case scenario: a glass filled with ice AND lemon peel AND the gin. High drama for us kids.
Next up was ordering off the menu. We could all order what we wanted. No children’s menu. I always felt so grown up learning the fine art of “find out what goes with the dinner.”
Split and toasted!
When the inevitable basket of dinner rolls arrived to keep us fed while waiting for the meals to arrive, Opa would send it back to the kitchen. Please have these rolls split and toasted! And they did and they were amazing and warm and crunchy with butter melting all over.
While we crunched on warm, toasty rolls, Opa made magic happen with his white cloth napkin. He turned, napkin hidden, to the side – carefully rolled, then twisted the cloth and…turned back to face us. And there in the crook of his left arm was a napkin “bunny” – that kept “hopping” up his arm as he patted it with his right hand. All the while he would be talking to it and to us. We’d stare and stare. Wow. That’s entertainment.
As we got a bit older, the bunny didn’t capture our attention like Opa’s napkin bra could. He’d quick fold up his napkin, pull the corners and briefly hold it up in front of his tie and pressed suit jacket. Ta Da! Opa had a bra! Hysterical and ridiculous every time. This napkin trick embarrassed my mother immensely but thoroughly entertained his grandchildren. How did he do this? Simple (but I didn’t figure it out for a long time):
Fold napkin so that the 2 sides meet in the middle.
Fold the opposite way so the open edges are on the outside.
Grab left corners with left hand and right corners with right hand and pull.
When it was someone’s birthday, there was a cake brought out to the birthday girl or boy. A cake with a lit sparkler! The cake could be seen from across the dining room shooting sparks into the air. As it was set before you everybody sang Happy Birthday to You, You Belong in a Zoo….
I am honoring my Opa’s memory on June 26th – what would have been his 112th birthday – by sharing his restaurant tricks & talents. Valuable hints for grandparents everywhere. How to continue embarrassing your children and endearing you to your grandchildren forever.
Everyone has one. Whether they choose to admit it, announce it or celebrate it.
When you’re a little kid – and your parents are into the celebrating part – you might get a party. And then…decades later…if you are really lucky, you will unearth old faded polaroid black and white party photos – of yourself plus those who attended your 5th birthday party. In my case it included my brother and sister and random neighborhood kids. Former neighborhood kids as well. Family friend kids from out of town. Five year olds don’t often take kindly to standing still for very long (Polaroids took several minutes each). Never mind smiling on cue.
Being corralled on a tiny front porch with a latched gate at least kept everyone in one location. I do wonder if this was before or after the cake….
Try as I might, I can’t recall the names of most of these party guests. Besides my brother and sister (who, despite the ever present fact that I was the oldest, got invited to my parties for years…thanks to my mother-the-only-child), I do remember Joanne, the girl with the coat on. She lived down the street and whatever the weather (this was in May), she always wore a coat. Fun fact.