It was surely played at my first birthday, although I have no memory of it. It had been purchased the year before, when my oldest brother had turned 3. It’s a safe bet that it was played for every person’s big day from that time on, until they had flown the coop. Flown the coop or been pushed, in the case of my father, or lured away, in the case of my youngest brother.
All told, that album was played more than 80 times. While I mostly remember the groans which accompanied its return each birthday, I also remember the excitement I felt when it was played for me as a young child. Up until I was about 8 or so – when I didn’t care about acting cool or I was at least oblivious to the pressure from the older ones to act less like a child, less goofy – I would be bouncing off the walls, waiting for the cake, the presents, the focus on me. For one magical night, for one magical Side A of the birthday album, it was all about me.
In a family of five kids, it’s rare to get the kind of attention a kid wants or think she needs. In hindsight, I know my mom gave us as much attention as she could, took part in as many activities as she could, and loved us as much as possible. Yet she was stymied by several factors: lots of kids, an often absent husband and limited resources. One day a year, though, she could make it all about a child, not the children.
The cake – my favorite – would be lit. The lights would be dimmed. The needle would be dropped. The others would all shout along with the voices on the album, “Surprise! (Cue laughter and sounds of glee.) Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you.” Over the third line, my family would drown out “to you” with “dear Patty.”
While it was certainly the birthday kid’s day, allowances had to be made for young children. After the true birthday wish was made, the candles were re-lit and another child got to make a wish and blow the candles out. Then the candles were re-lit yet anew and another child given a chance. And so it went down the line, the number of wishes made dependent on the stage of the children. By 10 or 11, the others would stop clamoring for their turn.
The child least thrilled with the album was my oldest brother. It would make sense that he would clear the path for subsequent kids. Except he was the good son, the obedient son, the one voted least likely to make a wave. So it was rather surprising that he threw such a fit. For his 16th birthday, he pleaded with us not to impose the ritual on him. And, fingers tightly crossed behind our backs, we vowed not to play the album.
We went all out for him that day. I’d like to think that he was secretly pleased. That he felt some rush of the excitement from childhood sweep through him. I can’t say with any certainty that he did.
I carry on the tradition, without the album as there is nothing to play it on and it is warped beyond playing anyway. But it’s still about the cake being lit, the lights being dimmed, and the song and laughter. And it’s also about lighting the candles again and again until all of the kids are sated.
Ironically, my oldest brother, the one hell-bent on no birthday celebration for his 16th birthday, shuns any of the traditions. He has to. He’s become a Jehovah’s Witness. [No, I don’t think it’s because of the 16th birthday.]
[Scribbit's June Write-Away Contest has the prompt of "traditions." This is my entry.]
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