Birthdays in the age of Facebook remind me of the chapters of my life. If you made a Venn diagram of the more than 100 people who wished me a happy birthday on Facebook today, it would be comprised of eleven circles with the following labels: family, pre-grade school, grade school, high school, college-Kansas City, college-Columbia, MoPIRG, University of Missouri Press, Missouri Historical Society, Ameren, Washington University. There would be some overlap between a few of them, but mostly they’d be distinct circles. The overlap they all share would be Facebook.
Birthdays were a big deal for us growing up. Not as big a deal as for kids today, with the orchestrated parties and guest lists and thank-you notes–but maybe an even bigger deal because they were not that. They were mainly family events. My mom had a book, a pamphlet, really, of different cake designs. Every birthday for all five of us she would make a cake from the pamphlet after the birthday boy or girl chose the design. I don’t remember any of us having the same cake twice or the same cake as anyone else. They involved a lot of cake cutting and cake pasting with cake frosting and cake decorating. I remember a giraffe, a rocket, a cat … in the one at the right, from my fifth birthday, it was a house. We would gather around the kitchen table to sing the birthday song, Catholicized as:
Happy Birthday to You
Happy Birthday to You
May Mary and Joseph
Smile down upon you
Then we’d blow out the candles, and my dad would playfully swat our butts, one swat for each year. Plus one to grow on, and a pinch to grow an inch.
A birthday was also a time for going out to eat, which we didn’t do often. Again, not like today. Even McDonald’s was exotic, because it was not home. And again, the birthday boy or girl got to pick. Chain steak places like Sizzlin’ Sirloin were the absolute outer limits of our imaginations. For senior prom, my date and I drove the hour to Kansas City, where we were served prime rib au jus in the rotating restaurant atop a downtown hotel. I had no idea what to do with au jus, and neither did she. I poured it over the meat, messily, because au jus cups–as I’ve experienced at countless wedding receptions since–are made for dipping, not pouring.
My favorite birthday ever was my twelfth. I asked for, and got from my mom and dad, an orange plastic portable cassette recorder from Radio Shack. It altered my understanding of time. Conversations, television shows, music–I could record anything and freeze it forever. The idea of captured time, preserved time, fascinated me. I spent the day recording things, and recording things became an obsession. Skits I made up, The Gong Show, Saturday Night Live, conversations: they were all preserved on a tape that I kept and listened to for years afterward. The following Christmas my sister gave me cassettes: Styx, The Grand Illusion; Queen, Jazz. I listened to those tapes over and over on our annual pilgrimage to Kansas that Christmas, listening raptly with a single ear bud shoved in my head.
Exactly forty years later, I’m still fascinated by captured time. But the people from my Venn diagram, while necessarily representing some part of my past, are also my present. I am lucky to have lived long enough, healthily enough, and happily enough to have had all of these chapters, which most people can only dream about, and to still be in touch with people from each of them. I am beyond grateful.