When my kids had a birthday, I used to wait until they were asleep and take colored crepe paper (pink for girls, blue for boys) and decorate their doorways of their bedroom, twisting and taping and creating a grand exit. Their chair at the kitchen table would also be decorated with streamers and a helium “Happy Birthday” balloon would be tied from a rung with a ribbon.Their place setting had an etched glass and a special fancy plate with their wrapped presents and card sitting on top. I thumb tacked up the 12 foot long Happy Birthday sign across the log ends but the real treat is what happens in their bedroom when they first open their eyes.
Todd and I blew up at least two dozen large colorful balloons that we placed on the floor of their room, forcing them to swim through the balloons to get out. As soon as they pushed open their eye lids on their special day, it felt special for them. That was the whole idea. When we heard their little feet padding on the wood hallway, we began to sing “Happy Birthday” loudly from our perspective beds. Then we spent the first half hour of their birthday lying on the floor and the bed batting them up into the air, taking turns, passing them back and forth, trying not to let them hit the ground and yelling when they did.
This was just the start of the big day. They got to choose their heart’s desire of breakfast, lunch and dinner. The years they attended public school, they got a wellness day and were forbidden to go to school. Todd wasn’t allowed to go to work that day either. I baked their favorite cake and they got to decide what we all did together from sun up to bedtime. Sometimes it was going to see the new Harry Potter movie, other times it might be riding an elephant in Thailand. It ran the gamut, from local to very far away.
When Sierra and Bryce were very little, they spent the first part of the morning fashioning a construction paper cone hat with ribbons or strings of seed pearls hanging down from the point. In magic marker, “Happy Birthday” was written on the hat. It was secured around their neck with Christmas ribbon and it was worn all day long. That way, everyone, from the mail lady to the postmaster to the grocery store cashier would know what special day it was. And they’d throw out quarters or lolli pops to honor them.
I pulled out their birth photos on their special day, as embarrassing as it was to see their naked mom with the huge belly pushing their bloody heads out, and the photos from their first year of life too. I had Sierra at a birth center and Bryce right here in our bedroom, so Sierra was present to watch the miracle of her brother being born. It always felt like their birthday was something I, their mother should equally celebrate, as I had a big hand in making it happen.
I wanted my children to know that they were valued and celebrated. As their mother, I honestly felt as though I celebrated their presence in my life every single day they were with me. They were my greatest joy and the gift I was most grateful for out of my whole life. Their actual birth day was the most special.
What Marianne Williamson said about little children struck a cord with my heart:
And how ungrateful and irreverent to listen so little and watch so casually when angels themselves have moved into the house. I have never seen such honest demonstrations of enlightenment as in happy children. They laugh a lot, yet hey are very serious. The understand everything without letting on that they understand much. They are old and young, innocent and loving. What are we doing pretending to know more than they do? And why are we putting the things of this world before their well-being? We tend to treat children as we treat God. Not always well.
I believed in the importance of ritual and raised Sierra and Bryce in that same vein. Rituals and traditions enrich a family’s life and are an excuse to come together and share and make memories. They help us celebrate life and each other.
Our family often went on long trips over winter break and the holidays. As Bryce’s birthday is December 29 and Sierra’s January 23, we often celebrated in some far flung country. When we packed for those trips, I secretly bought balloons along and somehow tried to blow them up without the birthday child knowing. The idea was to surprise. This tradition did not stop, no matter the age. If we were with our adult children on their birthday, they got balloons.
This past winter, our family was on holiday in Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar. Sierra’s husband Eben was along as well as Bryce’s girlfriend, Calan. I was also celebrating my birthday on this trip and for the first time, I had my bed and room filled with balloons by Calan and Bryce. They burst in come morning with a garbage bag and unloaded them on top of me. We proceeded to all lie on the bed and played a game of balloon batting for a good half hour. In sixty-one years, this was my first personal bed of birthday balloons and it felt wonderful. (I take that back, in doing research I remember my daughter and her then boyfriend, Eben, flooded me with balloons on their sofa when we visited them in their tiny apartment in China when I turned 56. That had been a wonderful surprise too as every balloon bed bash is because you never know if your loved ones had gotten their shit together or not to remember the balloons especially if you were not at home).
Next after my birthday in Vietnam, was Bryce’s. To make his day special, Calan rented a a bungalow in Ninh Bihn on a lake and cycled along the edges of rice patties and boated down drowned valleys with Vietnamese captains handling the oars with their bare feet. Our side by side double beds had mosquito netting draped from the ceiling down the bed’s sides to the floor. They would provide the perfect holding container for balloons.
During dinner that night, Calan excused herself and said she wasn’t feeling well and was going to lie down. But what she really was doing was blowing up balloons. She stuffed them into a garbage bag and hid them between our bed and the bungalow’s bamboo wall. Then in the early am, she pretended to get up and pee and her and I gently, slowly, lifted up the one end of the mosquito netting and filled the bed with colored balloons, then woke up the happy birthday boy. Although Bryce was turning 25, he was not too young for batting balloons.
Batting balloons seems like a silly thing and almost a dumb thing to continue into adulthood, but my children don’t feel that way. To remember to buy them, stay up late enough to secretly sneak away to blow them all up, then having childlike fun as the whole family bats them up into the air, is a lovely simple pleasure. It speaks volumes on how much you care. It warms my heart that it means enough to them to want to continue it themselves, even before they become parents. This is the true test that something that you did in their childhood meant something deeply to them- they continue it in their adult lives- the true litmus test of importance.
I saw a video on FB the other day, of very elderly folks in a home, sitting around a long cafeteria like table, in wheelchairs and such. They sat on both sides of the long table and each had rulers in their hands. A few balloons were being batted back and forth between them. Ballon Volleyball. Adult recreation. That will be Todd and I someday. The kids can visit us in the old folks home and join in on the fun. They will have had a lot of practice.