As a child, my family usually marked birthdays with homemade Duncan Hines yellow cake and chocolate frosting and a round of “Happy Birthday.” My Grandma always mailed each of us a card with birthday money that she signed “Lots of love, Grandma.” Sometimes our grandparents (who were church members that befriended my parents) would invite us over to their house for Little Caesar’s pizza and soda. I don’t remember presents (most likely because we couldn’t afford them), but my mouth still waters thinking about that greasy, hot pepperoni pizza and cake and ice cream.
I only recall one birthday party that my family tried to throw when I was turning 6. I invited two friends, Kathleen and Nikki, from my kindergarten class at St. Bernard School to celebrate with my family at our home on Thrush Street. I remember my older sisters Tuyen and Lien got balloons and crepe paper streamers and decorated the dining room ceiling and walls with yellow and pink twisty bunting just for my party.
I never had friends over to my house so it was a HUGE deal. I remember literally dancing in the dining room, feeling so special and admiring all the pretty decorations that were hung just for me. I waited for the two girls to come but the start time came without their arrival. I remember waiting and waiting and waiting, which may not have been the hours that it felt like but when you are 6 and no one shows up for your birthday party, it feels like an eternity and then a few minutes more.
I was crushed. I thought I had no friends. My birthday was ruined. I cried and felt horrible and pitiful and pathetic. I remember rivers of snot and fat tears running down my face. I remember my eyes and nose stinging because I was crying so hard and the taste of salty boogers running into my mouth. I’m sure my sisters and brothers tried to console me but I had none of it. In the throws of this breakdown and my ruined 6-year-old life, Kathleen and Nikki showed up very late.
I remember looking up from the dark of my huddled arms, blinking and saying, “You are here? You came?” Kathleen and Nikki were wearing cheerleading uniforms and ribbons in their hair because they came straight from junior cheerleading practice. I can’t recollect the specifics, but it ended up that they forgot to tell me that they would be late due to practice. Hooray? I don’t think they stayed long, but I do remember freckle-faced Kathleen looking me in the eye and telling me I was silly to think they didn’t like me. I’m sure they apologized. I don’t remember. I do remember hugging them, and Nikki saying something about wiping the snot off my face. While the day was somewhat redeemed, I’ve held a deep aversion to birthday parties since then and am still nervous about throwing a party for fear no one will show up.
In my 20s, I felt like I had to make up for my deprived childhood and claimed the month of February for myself. (Not narcissistic at all.) I felt it was owed to me since Lunar New Year, my birthday and Valentine’s Day were all my favorite holidays and in my birthday month. I joked February was a short month anyway so why shouldn’t it be mine? I never had a party, but I reveled in the “Month of Mai” with presents, flowers, chocolate, cards and all the consumer spoils. I was most certainly a 20-something spoiled brat.
When I reached 30, I wanted my birthdays to quietly come and go with some cake, wine and a quick nod to another year lived. I’d indulge in an afternoon tea, but I retired the desperate need for attention and gifts as required by the “Month of Mai.” Now at 39, the last year of this decade, I do not need fanfare, but I’m also done with the quiet dread of getting older. It’s undeniable. I’m aging! I can’t hide from it. I’m here to own 39 and send my 30s out with fireworks or at least the bonfire of flames that will be my birthday cake candles. To paraphrase Oprah, aging is a privilege and a gift. It’s time I embrace my age.
Happy 39th birthday to me!
One thought on “Happy birthday to me!”
Dear Mai, it was nice to hear something of your life after (how long has it been?) a few years. The last time we met was in NYC with Tanya Fawcett. I am still in Budapest, weathering the pandemic. I can work from home, so my situation is enviable. How amazing to think you are in Singapore! Congratulations to your daughter on her third birthday. I don’t have consistent memories until I turned four, so I imagine my third year was pretty blissful and carefree.