Header image: Joey Gannon from Pittsburgh, PA (Candles) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Today’s post comes from Steve Grooms.
We are approaching the date of my erstwife’s birthday. That triggers a rush of memories, some sweet and some harrowing. (Apologies to Baboons who might remember this story from an earlier post.)
Early in any couple’s married life the newlyweds might need to blend two different family celebration styles. This became a challenge for me. My family went nuts at Christmas but hardly acknowledged other special days. We did little for Thanksgiving, less for Halloween and absolutely nothing for Easter. My new wife’s family celebrated as often and as gaily as possible. Life in that family was a succession of hearty parties.
The sharpest clash of styles related to birthdays. My in-laws exploded with joy at birthdays. They put on celebratory dinners, baked fancy cakes, presented cards and exchanged cool gifts. In my family the birthday star chose his or her favorite cake. And that was pretty much it. No cards. No candles or candy letters on the cake. The gifts were modest, too. When I turned ten, for example, my mom gave me two dollars to spend at our local dime store.
You see the potential here for hurt feelings. Early in my married life I had to acquire the habit of celebrating special days. And in fact, I enjoyed that. I never forgot our wedding anniversary. The big day that tested my memory was November 7, my bride’s birthday. That one refused to stick in my memory. Who knows why? But, with the help of a watch I programmed to remind me of the date, I was always ready with gifts.
In October of 1989 I traveled to South Dakota to hunt sharp–tailed grouse with a guy I barely knew. To save money, we camped out, sleeping on the prairie without even a tent for shelter. That should have been fun, but we experienced a freak shot of winter weather. It got so cold I couldn’t sleep until I invited Spook, my English setter, to spend the night tucked in with me in my sleeping bag.
I was so distracted by the preparations for the trip that I totally forgot my wife’s upcoming birthday. By then the magic watch was broken, so it didn’t warn me. I didn’t even remember later, while we hunted the frozen prairie. If the error had been scored in the Olympics of Marital Screwups, I would have earned a perfect ten.
When I got home again I walked into a home so frosty I could have cut the air with a knife. I slept in the basement. Things were so chilly I was tempted to invite Spook to share my sleeping bag again. In desperation I gave my wife a novel that I had bought earlier, intending to give it to a friend. This novel had earned a rave review from Alan Chuse on NPR. But my wife knew I had bought it for our friend. It wasn’t wrapped. And when she read the first few pages, she hated the book.
That horrible birthday became a “teachable moment,” which is a nice way of saying the memory of that birthday fiasco was forever burned in my memory. In 1990 I began planning for her next birthday several months before the date. I bought several sensitively chosen gifts. I had them gift-wrapped. I got a nice card. I planned a special meal with plenty of wine . . . good wine, not the plonk we usually drank. I invited several close friends to the birthday party.
I covertly borrowed my wife’s address book to copy contact information for every friend she had in the world. That was many people. Of course, her close friends already knew her birthday, but I contacted all those second-tier friends scattered over the world, people who liked her but might not know her birth date. I urged each one of them to give her a call on November 7. And they did. Her phone rang over and over all day long. That was the best gift of all.
My finishing touch was to invite the President and First Lady to her party. In 1990, Potus was George H. W. Bush and Flotus was the Silver Fox, Barbara. They weren’t our favorite politicians, to tell the truth, but I was going to make every effort to make this party memorable.
Toward the end of October I took an interesting phone call from Cynthia Hemphill, head of the White House Protocol Office. Speaking in the cultivated tones of a Seven Sisters college grad, Ms. Hemphill said she wasn’t sure how to respond to my invitation. She didn’t recognize my name, which led me to assume she didn’t read many Midwestern hunting and fishing magazines. Without lying, I allowed her to conclude I might be a fat cat Republican supporter.
I told Ms. Hemphill that I knew the Bushes were busy folks. George was saving the Free World, a big job, and Barbara had just co-authored a book with Millie, the Bush’s springer spaniel. I described how miserably I screwed up the last birthday celebration, adding that I hoped it would be a nice touch to invite some special guests this year. I hinted to Ms. Hemphill that a note of regret from the Bushes would be welcome.
In addition to the gifts at the birthday party, my wife got to open a note from George and Barbara Bush. They wouldn’t be partying with us that year, but they wished her well.
How do you celebrate special days?