George and Babs Send Their Regrets

Header image: Joey Gannon from Pittsburgh, PA (Candles) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, 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 sharptailed 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?

48 thoughts on “George and Babs Send Their Regrets”

  1. Morning all. Thanks for writing this up, Steve – if you’ve told this before, I don’t remember. I especially like the thought of inviting Spook into the sleeping bag a second time!

    Young Adult and I have many traditions/rituals that we’ve developed over the years, although none of them are over the top. Birthdays in particular are pretty low key, since that’ what I learned growing up. Birthday gal usually gets choice of dinner and cake, gift and card.

    Solstice is probably our biggest “celebration”. After Solstice service at our church, we come home and burn our yule log (whole log w/ candles and greenery attached. We open gifts, have a toast (just juice) and then we sleep downstairs (since starting a log in the fireplace after 8 p.m. and then leaving it burning doesn’t lead to restful sleep). We used to just sleep in sleeping bags on the floor but I will admit that these days I sleep on the sofa!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ah, I envy you your fireplace and Yule Log! A friend once gave me a candle lantern, a glass box in which ritual candles can burn out safely, but the idea still freaks my roommate out so I try not to do it any more often than I have to. A fireplace or wood stove would make vigil-keeping so much easier.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Steve, great telling of a story you have obviously relived in your mind many times over. George and barbara , Adolph and Eva it could have been glorious if only,…
    my dad had some friends who on a drinking bet decided the next guy throu the door of the bar would be the guy they would make state senator in north Dakota circa 1950, well in came the guy and they told him they were going to run him for public office and he was glad to oblige.they took some pictures for printed material and had some brochures printed up and sent an invitation to a fundraising dinner to the predominant bigwigs of the day including the president, Vice President , other senators congressmen and noted dignitaries of the day. the dinner came and went and the candidate who was taking this seriously and noticed that his campaign manager didn’t have any events or activities,lined up asked if they shouldn’t be doing something to promote his name..the co chairs of his campaign (the two guys in the. bar) told him they had it covered.
    they waited and waited and three days before e election they came out with a million posters all showing the candidate smiling big as life in the main picture and around his mugshot were pictures of he president the Vice President senators and congressmen and all the notable folks who had politely declined the gala dinner and in fine print at the bottom was a notation saying that these people had all been invited to the dinner for the candidate. nothing more but the implication was strong enough and e time short enough that by the time his opposition had a chance to reply the election was over and the man was elected.
    King maker was the title bestowed on the campaign managers and when it came time for re election the man had ideas of his own and ran a campaign he thought was proper and was trounced by his opponent. the king makers said their next candidate would need to commit to staying bought if he wanted the services of the mindls that led to the seating of the man who walked through the door at the moment of note.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. special days require little more than acknowledgement at our house. a card and a seat at the table is the appropriate gift for most every occasion. a dinner with cake at the end and a laugh and story’s exchanged is all that is required. when birthdays conflict with some social opportunity for the children they know which excuse will work. none… be here and celebrate that’s all. birthday, Christmas Easter thanksgiving anniversary dinner with cake and a gathering. it’s a family affair


    1. And that is the spirit of my in-laws’ celebrations. It wasn’t that they spent a lot on gifts. They didn’t. It was more that they would party hearty at the drop of a hat, having fun with any excuse to declare the day a special day. I learned to enjoy that.


        1. It actually was difficult to embrace such a different way of celebrating things, but I came to love it. I want to make a special note of one aspect of my in-laws’ style of celebrating. It was inclusive. They adored having guests at their big feasts. They had four kids, so the family wasn’t “small” to begin with, but there were usually relatives, old friends or others at the table, especially the foreign students who rented rooms with them. My father-in-law and mother-in-law had big hearts, with room for many.


        2. Following from my last comment, I want to thank Jacque for sharing her family Thanksgiving with me one year when I had no place to go. It was lovely. Jacque doesn’t brag about her cooking here, but I was impressed with her command of a complex cooking event. She was a gracious host and she put out a memorable meal.

          Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanksgiving has turned into our biggest special day(s). Daughter can’t make it home this year, but carefully instructed me that I was to make Thanksgiving dinner on Christmas instead of Christmas dinner. I asked what the difference was, and she said that Thanksgiving had more side dishes and she wanted lots of them for Christmas. Sometimes we have two or three Thanksgiving feasts over Thanksgiving weekend.

    Our children were so excited about their birthdays that they were total wrecks for weeks ahead of time. Their grades even dropped and they had trouble sleeping .We never really went overboard with parties or gifts, and i still can’t figure it out. We also celebrate St. Nicholas Day. That always reduces Christmas hysteria.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Your observance of St. Nicholas Day reminds me of how my in-laws embraced European traditions surrounding Christmas. That was all new to me. I’d never heard the King’s College celebration of Nine Lessons and Carols. It became central to Christmas, but adopting that style of music was tricky for me at first. My family was so secular that I grew up ignorant of the role of religion in many celebrations.

    There is common sense in spreading out celebrating to lessen “Christmas hysteria” as you do.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. During my childhood, the whole month of December was essentially one dedicated to decorating the house with “kravlenisser” (cardboard cutouts of elves in all kinds of positions and mischief) and table decorations made with all manner of items collected from nature, and candles. December is a dark month in the Scandinavian countries, and lots of candles are used to stave off the gloom.

      As I’m sure I have mentioned before, Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory is one of my favorite stories, and I think the reason I love it so much is that it reflects Christmas when it was much less commercial. Like Buddy and his elderly cousin, my sister and I and several of our friends would spend hours upon hours making decorations for the tree in the basement of my best friend’s house. We also made sweets of marzipan, and baked Christmas cookies. Helped pass the eternity from December 1st to the 24th.

      Liked by 5 people

  6. Sometimes we do our own kind of celebration that may not be right on the actual day being celebrated. We’ve had a “game day” around Christmas… but mostly things are pretty low-key at this point. We were going to do an overnight trip somewhere for Husband’s birthday (for mine we went to Lanesboro), and still haven’t done it.

    I like some rituals that have developed during, say, the month of Christmas – a Holiday Bazaar at St. Paul’s Landmark Center, singing a Christmas choral concert…

    Of course if grandkids come from afar for a visit, there is a lot more that goes into the holiday. Nephew and his family of 5 will be staying with us (!) right after Christmas this year, so you can bet there will be more of everything.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. There are special days throughout the year? Who knew?

    Seriously, I do as little as possible to celebrate special days – only enough to meet minimal expectations without (hopefully) driving myself crazy in the process. I’m not sure why I can’t handle holidays and stuff very well; maybe because I often have about all I can do to make it through ordinary days without adding more stuff to do (or buy) before or during a big day. Also being an extreme introvert as well as an extremely boring person who thinks a good time involves solitary pursuits such as reading, writing, or taking pictures, doesn’t help me want to celebrate special days with a bunch of people. That doesn’t mean I never like to be around people, but I go a little nuts when it’s a lot of work to prepare for it, and I’d rather be with other people when I’m in the mood for it, not when the calendar dictates it. I wish I could wholeheartedly celebrate special days, but so far it has eluded me.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great story, Steve! How wonderful you went to such lengths to celebrate her birthday. We don’t celebrate much at our house — at least not with gifts. Too expensive. If I had your erstwife’s expectations, I would have been sorely disappointed long ago. I’m lucky if I get a signed card. Jim and the boys would joke while shopping, show me a card in the store and say “Happy Mother’s Day” or “Happy Birthday” “Wow, isn’t that a great card. Now put it back on the rack.” I’m only half joking. Now the boys usually send me a card or we plan a get together at a restaurant or at a our house. That’s about it. Christmas and Thanksgiving are more involved, but not much. I’m not a cook and I’m not a decorator.


    1. Thanks, Joanne. We all have to fumble our way toward the style of celebrating that fits best. I guess one reason for raising this topic is that I was ignorant and limited about celebrating special days, and then I was exposed to a richer universe of celebration styles.


  9. Hi–
    Thanks for writing Steve. I think snuggling in a sleeping bag with a dog sounds like a pretty nice thing. Unless he’s dreaming and chasing something and his claws are sharp.

    Today I’m sitting at the polls as an election judge for the local school referendum. It would appear it’s going to be about a 20% turn out. So a fairly slow day. Books, magazines and snacks.

    We don’t get too crazy over holidays or special days. Cards almost always… but after that, well… maybe.
    My family gets together often; the big holidays of course but a few other random parties thrown in there too.


      1. Our turn out improved by the end. We ended up at about 32%; 308 voters out of 983.
        The referendum passed 51% to 49% overall. It was defeated in our township 157 to 151.


  10. I like holidays. I like there being some sort of “theme” to dictate what we will eat or where we might go. We used to observe all kinds of days and feasts.

    The past couple of years have been pretty skint on any sort of celebrating/commemorating.. I’m sad about that, but it seems to be where we are at this particular moment.

    Being a very small family, we have often relied on “going out” for holidays (especially as my ability to get it together and decorate and bake at home has evaporated). That has worked well for us, until such time as a treasured place changes hands… and atmosphere… and menu.

    Budget dictates that we don’t do gifts at home, so that has never been a big deal.

    We consider ourselves blessed that we get a chance to take time out and just chat for a bit.

    Of course there are the larger family get-togethers, but I can’t really consider those festive.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I’m so glad you re-posted this, Steve. It occurs to me this was probably originally posted while we were still the Trial Balloon blog connected to MPR, and those posts are probably unavailable to us at this point. But those of us who saved our originals could re-submit, RE-POST them here, and Lord knows they’re old enough (2009-2011) – I’ll bet most of them are long forgotten.

    What do you think, Dale?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Husband and I celebrate whichever special days strike our fancy – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, whatever strikes my fancy. We ignore Mother’s and Father’s Day, but observe Memorial Day with the annual Eddie’s pic-nick, the 4th of July and Labor Day with the same bunch of friends at a pot-luck dinner. St. Patrick’s Day I celebrate with dinner of Irish Stew and attending the annual Ceili dance. Easter passes without either of us paying attention. Birthdays and anniversaries are celebrated in an understated fashion, usually with a card, a small gift and a special event of some sort. Thanksgiving is a holiday we both love – mainly because of the food – and I agree with YA, the left-overs alone make it worth the trouble. The summer solstice we celebrate with a bunch of expat Danes.

    For about 25 years our Christmas Eve celebration was elaborate. It involved 10-12 adults and three to four kids, lots of traditional foods and customs, and it was an event we treasured. Then the kids grew up, and things changed. One couple moved to Florida, another headed for Baja at the first signs of winter, and pretty soon the whole thing was more trouble than it was worth. For the past three years we haven’t even bothered with a tree. We still do the traditional Danish Christmas meals, and burn lots of candles, and I do a modicum of decorating for the season. Our gift to each other is usually a donation of a goat to Heifer International plus maybe a good bottle of something or other or gift certificate to a spa.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. I’m not one to make a big deal out of holidays, but I have made a big deal of three (so far) of my birthdays — throwing a birthday bash (or the “funeral of my youth”) on my 60th; “Will you still love me…” for my 64th and a “fancy” potluck and wine for my 70th. Now thinking of where to hold my 75th…

    Liked by 2 people

        1. hmmmmm….I think it best we be virtually married, I don’t think my menagerie of horses, goats, chickens and giant dog would fit in Steve’s apartment.

          Liked by 2 people

  14. I used to be a holiday decorator extraordinaire, and hope that this Christmas season I’ll get some of that back. I have 20 work days left until I retire on Dec. 4 (counting? who’s counting?) and I planned it so that I’d have December off to celebrate in style.

    For about six years we had a superbly unique upside down Christmas tree. I think that tree may be a worthy subject of my inaugural guest post some time after December 4.

    Liked by 4 people

  15. There is not a single right way to do special days. I think most of us evolve on this as the years pass. I’m happy that we could have such rich celebrations when our daughter was a child. But kids grow up. You might revere the memories of Easter egg hunts, but without a kid it isn’t going to be the same.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I’m pretty haphazard about holidays. I show up with food when my sister has a holiday gathering, but if the planning is up to me, chances are it will just fall by the wayside.

    Thanksgiving is a favorite holiday for me, but in the wider world it’s sort of a dying holiday. A lot of people have to go to work at about 4PM because of the competitiveness and greed of the retail giants they work for.

    Liked by 1 person

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