From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul

Once Upon a Birthday

The family—that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our innermost hearts, never quite wish to.

Dodie Smith

I should have known something was up when my daughter Tiffany woke me at 7 A.M. She’d been away working at a summer camp, but here she was at the crack of dawn in my bedroom in Toronto saying, “Happy Birthday, Mum.”

It was my fiftieth birthday, and although I’d told my husband Derek that I didn’t much care about a party, I had secretly hoped that Tif would find a way to get a day off and be here with me. But why so early? Her dad was at work. Her siblings were still in bed. My fitness class didn’t start until 9:30. I’d already made the fifty chocolate-covered strawberries I’d planned on serving to my fellow travelers on the aerobics floor. So I didn’t have to get up yet.

“Come on,” urged Tif a bit impatiently. “Get up. We have a surprise for you downstairs.” As I struggled out of bed I realized her boyfriend was standing in the bedroom door pointing a video camera at me. “What is going on?” I asked. Tiffany allowed me a quick trip to the bathroom but no time to even wash my face. So when she led me down the stairs and out onto the porch, I presented my fifty-year-old self to the world in an old nightgown, with no makeup, messy hair and bags under my eyes.

When we got outside I saw our other two kids, Zachary and Samantha, on the front lawn, pajama-clad and sleepy-eyed like me. My husband, who was obviously in cahoots with Tiffany, directed me to a huge box on the front lawn. It must have been eight feet by ten and was wrapped in tissue and tied up with an enormous red bow. There was a card propped at the side that said “Happy Birthday, Mum, from Dad, Samantha, Zachary and Tiffany.”

I thought, Oh, oh, this is payback time. When Derek turned fifty I rented fifty penguins and put them on the front lawn. I couldn’t imagine what he’d put in that big box.

Turning fifty wasn’t a big deal for me. The word bothered me a bit but not the fact of being fifty. I had told Derek I didn’t want a party because my family—my mother and my eight sisters—all live in England and since they couldn’t be here, it would mean very little without them.

“Go on, open it,” they shouted. I didn’t know where to begin. “Just tear the paper off,” Tiffany insisted. I pulled at the tissue and opened a hole in the side. As long as I live I will never forget the overwhelming joy I felt when the side of the box fell away to reveal my mum and eight sisters from England.

Cameras were flashing from inside and outside the box. Everyone was yelling, “Happy Birthday.” I could hardly comprehend what was happening. My mum’s face was the first I saw. I realized there were other people in the box with her but I was so caught up with the moment, it was a few seconds before it began to register and they started coming at me. “Hi Jack,” “Happy Birthday, love,” “Surprise, dear Jackie.” Middy, fifty-six, Brenda, fifty-four, Gorgy, forty-nine, Jenny, forty-seven, Linda, forty-five, Barbara, forty-two, Tina, forty, and Karen, thirty-seven. All of them. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was what I wanted more than anything else in all the world. All I could say was “You’re all here! I can’t believe it. You’re here.” And I couldn’t stop crying.

They’d been planning this moment for two years with my husband and Tiffany. They’d arrived the night before and stayed in a hotel. Middy, the eldest, almost missed the party. She’s terrified of flying and felt she couldn’t get on the plane. So she went to a doctor a few months before the flight and said, “I’ll ruin the whole thing if I can’t get on that plane. Can you help me?” He did. He talked to her and gave her something to take before boarding the plane and more to take on the return flight. (She sent him a postcard while she was here.) My younger sister Barbara had never been on a plane before. But here they all were.

Derek and I moved to Canada thirty years ago. I was the only one in the family to leave England. So I miss them all terribly. They all live close to each other and spend lots of time together. We have thirty-three children among us, and I often feel my kids lose out because their kids are in and out of each other’s houses all the time, just as though they had eight homes instead of one.

However, the ties that bind us together have never loosened over the years. We were each other’s playmates and mentors and guardians from the time we were babies.

Although we remember our growing-up years with hilarity and love, life wasn’t easy for our mum. We were poor. We slept four to a bed and used overcoats as blankets when it was cold. There wasn’t always enough to eat, so we often had bread and sugar sandwiches for meals. Mum took jobs in factories to make ends meet. Middy went to work to help out. Our dad was a drinker so he wasn’t around much. But to tell the truth, we had a wonderful life. We were always close. We relied on each other. The older ones took care of the younger ones. When I got married I was well used to taking care of kids.

And when I think of the luxuries I have today, I wonder how mum ever managed.

For two wonderful weeks that summer, we laughed, told stories and talked all night long. Derek rented a van and we went up to our cottage in Port Severn, north of Toronto. We bunked in together just like the old days. We sat on the porch with candlelight and the moonlight over the lake and sang all the songs we’d learned as kids.

There were no husbands, no children, just us and our stories and our love for each other.

Suddenly it was time for them to leave. I could hardly bear it. At the airport when we said our good-byes I was crying so hard I couldn’t speak. They were going without me. This precious gift of mine was leaving and taking nine pieces of my heart with them.

But I do feel lucky. It’s rare that a family so big and so far away remains so close together. They are my best friends. They are mine. I am theirs.

A thin gold bracelet slips around my wrist today. It was their gift to me for my fiftieth birthday. Their names, one inscribed on each link, glisten at me when I look at it.

The tears in my eyes glisten back for the gift of love they have given me forever.

Jackie Case

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