27. The First Birthday

27. The First Birthday

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

The First Birthday

The manner of giving is worth more than the gift.

~Pierre Corneille

My courageous and selfless mother, at age seventy-nine, died from breast cancer. Her name was Betty. She asked for one thing only — that she make it to her eightieth birthday. She believed that if she made it to eighty, she could consider her life long and well lived. We focused on that birthday.

When Mom lay dying in July, she was still eight months away from her March birthday. The staff in hospice had kindly offered to throw her a party, but I declined. She was so sick, how could I invite people? And, if I am honest, I didn’t think I could bear anything else on my shoulders, especially planning a party, even a small one. Selfish perhaps, but I just couldn’t do it. The week my mother entered hospice, we also moved my father to the nearby VA hospital due to his Alzheimer’s disease. My heart was breaking. Then mom died. It was like losing both my parents at the same time.

I somehow managed through the holidays. But Mom’s upcoming eightieth birthday was weighing on me. The first birthday after Mom’s death. What should I do for it? How should it be acknowledged? How would I make this a celebration when my heart was still so sad?

I thought about what my mother would have liked for her birthday. She loved being with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and, in the last few years, not having to cook. That was a start. I would host a dinner with my family and grandchildren at our home. We would sing “Happy Birthday” and have a birthday cake decorated with sugary frosting and bright-colored roses, the colors of spring. She always felt that her birthday announced the arrival of spring, even if it was snowing.

Something was still missing, however, and I couldn’t place it. I didn’t want the occasion to be gloomy. No, Mom wouldn’t have liked that. I didn’t know what to do.

That is, until the day before her birthday dinner.

That morning I hung a quilted wall hanging in the dining room that Mom had sewn. My mother called it “The Birthday Quilt.” It was white with multi-colored Sunbonnet Sues and exploding fireworks. Perfect.

Next, I realized you couldn’t have a birthday celebration without presents. But I couldn’t give my mother a birthday present. How would that work? Then it came to me.

Before Mom passed away and Dad went into the nursing home, she had instructed me to distribute all their belongings to family members who wanted items and then donate or sell the rest. That wish was carried out for the most part, but I still had jewelry and several boxes of items that hadn’t been distributed for any number of reasons.

Hanging on to those items solved my First Birthday dilemma.

I spent the afternoon going through boxes. I thought about which family members would be at the birthday dinner. They included my husband, son and daughter-in-law, daughter and son-in-law, and four grandchildren — ages eighteen months to six years old, three girls and one boy (the oldest). I went through those boxes with an eye toward any item that might fit as a gift from my mother to that dinner guest. I shed many tears but they were tears of love and remembrance. I also used some of Mom’s stationery to write each person a note about the item, how or why my mother had it, and why I connected it to that family member. Then I wrapped the “gifts” in colorful birthday wrap and tied them with fancy curling ribbons. I attached the cards. After singing “Happy Birthday,” and after the great-grandchildren blew out the candles, I said, “You can’t have a birthday without presents!”

My son looked at his sister and said, “I didn’t bring a present, did you?” She had not. It made me chuckle to see their concern. But I said, “No. These are presents from your grandmother.”

My daughter received a white gold necklace with an aquamarine stone (my mother’s birthstone). I told my daughter it was because the stone reminded me of her eyes, which her grandmother had always loved.

My daughter-in-law received a necklace of silver charms from a designer my mother liked a lot. The style was well suited for my daughter-in-law.

My son received a set of pilsner glasses, as he likes beer. I told him in his note that his grandmother was very fond of having a cold beer on a really hot day and that when he used those glasses he should think of her.

My ice-cream-loving son-in-law received my mother’s ice cream scoop. I wrote to him that my mother and father were known to occasionally eat ice cream instead of dinner.

I explained to my grandson that it was hard to find something for a boy in his great-grandma’s things but I hoped he liked what I found. He snuggled right up to me. I told him that I didn’t know why Grandma Betty had the little toy deer in her belongings, but I thought it should go to him because he was interested in hunting. He also received a masculine-looking sterling silver ring. I told him how it had been created, and that it was made from silver that could be found in the earth. He’s a very curious boy and likes to know all about things. He kept it on his finger the rest of the evening.

My oldest granddaughter received a silver bracelet made of connecting porpoises from a trip Grandma Betty had taken to the ocean. Because this little granddaughter had enjoyed her own visit to the ocean, I knew she would like this bracelet.

To the next granddaughter, I gave a blue star sapphire pendant. I told her it was one of Grandma Betty’s favorite stones and that if it was held up to the light just right, she could see a white star on it.

The youngest granddaughter received my mother’s silver baby cup from the early 1930s. It had been lovingly used and had the dents to prove it.

In every note I told the recipients how much their grandmother or great-grandmother had loved them.

Even though it has been a while since that First Birthday, I have heard different things about the gifts. My granddaughter, now four years old, told me about the necklace she has with the white star on it from Grandma Betty. I heard my son is looking forward to summer parties when he is going to bring out the pilsner glasses, and my son-in-law used the ice cream scoop the night after the party.

But I think the best comment I have heard was the day after the party when my daughter said, “Mom, it was just right.”

If you are struggling with how to get through that First Birthday consider having a party with gifts from your loved one. You might find that “it’s just right.”

~Betsy Alderman Lewis

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