On the morning of my mother’s fortieth birthday, my sisters and I all sat on her bed as she opened our presents. I was ten and still devoted to pajamas, while my oldest sister Katie had taken to sleeping in one of my dad’s enormous shirts, and my other sister Betsy had done the same to emulate Katie. My mom was wearing a flannel nightgown that had probably been handed down to her in the chain of smothering childless aunties that took care of her in Minnesota after her mother had died. And while it was thick enough to be sensible for a February night at the lake cabin north of Brainerd, in October in central Ohio, it was a little much.
There was going to be a party later that night. An adult party with alcohol, but it was a guarantee that there would be cake. The grocery store down the street from us made a famous cake that with the help of about two pounds of frosting looked like a giant hamburger. As a child, I lacked self-control and I could stuff myself on pure frosting until I reached the peak of an ecstatic bliss that I have only achieved since while high, playing Frisbee in front of the Taj Mahal.
Dad was up and dressing as my mother yanked bows and slit scotch tape with her fingernail. He still had the hotel/restaurant at this point, and needed to be there when the produce came in. As many hours as he worked, he could easily have been having affairs, but to think that is to prove you don’t know my dad. He’s a gregarious and warm person, who flinches at intimacy. At parties, he doesn’t flirt with individual people as much as with the entire room. He’s a big man with dark curly hair and he’s a hue or two darker than me. He’s the living evidence of his mother’s terror that there might be a Jewish branch grafted onto our family tree.
My sisters that year were still in their collage phase. Every present that they gave anyone in the family for about five years was not wrapped but secreted behind the couch or under the bed. When the time came for their present, they made the victims close their eyes, yanked the thing from its hiding spot, and giggled out a tandem ‘ta-da’. They were large things on yard-long sheets of paperboard, full of paste-bubbled shots clipped from magazines of women biting necklaces and staring longingly at themselves in the mirror, and had all of the charm of a ransom note from a deeply repressed first-year art student.
I was much more thoughtful. I wrapped, in that morning’s newspaper, my least favorite toy, a squat magenta Orko figurine that came with my He-Man. At ten, this was the kind of generosity I showed to the woman who gave me life: not the action figure, but one of his accessories. She ooohed and aaahed over it when she opened it. Seeing it in her hands, I immediately realized how much I loved that toy and started devising a plan where I could snatch it back.
Mom had opened two more flannel nightgowns from her aunts and a fistful of Snoopy dolls in various poses from her brother and sisters. At some point in her life, my mother had commented that she found Charlie Brown’s beagle adorable. She has regretted it ever since. Snoopy is a curse in my mother’s life. It’s the gift equivalent of herpes. For years she’ll be all right and receive normal vaguely thoughtful gifts, and then there will be an outbreak and the house will be full of Fishing Snoopy, Red Baron Snoopy, Surgeon Snoopy, and one year she received some sort of Godzilla Snoopy, a stuffed version so massive that he could easily have eaten Schroeder and his entire end-table piano.
I’m not sure my mother has ever received a good present.
She never let on though. She sat amid the wrapping paper, thanked me for Orko, and continued to compliment the collage, telling my sisters that she was going to hang it next to the other four.
Three years ago, at some chain brew pub that had sprung up in our small town in Ohio, my dad, mom and I were drinking. Dad and I started talking about birthdays. The good ones. My best will always be my twenty-third, when my friends took me to some terrible Mexican place in Asheville whose margaritas were made out of wine because they lost their liquor license, then drove me back to campus, getting high in the back seat of someone’s Civic, where we began to walk down to the little pond called Snake Lake to smoke more dope and play Frisbee and then dare each other to go off the rope swing. I walked up the gravel path, my limbs jelly with margaritas and marijuana. Thirty people ran down the opposite path. Then thirty more ran up behind me. They yelled surprise and then began yanking my clothes off of me. It was as famous as I’ve ever felt. All anonymous affection and familiarity. We drank till three and someone gave me a bb gun.
My dad’s story was a similar affair. A surprise during his tour of duty on Midway Island, when all of the Officer’s club staff did a rehearsed skit show about their hapless Midwestern boss. Both of our stories were big and loud. They had punch lines and neither of us would ever be able to name all of the people who had been there.
It was my mom’s turn. She rubbed the stem of her wine glass and said she couldn’t think of a good one, that none of her birthdays had been special in the way dad and I were talking about them.
At the time of my mom’s fortieth, my dad was still running the Gathering Inn, a restaurant and hotel that was immensely popular in our little town and that he would be screwed out of in less than a year by his partner, Bruce Smallbill, sending my family into a chain of bankruptcies that lasted until I left for college. Bruce Smallbill is a family villain. When he died of colon cancer my sophomore year in college, my dad called and said, ‘Live by the asshole, die by the asshole.’
My mom was the bookkeeper of the hotel. She had worked at an accounting firm in Cleveland when she and my father fell in love and her boss, worried about losing his best employee, had offered my father ten thousand dollars not to marry her. When my dad was on the restaurant floor, pouring wine and chatting up each table, my mom was in the office with a massive silver machine punching in numbers, then pulling a heavy handle again and again to print the paychecks one at a time.
Sitting on the bed for my mom’s birthday was one of the last truly happy times we’d have as a family for years. My dad would spiral into a deep depression, the depths of which I’d find out years later when, because of an incident at a sleepover during which I had destroyed a guest bathroom, I was taken to a therapist. I was in seventh grade and suspicious about telling any adult about my feelings. The therapist said I could relax and trust him, since he’d been the one who helped talk my father out of suicide years before.
All the other presents having been opened, my dad pulled on his sport jacket and said that for his gift we’d need to go downstairs. It was a surprise. My sisters and I immediately made a blindfold out of one of my mom’s new nightgowns and we all led her down the steps to the dining room. My father is a showman and he was talking on and on about how he’d thought long and hard about what a woman of my mother’s age would need. He’s got a deep voice and can really make it resonate when he wants to. He often received bit roles in the community theatre musicals for that voice of his, even though he’s tone deaf and could never once remember his lines. He matched that voice with a queer comedic timing, which made bumbling, missed cues, and painful ad-libbing endearing. In full performance mode, he told my blindfolded mother that he had finally figured out the perfect gift for her on this auspicious birthday.
My dad has since told me about going to this pharmacist down the street to rent my mom’s present. He told the guy behind the counter what he was going to do with it, and the pharmacist tried to talk him out of it. In the end, he refused to charge my dad for it at all, figuring my dad would be paying for this gift for quite a while to come.
You have to understand that this is what is endearing about my father. He had a joke in mind and even a state licensed pharmacist wasn’t going to talk him out of it. I’m not sure where this stubbornness comes from, but I own it as well. I called an old girlfriend ‘Monster’ as a pet name for years before she broke down crying over an anniversary dinner and told me how much she had hated the nickname, but kept expecting me to get tired of it. It’s the problem of valuing our own cleverness over the people we’re around, a kind of bullying.
We took off the blindfold and there was, for her fortieth birthday, the wheelchair my dad had rented for her. “Might as well get used to it, old lady,” my dad laughed.
I immediately knew I wasn’t going to eat any cake that night. My mom grew up on a truck farm in Minnesota and carries that brand of Midwestern emotional reserve. Anyone who knows her, though, knows that you can always read her emotions by her neck, which gives her away by becoming red and splotchy. And her neck told me that the party was cancelled, that Dad would spend that night at his hotel.
Dad stuck with the joke though. He knew he’d screwed up, but he kept trying to save himself. “Climb in and let’s have you try her out,” he said.
Mom put a hand to her throat and sat down in one of the dining room chairs. She stared at that wheelchair and cried.
Two years ago, I had made friends with a couple and would see them frequently around the park where I walk my dog. We would chit-chat and the woman had chided me for censoring myself around her. She said she loved to talk about sex and that I should allow myself to say whatever I wanted. The thing was she was incredibly young, incredibly beautiful, and her husband had just finished law school. It was life like the pictures in catalogs, everything flawless and painfully good-looking, except without the toll free number.
One morning I was walking the dog, yakking on the phone with a girlfriend with whom my relationship was flailing, and I saw this gorgeous couple canoodling on a bench. I sat down on the bench opposite from them, continued yakking on my cell phone and because I thought it would be funny, I held my middle finger up at them for a good three minutes. In my brain, I thought it’d be seen as a sort of ridiculous act of obscenity and taken as absurd. The woman’s face, though, immediately went into a kind of twisted up surprise look, which gradually unraveled to one of offense, finally unspooling completely into one of disgust. I kept my finger up through all her expressions. To this day, she still looks past me at parties. Part of me says, ‘fuck her, fuck everyone who can’t take a damn joke’ and the other part of me knows that she knew I kind of meant it.
My mom’s awful fortieth got brought up when dad and I were crowing about our own amazing birthdays. I brought the wheelchair debacle up and started to laugh about it, testing the waters at first to see if after seventeen years, it was safe to joke about.
There are those spouses of people with a loud and out-sized love of their own cleverness. It’s this kind of spouse, who at parties, gets introduced as ‘the long-suffering husband of the person over there announcing the contents of the hosts’ medicine cabinet’. This person is introduced to you, but first you look over your shoulder at his spouse, then back to the person, and in his face, while his wife trumpets the discovery of an economy-sized tube of Preparation H under the sink, you see a sadness so long-endured, so hopeless, and so composed, it could be a Russian novel. It was this look that flashed across my mother’s face when I tried to joke about that birthday. I saw this look. I didn’t let it go.
“I was this little kid,” I said, emboldened with the story and two bourbons. “And there’s my dad smiling and my sweet dear mother crying.” I lit up a cigarette. “It has to be the dumbest thing my dad ever did.”
My mother finished her wine and corrected me. “That you ever saw.”