My Mama spoiled me. I know she did. Because of her I’ve spent my entire life with high expectations for birthdays. It wasn’t the gifts. It was the attention. You knew it was your birthday and so did everyone else. Because while she loved everyone equally, your birthday was YOUR day. Or week, that was how she rolled.
Mama made us cakes from scratch and enjoyed decorating them and surprising us with the design. I remember the carousel cake she made me one year, complete with the most enchanting set of plastic horses on top. I named each one. I think the green one was my very favorite. The one she probably worked the hardest on was the crossword puzzle cake. She designed it on paper with words that described me, and then she transferred it in icing on the cake. That was my twelfth birthday, I think. I wore the striped shirt she made me and I got Bogart the Bassett hound as my gift. I had seen him at KMart and wanted him so much. I slept with him up until I had my first child. True story.
I’ve also had the angsty birthdays. I remember it being a huge deal to go to double digits, and then thirteen. The night before my twentieth birthday I sat in my dorm room on first floor in Persons (I was a Resident Assistant) and wrote a poem, “On the Eve of Turning Twenty.” I don’t remember what I wrote, but I remember thinking it was very important that I get down my emotions before midnight when everything. Would. Change. Yeah, I was that teenager.
Today has been a day. My first without my Mama. It was hard. Not that the past two were worth writing home about either. Last year we were all missing Daddy and anticipating the anniversary of his death coming up. That and being worried about Mama’s declining health were two huge clouds hanging over the day. Two years ago, Mama didn’t let me see Daddy when I went over to the house. I was disappointed and mad. It was my birthday, and I wanted to see my Daddy. It was exactly two weeks before he would leave us for a better world, but we didn’t know that yet. I’ve talked to her about it since she left. A couple of weeks ago when I was in the shower, I told her again how much that upset me. (Yeah, I talk to her a lot when I’m in the shower.) And then I felt her there. And I just knew, as clearly as if she’d said it, she had been protecting me. I knew he was having a rough day, but I didn’t know how bad. And that was why. She didn’t want me to experience that. And then I also “heard” her say that most anything and everything she ever did was to protect me. Because she loves me.
I get it. I have three of my own I love and want to protect.
This morning I had the honor and privilege of being invited to Mama’s Sunday School class and church for their All Saint’s Day services. Mess Cat was there, and I had the whole crew with me. Mess Cat met me at the door, “Get ready. I’ve already been crying. A sweet lady came up and just took my hand and started crying.” Bless her. And all of them. Y’all. My Mama found a wonderful group of people to love and to be loved by. They were all so gracious and welcoming. And good gravy, as Aub pointed out, I believe they were channeling my Mama today. They kept trying to feed us. It was just so sweet.
The class at Trinity UMC were remembering three of their friends who passed this year. When the service began, Mama’s dear friend Miss F stepped up to share about Mama. She was so sweet and it was apparent she knew Mama well. When Miss F talked about how Mama didn’t like to brag but you knew how much she loved her children and grandchildren, I lost it. The tears were flowing freely by then.
When Miss F started talking about the fruit of the spirit, she listed them saying, “Is there any one of these that doesn’t make you think of Barbara?” I smiled, but when she listed “long-suffering” I had to laugh. (Quietly. I used self-control.) There is some family lore in describing my Daddy’s family as being “long-suffering.” Mama was married to Daddy twice as long as she went by her maiden name, so she used to joke in recent years that she had earned her “long-suffering” ways of his family outright. Fair and square. I just know Mama was there laughing with me in the midst of the tearful remembering.
I loved that each one who shared and talked about “our brothers and sisters who have gone before” emphasized that they were no longer with us PHYSICALLY, but they were still with us all. I like that, because I think that is very true. That’s why I talk to Mama whenever I feel like it. And Daddy too sometimes.
As the service in the Sunday School class wrapped up, several of the beautiful people in Mama’s class came up and introduced themselves and said hello to my crew. “Are these your children?” “Yes ma’am. All three.” “They’re just beautiful.” “Thank you.” One gentleman even teased, “Don’t they know they’re supposed to be misbehaving?” (Ummm, let’s don’t put that out there. We were touch and go there for a few minutes, but I didn’t tell him that.)
It was in the middle of these conversations that a memory was triggered. It was Fall of 2007 and we were at a big Family reunion of my Daddy’s daddy’s people, my Papa’s sister’s and brother’s families. We were gathered in a big barn, and the food overflowed. My great Aunt had made many quilts that she generously shared at the end of the day. I don’t remember what dish it was that we were labeling the same as everyone else was so it would come back home with us, but as a joke, I wrote on a piece of masking tape, “Belongs to Bill” and stuck it on my shirt.
Today it was when one of the dear ladies asked me, “Do these precious children belong to you?” and I answered “Yes ma’am” that it hit me. I don’t have anyone who can say that about me anymore. Point to me and say, “Yep. That one belongs to me.” I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but with my parents both gone, I don’t belong to someone like I used to. No name to put on the piece of tape so I can find my way home again.
And yet I do belong to something, to someone, don’t I? I am loved. Far beyond anything I could earn. There is grace in being loved the way I am. My day started off with children who, when they remembered it was my birthday, didn’t grumble quite so much about the cinnamon toast I made for breakfast. (Yes, they’re spoiled. They were holding out for pound cake.) I had an e-mail from my Aunt who gave me a great gift in letting me know that it was okay if today was hard. (Thank you.) Mess Cat and Leroy made the day special and my nephew Shaker suggested that I might still be getting a binturang. (Maybe for Christmas?) So many friends and family have made my day with sweet messages on Facebook and texts and phone calls. Joyful tidings. In the midst of the chaos and emotions and hard things that have been on our hearts today, my family still sat down and laughed tonight over leftovers and cocoa apple cake, and I got books and a beautiful literary bracelet. (I am loved and known.)
And at the end of the day, I was sung to twice–once this morning and then this evening with my people. This morning Mess Cat threw me under the bus and told Mama’s Sunday School class that it was my birthday. They sang to me and Miss M, who also was born on this wonderful day. Candles were lit. And during the church service this morning, when Mama’s name was called and the bell rang, they gave our family this beautiful flower in remembrance.
As we were leaving the classroom, Miss F brought me a loaf of her legendary bread–I remember Mama sharing a slice with me last year. But ONLY a slice–Mama was generous, but she wasn’t crazy. It’s that good. Miss F makes a loaf for each person who has a birthday or anniversary that week. (She’s a lesson in grace and servanthood all by herself, isn’t she?) Loving on folks with her gifts and talents. No wonder Mama loved her so much.
Candles, flowers, and a delicious treat. The things all good birthdays are made of, even if they were a little different this year.
Tonight I am thankful for a different kind of birthday. One of remembering and feeling loved, even if it’s not the same this year. I am thankful for friends and family who walk this journey with me, those who share similar heartbreaks and those who don’t. And tonight as I remember my parents, my Mama’s cousin Miss B, and my Fella’s cousin, I also think of my college classmates who have lost those they love in the past years. I am thankful for the reminder that even though my heart breaks about Mama and Daddy not being here, I still belong to them and to many others who love me fiercely. And who make me cry when they say they are thankful I was born to them.
And that will do for number 45.