the anticipation was the best part. the presents weren't that great, but man, they stacked up high. they piled up on the sideboard throughout the course of the day, and by dinner time the amount of loot was impressive. one from each sibling (giving was mandatory) and at least a couple from the parents.
someone always decorated the dining room with crepe paper streamers, twisting them down from the ceiling light (which we grandly called a chandelier) to the four corners of the very long table. my mother baked a cake--chocolate, almost always. the birthday kid got to pick what we had for dinner (within reason; it had to be something that was on the regular rotation).
tragedy struck once, when i was quite small and ordered hamburgers and peas. "the really bright green ones," i said. "not the ugly ones." what i meant, of course, was frozen, not canned, but i didn't know peas by their containers. i knew peas by their color. my mother didn't pick up on that fine point, and for dinner we had hamburgers and canned peas. yuck. mushy. i was hugely disappointed. "i wanted the bright ones!" i said. "the really, really bright ones!"
my mother was cavalier. "oh, you wanted frozen peas," she said. "why didn't you say so?"
presents from my parents usually were books and clothes. I got the "little house" books, all out of order, over a series of several christmases and birthdays, and usually a sweater or a skirt. it was a good thing that my birthday came toward the beginning of the school year--i needed the birthday clothes to augment my one or two back-to-school outfits. otherwise, it was hand-me-down city, and my older sisters were all bigger than i was.
presents from my siblings were generally small bags of M&Ms, Hershey bars, maybe a squished Mars bar. surprise balls from woolworth's were popular; you unwrapped a ball of crepe paper, and as it unraveled, trinkets fell out. i think they were sold as party favors, but we gave them as gifts.
none of us had any money, and we were expected to buy these gifts out of our allowance. autumn was particularly spendy; there were five birthdays in october and one in late september. (make no comments here about my parents' sex life. LALALALALALLALA BECAUSE I'M NOT LISTENING.)
but there were also unexpected delights: one year a sister knitted clothes for my barbie doll, and the year i turned 9 my oldest brother gave me his copy of "A Swiss Family Robinson." he inscribed it for me and signed his name. i was too young for the book and was disappointed, but he died the next spring and the book became my most treasured possession.
the year i turned 17, we celebrated each october birthday with a themed party. the picture above is from my little sister's birthday; she was born on halloween. i had been seventeen for one week, and considered myself far too adult to try to look anything but sophisticated.
(unlike a few years later, when i dressed up like Harpo Marx.)
today i turn 51. i'm taking my floating holiday from work and have absolutely no plans or obligations. what will the day bring?