Yesterday was my birthday.
That’s right — thirty-three years ago, four days after Christmas and two days before New Year’s Eve, the world was graced with my presence. Immediately followed by the blizzard of ’78.
Growing up, I have to credit my family for making every effort to celebrate my birthday as a completely separate entity. I never got ‘combination’ presents (until I was older and asked for them), and I even got an extended family celebration since Armenians always gather and celebrate the New Year anyway. Our traditional feast of kufta and money bread was always followed by a beautifully made chocolate cake from my grandmother.
My early birthday memories are faint. They all run together as large family gatherings, with the cake decoration being the one standout. As a toddler, all the grandchildren got the merry-go-round cake — a carousel that sits on top of a round cake. As we got older, my Grammy would decorate the cake (freestyle) with whatever we were into that year. The year I played Molly in the church production of Annie, I got an Annie cake. Another year, it was Raggedy Ann.
Since my birthday marks not just another year of my life, but the end of the calendar year as well, I feel especially reflective. Here are some of my most memorable birthdays to date:
One Christmas, my mom contracted a vicious case of strep throat. Having two little kids, she wanted us to remain strep-free, so we stayed a few nights at our grandparents, including the night before my birthday.
I will never forget making my way downstairs that morning, turning the corner and seeing the kitchen table overflowing with my birthday. My grandmother had made a banner that said “Happy Birthday Samantha!” and sitting there on the table was Sally, a stuffed Polar bear that I still sleep with today. What started out as a stressor (I won’t be at home for my birthday!) turned out to be my best and most memorable childhood birthday.
My family is big on surprises. Really big. For my Sweet Sixteen, my mother got in touch with some of my friends and planned a surprise party for me at Ruthie and Moe’s diner in downtown Cleveland (they were friends of my mom, and their daughter Sara was one of my closest friends at the time*). The plan was perfect — Sara asked me if I wanted to join her on a downtown shopping trip with her older brother Josh, and on the way they just had to stop at the diner and get some cash…..SURPRISE!
Except……I knew about it. My best friend Alicia (still one of my best friends today) had the invitation sitting on her dresser, and I uncovered it one day while milling around her room, like you do in your best friend’s room. She came out of the bathroom (she had her own bathroom!), saw my sheepish expression and, horror-stricken, said “What did you see??'”
This remained our secret for years to come. I finally told my mom, and maybe one or two of my other friends, but not until much later. It was still a great party, and one of the first real birthday parties I had, since my birthday always fell during winter break.
*I feel obligated to say something more about the diner. Ruthie and Moe were great friends to my mom, and Ruthie is responsible for the best matzoh ball soup I’ve ever had. Moe passed away in early 2002 and will always be remembered, in my mind at least, for his smiling eyes, which always seemed to be winking at you.
The night before my 26th birthday, I received the mother of all broken hearts. I was out bar-crawling with some old girlfriends when I discovered that one of them was the second point in a deceitful love triangle (I was the third). I slipped out of the bar, recruited some friends to come sit with me and spent an unnecessary amount of time on the phone with the origin of this triangle, crying my eyes out. The next morning, my birthday, I had to work at Maggiano’s.
I felt like crap.
My best friend called and forgot to say happy birthday. I cut out a reassuring horoscope from the Metro and got reamed out for cutting up someone else’s paper (the Metro is a free paper, by the way, available on every street corner).
Toward the end of my shift, one of the girls from the previous night showed up with flowers and told me to come meet her when I was done. I did, and proceeded to drown my sorrows with her and my fellow triangle-ee at this awesome dive called My Brother’s Place, which is no longer there. At some point that evening, I had to meet my friends for a big birthday dinner at some Judy Jetson looking place in the South End. I was so drunk I don’t really remember dinner. In fact, the only thing I remember clearly is all my friends laughing at me. They still tease me about that night.
I have since forgiven everyone involved in the triangle, including myself, although it took a very long time.
I planned my own 30th birthday party, and everything about it was fantastic. I wore a perfect green dress, ate a delicious meal at one of my favorite restaurants and was surrounded by many friends. I loved turning 30. I remember feeling so happy about my life at the time. I had a job I loved and was good at, a great apartment, a sister in the same city and a loving and loyal network of close friends. I had a ball and so did my friends, and bonus! — the best drunken-after-party photos of all time came from that night.
This year, I celebrated my birthday in my new town, in my new life. It was colored by some post-holiday depression and the frustration Matthew and I have felt with our financial situation. It was mellow, but it was okay. Facebook helps.
I had just moved to Asheville, North Carolina with Matthew. I was starting my own business as a personal trainer and health coach. We were dead broke, relying on family assistance to make ends meet. It was snowy and gray, and we had just returned from an especially gluttonous holiday week in Ohio.
We slept in that day and didn’t really get going until the afternoon. Matthew had a surprise spa visit planned that got cancelled due to weather. My two best friends were supposed to arrive the next day, but their flight got cancelled and they had to drive all the way. I lost my dad’s birthday card, which was not only beautiful and inspiring, but also contained $150.00.
We were stressed out, and we lamented these things even as we tried to rally and make a great birthday anyway. As Matthew said, the Universe was not helping us out.
But maybe it was. If the past year of my life has taught me anything, it’s that everything in life is good, as long as it moves you from one place to the next. When jumping from one stone to the next, sometimes you slip and fall in the mud. But you still get to that next stone, even if you have to dig yourself out and claw your way up there. And when you do, you’re a lot less afraid, because you’ve already proven to yourself that you can get out of the mud.
I know that Future Me will look back on this birthday with nostalgia. There is something romantic about having nothing. And besides, it is undeniable that I am in a transition right now that will lead to a new and previously unimaginable life. A life that I am creating all by myself, for myself. The life that I want.
I guess that’s a pretty good birthday present.