by Maria Schulz
When I was growing up, birthdays were never a big deal in our house. My parents would have no more rented a pony, invited 50 of your closest friends, or even bought you a card than they would’ve sent you on an all-expenses-paid trip to the moon.
Basically, I think my parents reasoned that there were so many of us (7) and so few of them (2) that expecting them to remember your big day was asking a lot.
My twin brother, Chris, and I had a better shot at being remembered than my other siblings. That was probably because my mother never seemed to get over the trauma of being pregnant with twins after her 3-year pregnancy break.
Mom used to say, “I only found out I was having you two the day before you were born. Then, the doctor told me I had to go on bed rest for 6 weeks. SIX WEEKS! I had 5 boys under the age of 8. There was no way I could lay there for 6 weeks.”
“So what happened?” I asked.
“That afternoon, I was laying in bed, listening to my parents taking care of your brothers. I could hear the sounds of my parents screaming, lots of pounding footsteps as your brothers tried to run away from my father, who was swinging a wooden spoon, and my mother complaining in a torrent of Spanish.”
“Sounds like fun,” I said.
“It was a nightmare. I couldn’t have my parents over for all that time. Luckily, my water broke that night and you guys were born the next morning.”
I heard that story every year from my mother. She always got kind of sweaty and panicky at the very idea of spending 6 weeks with her parents in charge of her kids.
My father, on the other hand, liked to tell us about how he just looked at my mother when she was 4 months pregnant and said, “You know, I think you’re having twins.”
My mother thought he could be right, so she mentioned it to her doctor. But the doctor just shook his head.
“Listen, when your husband gets his medical degree, tell him to come talk to me.”
So who was right? My father, of course.
That was the story I heard from my father every year.
Chris and I were more successful reminding everyone that our birthday was coming because we would walk around saying things like, “Only two more weeks until our birthday,” and “Our big day is tomorrow. Did you hear me? It’s tomorrow!”
After a while, we managed to penetrate the gray matter in our parents’ heads and make them remember that, GUESS WHAT? We had a birthday coming up and we were ready and willing to accept all gifts, parties and other assorted surprises.
This may or may not have led to a cake, with or without candles. It all depended on how busy our mom and dad happened to be that day (and of course, with 7 children, they were always busy).
One year, Dad came home early and we ran into him in front of our house.
“I’ve brought home a surprise for your birthday!” Dad said.
Chris and I were stunned and delighted.
“What do you think it could be?” I said.
“Maybe he got us something really great,” Chris replied.
I was hoping and praying for a bike to go along with the Malibu PJ Barbie doll I just got.
A few hours later, about 20 of our relatives descended on the house.
“Are you here for our birthday?” I asked.
“Oh, is it your birthday?” they replied.
I started to tell everyone that Dad brought home a surprise for us, and I couldn’t wait to see what it was.
“I hope it’s a bike!” I said. I couldn’t figure out why my relatives were all laughing.
When Dad heard me, he laughed too. “I brought home this Barbara Streisand movie to watch!”
Since Dad worked for a motion picture company, we had a reel-to-reel projector and a giant movie screen. My relatives and I piled into the living room to watch. I was pretty sure my surprise would come later, because really: what 4-year-old wants a movie with Barbara Streisand in it as her gift?
Unfortunately, what Dad thought was a Rated G picture turned out to be a Rated R movie, and it didn’t take long before my grandmother interrupted the show.
“Louie,” she said. “Send the kids upstairs.”
As this point, the reel-to-reel was turned off, and my brothers and I marched out of the darkened room with only the light bouncing off the empty screen to guide us.
“But where’s my bike?” I said, as I marched upstairs.
For some reason, my relatives all laughed. When I woke up the next day, I couldn’t find my new bike anywhere.
Now that was a surprise.
As far as other birthday surprises go, I have to mention my brother Joey here. Joey had the bad luck to celebrate his birthday the week before Chris and me.
What’s so bad about this? Well, since he was formally the youngest, cutest child in the family, he had some issues with our arrival. Suddenly, he became boy #5 and was overshadowed by the appearance of not just one sibling – but two – and one of them was the elusive girl my mother had been hoping for.
Couple this with the fact that my parents never, ever had a working camera, batteries, flashes or film in our house, and you could really get a complex.
I used to laugh when Joey would talk about how there were a zillion baby photos of our oldest three brothers, but none of the 4 youngest. That is, until I realized that I was one of the 4 with almost no photographic evidence of my existence prior to the age of 12.
Joey didn’t have a twin to help him double team my parents, so very often, a birthday cake for the twins would also be for Joey too. So when you think about it, Joey should be grateful to us. Without us, he probably would have gotten no cake whatsoever.
There’s something pretty wonderful about having big brothers AND a twin brother. Since everyone was so close in age, we had a one-of-a-kind childhood. Although I doubt I would’ve described it that way when I was a kid.
All of my brothers would tell us stories about the day we came home from the hospital and how everyone was so excited to meet us. And of course, all of my brothers were only too happy to punch us in the arm as many times as necessary to commemorate our big day.
Since Joey’s birthday was so close to ours, we often went out together to shop for our own birthday gifts. We had a $25 limit (which was HUGE for us) and Mom told us to get something we really wanted. Only one thing: there were no returns. So if you went home that day and decided you hated your gift, tough luck.
We’d pile into the car (Paul would come for the ride) and head to Korvette’s. Then, the three of us would head straight for the toy, record, or sports aisles. I remember coming home with Talking Stacy, Baby That-A-Way, and Barbie Sweet Sixteen (I can still smell the strawberry stickers that came with her). One year, Chris got Mike Powers, Atomic Man and Joey got a GI Joe.
Shopping for my birthday gift was fun with my brothers along.
As for Joey, he was always a teaser and a tormentor, but he was also a great teacher. It was Joey who showed me how to ride a bike with no hands. He even stopped and helped me after I crashed.
Joey gave me a lavender colored bike with a banana seat that he got from one of his paper route customers. He swapped it with me for my oversized blue bike that he borrowed very often.
Meanwhile, Joey started teaching Chris how to ride my bike. Of course, there was a problem: you had to pump the pedals back and forth fast, and then once backwards (without dislodging the chain) in order for the brakes to work.
Chris was having a hard enough time getting the bike to stay upright, let alone following my complicated rules about pumping the brakes and not knocking off the chain.
I can still see Joey at the top of our hill, pushing Chris off and yelling, “Pedal! Pedal!”
Chris was finally getting the hang of it and he was riding really fast. But then, a car turned onto our block, and Chris panicked. He was speeding down the hill and couldn’t figure out how to stop.
Joey and I were at the top of the hill, screaming, “Pump the pedals! PUMP THE PEDALS!”
Instead, Chris veered out of the way of the oncoming car and towards our neighbor’s parked station wagon. He smashed into the hood, flipped over the top of the car and landed with a sickening “THUD” underneath it.
Joey and I broke into a frantic run. We scrambled to the back of the wagon to see if Chris was still alive under there.
There he was, bashed and bloodied, but definitely still alive. When we realized Chris was just a little bit broken, we dissolved into fits of laughter.
“Get up,” Joey said, as he pulled Chris to his feet. “Get back on the bike and try again.”
“No thanks,” Chris said, as he dusted off my bike and handed it to me. “I think I’ll walk back up the hill.”
And that was the end of Joey’s Bicycle Training Institute. Luckily, Joey would open his Car Driving Institute some years later, when my parents went away on vacation. But that’s another story.
What birthday would be complete without cake? Here are some recipes from BBC Good Food that looked birthday worthy:
And here’s one for all of my friends who eat gluten-free:
So, Hungry Lifers…what was your best birthday memory? Worst? What’s your favorite birthday cake? Please leave a comment and let us all know.
And to my two wonderful brothers, Joey and Chris (and my wonderful sister-in-law, Anne): I’m so happy to share a birthday/birth month with you! Happy Birthday.