Birthday: 23

I awoke on this, my day of birth, to darkness and quiet.  It was five-thirty in the morning, a time I prefer to sleep through unless I’m doing something particularly important such as going to the airport or being born.  I was born twenty-three years ago around five-thirty in the morning.  I was ten days late, which is a little more characteristic.  I suspect that I wished to avoid the great spectacle of emerging into the world for as long as possible, and then perhaps decided all at once to get it over with.  Perhaps it was getting uncomfortable in there.  Perhaps my lower back was twingy even in utero.

It was just too magical that I randomly woke up twenty-three years later so close to the time when I was actually born, so of course I wasn’t going to go back to sleep.  I tugged a blanket off my bed and wrapped it around my shoulders as I staggered to the living room couch.  Ruby was there, dozing on the rug.  She summoned some enthusiasm to greet me, and then settled back down.

The sun began to rise.  A thick orange stripe appeared from behind the tree line, padded above with grey sky and below with grey lake.  The bright globe at the middle of the stripe seemed to burst before my eyes, coloring the leaves of our backyard ash tree.  The stripe lightened to peach and then to pale yellow.  Orange flecks fell onto the lake, tracing a path from my window to the sun.  And then it was over, or at least I stopped watching because Ruby whimpered to be let outside.

Mom and I went to church later in the morning, where we were prevented from leaving our pew at the end of the service by two elderly barricades who had knelt to pray for the next person to die in the parish.  We couldn’t interrupt, so we stood still and considered vaulting over the shorter of the two.

Then came the all-important Vikings football game.  I feel asleep briefly in the second quarter, but was roused at halftime to help Dad remove a dead mouse from its dusty mausoleum in an air duct.  Because sometimes, even when you’d like to prance around in a plastic tiara that reads “it’s my birthday, spoil me,” dirty jobs have to be done.  And decomposing mice have to be discarded.

Dinner and dessert, as per tradition, were at the birthday girl’s request.  I chose ribs (we’re entering those last few precious days of grill-conducive weather, after all) and this cake.  Amy went off to college a few weeks ago, the skunk, so poor Mom and Dad were left to harmonize a happy birthday by themselves.  Luckily, musical expectations are low in my family clan.  I opened presents, the contents of which I will likely detail in Friday Favorites, where I can be openly materialistic.

This year’s birthday was a little different from last year’s.  But as always, I felt the satisfying weight of another year’s worth of lessons and discoveries.  I’ll try to use them wisely.

Little House on the Prairie, Explained

When I was eight, I asked for a Little House on the Prairie book for Christmas.  I already owned one, and thought I’d like the next book in the series.  On Christmas Eve, in the midst of the annual party, I was given a large gift bag filled with the gingham-bordered books.  All nine of them, including the one I already owned.  The party, needless to say, was lost to me after that.  I plucked out Little Town on the Prairie, because the girls looked the prettiest on the cover.  That was important to me then.  I read as adults flitted about with wine in hand and I ignored Amy when she tugged at my arm, begging me to help her chase our particular favorite adult, deemed “Tim the Alien.”

Ironically, I forgot Little Town on the Prairie at my aunt and uncle’s house that night, and didn’t get it back until I had read through the rest of the series.  I started it first and finished it last.

Once I had read the books at least five times each, had sufficiently cracked the spines and dotted the page corners with peanut butter, I began to make up my own versions of the prairie stories.  Specifically, I liked to make them up alone in my room, using my American Girl Dolls as my daughters.  I had the role of omnipresent mother, and would lecture the dolls as I tugged a tiny plastic brush through their hair.  Things like, “I know you don’t like school, but it’s very important that you have an education,” and “Felicity, you look beautiful.  Any boy in town would be lucky to dance with you” were oft-used phrases.  In fact, I don’t believe I ever did anything with the poor dolls but boss and brush.

When I was twelve or so, mom heard about a pioneer school held in a nearby town for a few days in the summer.  The classroom was a circa 1852 schoolhouse.  Pupils were encouraged to dress as early pioneers.  It was a dream.

I don’t remember much about the lessons, nor about the field trips we took to local historic sites, but I do remember the teacher.  She seemed to me very old and wise, and was almost a cartoon in her elderly perfection.  The throat of her dress was clasped with a large brooch, her hair was an airy puff of white, and one day she drew some of us older children to her.  Her “big girls,” she said, deserved a treat.  In her open hand were three small stones.  They were all alike, save for the varying patterns of gold stripes upon the brown fields.  Tiger’s Eyes, she whispered, as if sharing a great secret.  We took our stones solemnly and pocketed them so that the other pupils wouldn’t see and be jealous.  I showed mine to Amy anyway.  Tiger’s Eye, I told her.  Maybe when you’re older you’ll understand, I said.

Later, the big girls sat on the steps together to eat lunch.  We hadn’t spoken to each other yet, but the stones in our pockets had bonded us somehow.  It wouldn’t take much for us to be friends, but it was difficult to begin.  Amy had been picked up by mom for an orthodontist appointment, so I was without my usual freckled buffer.  I had her can of root beer, though, a great treat.  I offered it to one of the girls.  They offered me a cookie in return.  That was all it took.

The other big girls were sisters.  Laurissa, Katherine, and Emily, I think their names were.  The cookie they gave me was good; it was oatmeal chocolate chip.  I politely said so–we were old enough to wade into friendship slowly–and the girls offered to get the recipe from their mother.

Over a decade later, I still have the recipe.  Laurissa copied it out on two neon orange index cards.  The handwriting is painstakingly neat, and the very last step, punctuated with a period, reads: eat.  I made those cookies tonight, wanting the rustic, pioneer-ish task of stirring together butter and sugar, of patting down cupfuls of flour with my fingers.

I haven’t seen those girls since the last day of pioneer school when they trotted off down the sidewalk in the opposite direction.  The American Girl Dolls are packed snuggly in a large box in my closet.  I still peek in now and then to scold Molly for letting her bangs get so tangled.  My Little House books, still the ones from that long-ago Christmas gift–the new color editions are lovely, but I just can’t bring myself to upgrade–have a place of honor on my bookshelf.  I can’t say for sure how many times I’ve read them, but I suspect at least twenty times each.  I still have my Tiger’s Eye.  Its great significance hasn’t yet been  revealed to me, but I don’t worry about that.  Maybe when you’re older you’ll understand, I tell myself.