A number of my friends are turning 40 this year. I also have at least as many friends turning 53 this year, so it makes the shock of the big four-oh a little strange. It sounds daunting and ominous, but almost juvenile at the same time. As for me, I’ll be the age that suits me on any given day. Today I like 48.
Growing up, birthdays were non-events for me. When they were events they were usually unpleasant or distasteful. In fact, two of the foulest tastes I can remember – those sensations that leave your jaw quivering and tongue crawling with flavors that you cannot wash out of your mouth 30 years later – were birthday surprises. I rarely got to have a birthday party at all. Frequently, either we were out of town or my friends were out of town, so I did not know how to behave very well for the few parties I did have. I was still a kid when I decided age did not matter anyway, so there was no point in marking its passing.
As a young girl I spent my unbirthdays at Boy Scout day camp. Most people are perplexed by this. It was as much fun as it sounds. My two older brothers were in Boy Scouts and my mother was a Den Mother, so for one week every summer we went to the local military base every day, and I got deposited with the babysitting group. I was at least three or four years older than the rest of the children in the babysitting group. As I turned five, six, and probably seven years old I was expected to play with children who were in diapers and could not talk yet.
I remember one of the babysitters baby-talking to me once, trying to get me to play with one of the toddlers. She was completely nonsensical. I was a pretty small child, so maybe she thought I was younger than I really was. Perhaps the fact that I was in school and could read made the adults think I was a genius toddler with exceptionally well-developed motor skills and extremely poor social skills since I had no interest in making friends with children who were still cutting teeth. As a child you think you get one day a year that is all about you, and you get to have a party to celebrate getting older and bigger, but I got to spend a whole week being treated like a baby.
Mom did at least bring a cake on my unbirthday for the kids who were eating solid food. One year we arrived at the white, stale, wooden barracks with the concrete floor and Mom said, “I got you a peanut butter pie. I thought you would like that since I know how much you like peanut butter.” To this day I do not know where she got the impression I was a big fan of peanut butter. Peanut butter is really all about the chocolate. Without chocolate, it is a vitamin. The pie was beautifully whipped into a rich and luscious-looking swirl of rancid peanut butter, crisco, and sugar. It was so sugary it was downright grainy contrasted with the rancid peanut butter flavored crisco that melted like wax and ran down my throat to curdle in my stomach. There was not enough milk on the surrounding dairy farms to wash away the thick taste of sugary gruel that grated my tongue and sat on my stomach like a rotting ball of paste. Unfortunately, that was not the only surprise Mom was sure I would enjoy.
The tradition in our home growing up was that on the day of anyone’s birthday the celebrant got to pick the dinner menu, including the cake. I did not always have this opportunity since some years we were out of town at a relative’s house on my unbirthday. With an unbirthday that fell smack in the middle of coastal strawberry season, when I did have this opportunity I often requested a fresh strawberry cheesecake. Mom took her cheesecake recipe from Grandma Rose’s Sinfully Delicious dessert book, and it came out as rich, and smooth, and as royally decadent as when Grandma Rose made it herself in her café. Topped with ripe coastal strawberries it was just this side of evil and hedonistic.
Somehow we had a miscommunication the year I turned 16. By coincidence I was not scheduled to work at the little tourist shop where I was employed, so with nothing better to do I took a babysitting gig to earn a little extra cash. When I arrived at home after being gone for several hours Mom was preparing our annual(ish) dinner of steamed clams. In helping her finish up and set the table I spied dessert in the rectangle pan. Curious, I inquired why Mom did not use the round springform pan that is normally required for cheesecake.
“I found a new recipe,” Mom said. “It is low fat and low calorie, so I thought you would like it. It is made with cottage cheese. No cream cheese.” A decent person would spare the gruesome details. I am not a decent person.
After dinner, dessert came out to the table and I was given the first, chunky piece. Even with sweet, juicy strawberries on top the smell of soured cottage cheese was so strong I could barely get the fork past my nose. The hyper-curdled curds were like sharp little gravel suspended in thick, gritty, soured whey. I have never been able to choke down cottage cheese without gagging, no matter how elaborately doctored or hidden, but no one could eat this surprise. Even the strawberries on top got thrown away.
Sitting at the dinner table trying to contain the nausea and sudden feverishness I decided I never wanted another birthday again. It was liberating. I could be any age that worked for me at the moment. It is no miracle that I can live from one year to the next without dying, so birthdays are not worthy of the hype, the fiasco, the disaster, or the miscommunication. I am sure during the few remaining teen years I must have had typical teen celebrations, though at this point I have no recollection. As an adult I have had a few celebrations here or there that have been mostly to please other people, but I have done my best to slip around in the hopes that others will forget as well. As for Mom, points for creativity and effort. She has helped me scoff at age all these years since.
My unbirthday has been such an ordinary day that in recent years I have started to loose track of my actual age. One day someone asked me my age and without thinking about it I blurted out, “Forty-two.” I was still in graduate school, so by the calendar I must have been under age 36. I was so startled by what came out of my mouth I hesitated, “No that’s not right. Forty-seven.” I did not know where that came from either. That, too, was a liberating moment, though. “Yea, 47 today,” I said. Over the last several years I have been 54, 46, 38, 57, 43, and yes, 40 and 53. Today, though, 48 feels right.