Birthday in a Box

June and I stumbled into to the living room around 6:55 this morning. Beth and Noah were sitting on the couch discussing an upcoming sale at their imaginary car dealership. It’s a morning ritual. “Do you want to sing ‘Happy Birthday’?” I coached her.

June shook her head. It was too early for singing. “Happy Birthday,” I said, leaning over to kiss Beth’s cheek. “Everything after work,” I added. I was under-prepared for Beth’s birthday. I had wanted to take her on a date and I was holding out hope that I’d find a babysitter until the very last minute, but it was not to be. I did have a back-up plan, but I’d need a little time to implement it. Noah didn’t have a present on hand either. Over the weekend I’d suggested he contribute to the iTunes gift cards I was planning to get for her (this was the backup plan), but he didn’t like that idea and wanted to get her a cup holder for the car. We ordered it on Saturday, so there wasn’t much chance of it arriving today. I was planning to have June paint a watercolor (Beth had requested one) but she hadn’t done it yet.

Beth and her mother and brother all have their birthdays in a cluster from mid-November to early December. Last year they decided that so many gift-giving occasions so close to Christmas was too much and they now just exchange cards. These have been trickling in all week. I’d spoken to my sister recently so I knew what she was getting Beth and I also knew it would not arrive on time. My mom’s gift (a Border’s gift card) wasn’t here yet either, but I thought it would probably arrive in today’s mail.

So as of this morning, other than cards from her parents and brother, we had nothing. No presents, no cards, no cake. What I did have was plans.

I dropped June off at school at 8:30 and accepted a ride home from the mother of the Yellow Gingko (aka Squash Bug). I told her about the failed attempt the secure babysitting and the dearth of presents. She waved a hand, “You have hours,” she said. I agreed. I knew what I was doing and I had enough time to pull everything together.

I stayed home long enough to do the breakfast dishes and put in a load of laundry, and then I hit the bus stop. My first thought was to conduct the iTunes transaction online, but the lack of physical objects to give Beth was bothering me, so I decided to see if they carried gift cards at the Rite Aid where I’d gone in search of a birthday card. I was in luck. They were only available in relatively small denominations so I picked up a few. Once I got to the counter, my luck ran out. There were all kinds of problems with the gift cards. Almost half of them wouldn’t scan (I kept going back to the rack for more and finally ended up grabbing the whole stack). Then for some reason they could only be charged to my debit card as individual transactions. By the time I left, I had a stack of receipts for purchases and refunds. I will need to check my statement carefully when it comes. The whole experience was made more annoying by the fact that the sales clerk seemed to have taken a vow of silence. So I had to keep asking, “Is it a problem with my card or the iTunes card? Should I go get some more to try?“ and so forth. He never even apologized for the inconvenience, which would have gone a long way with me. I thought about asking for the manager but then I noticed that his badge pronounced he was the manager. Then to make matters worse I remembered we’re boycotting Rite Aid for some reason (something about anti-gay discrimination and not customer service). At least now when I am suffering through horrible service at CVS, I won’t have to think, oh if only I could go to Rite Aid. I know better.

I stopped at Starbucks to buy a cup of coffee. This was actually for the cake, a mocha cake with cream cheese frosting. We have coffee and a coffee maker at home for houseguests, but since I rarely drink brewed coffee, I have no idea how to use it. Buying some ready made seemed the easiest thing to do, especially since Starbucks was right there. I got myself a green tea latte and paused long enough to read a little while I drank it. (I’m still reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which Beth bought me for my birthday in May. It’s over one thousand pages long and at one point I lost the thread of the plot and had to start all over. I am enjoying it immensely and am dreading finishing it, which should happen in about two weeks at my current rate of reading.)

I walked home, found my mom’s card for Beth in the mail, moved the laundry to the dryer and put a second load into the washer and then left to get June at school. While June watched Dragon Tales and ate her lunch, I started mixing cake batter. When her show was over, she wandered into the kitchen and helped stir. I slid the cake into the oven, read her a book and put her down for her nap. While June napped, the house started to smell pleasantly of chocolate. I collected birthday items in a clementine box so I wouldn’t forget anything. I tossed in Mom’s card first. Before putting my card in, I decided to dress it up a bit by putting a bow on the envelope and sticking it in a gift bag with some tissue paper. Now things were looking more festive.

After June’s nap, we went to the Clifford web site ( and she designed a card. I printed it and she colored it. Next she painted her watercolor. I reminded her to include some blue in it because that’s Beth’s favorite color. She finished just as Noah’s bus arrived. After he had completed his half hour of reading for the day, I got him to work making his own card. Into the box went the kids’ cards and the now-dry painting.

Noah’s card has the following poem in it:

Happy last wishes to the bee
Unlike you she’s not 43
Happy birthday to you,
For you’re no zombie.

(He used a rhyming dictionary to compose these timeless verses.)

While Noah was at work on his card, I frosted the cake. June thought it needed pink sprinkles, so I let her shake them on. She applied them with a liberal hand.

I made an okra gumbo soup for dinner because Beth’s a fan of okra. I was just getting dinner on the table when she got home around 6:30. June dashed to meet her at the door. “Bef, we have a surprise for you!” she exclaimed, tugging on Beth’s arm and pulling her into the kitchen where we showed her the cake. Then June grabbed her Clifford card from the box on the dining room table. Then out came Noah’s card and June’s watercolor and a bonus drawing of all of us, plus a “lion made of gold,” and a mouse. I meant for presents to go with cake, but we had present momentum, so Beth opened Mom’s gift and mine, too. I asked her what her colleagues did for her and she said they got her a card and a cupcake. Beth tasted the frosting left on the sides of the mixing bowl and said, “So that’s what the cream cheese was for.”

We ate dinner and Beth wanted to know if there was ice cream to go with the cake. There was not. She proposed a trip to the supermarket to get some. There was a lot of indecision and back and forth about who exactly would go with her, but in the end June went and Noah stayed so he’d have time to watch an episode of Fraggle Rock. It ended just around the time they came back. I lit the candles, we sang “Happy Birthday” in English and Spanish and then we ate. (Noah licked all the frosting off his piece, left the cake untouched and asked for seconds. Beth and I said “No” in unison.)

We got the kids ready for bed, but before she climbed into bed, June wanted to say one last “Happy Birthday” to Beth, so she and I went into the study where Beth was already deep in nursery school committee work.

“Go ahead,” I said.

“You do it,” she said.

“Happy Birthday, “ I said, giving Beth a kiss. So the day ended as it began with me giving Beth birthday greetings on June’s behalf. Her presents may have fit in a little box, but my love and appreciation for her do not.

Happy Birthday, my love. I’m ever so glad you were born.