Boons for Their Birthday

North turned seventeen on Thursday so the week has been filled with little celebrations. Here’s how it all went down (plus a few more of our doings).

Before the Birthday: The Edge of Seventeen

“This is the beginning of your birthday celebration,” Beth declared as we all gathered around the dining room table on Sunday morning, four days before North’s birthday. We were about to take Noah to the bus stop for his trip back to school and North was going to open their birthday present from him. North pointed out it wasn’t the very beginning because they’d received a card with a generous check from YaYa a couple days earlier, but this was the first wrapped gift. We all sang “Happy Birthday,” and North stripped the rainbow-colored paper from the box. It was a tumbler they’d asked for, lavender, with two straws, and different lids for hot and cold beverages. They thought it might help them drink more water, which is a migraine prevention goal. They seemed pleased with it.

Noah’s break had been low-key, but pleasant. We read a book from the Discworld series and watched a lot of television (finishing a whole season of His Dark Materials with me and making progress in other shows he was watching with various family members), he helped with house and yardwork and gave North a hand with their computer science homework, we celebrated Pi Day with apple and cherry turnovers from the bakery and St. Patrick’s Day with soda bread North made and two Irish movies (My Left Foot and The Banshees of Inisherin). I enjoyed listening to him drum for the first time in a year. He has his last band concert (probably ever) next month and I’m looking forward to hearing it online.

On the ride to Bethesda, Noah observed with surprise, “You didn’t give me any nuts.” I always pack him a snack for the bus, and it usually includes nuts. The reason I do this, other than just the urge to mother him as he leaves, is that the bus doesn’t always stop for meal breaks and it’s a seven-hour ride to Ithaca. I’d intended to pack him some pecans, his favorite nut, but in the commotion of leaving I forgot. We were running early so we detoured to a 7-Eleven, where we gathered a little bag of cashews, a banana, and a bag of Cheez-Its.

“Is that enough?” I asked him. He drifted wordlessly toward a display of cookies. “Do you need cookies?” I inquired.

“I think I do,” he said.

Back in the car, Beth predicted “he won’t starve” if there was no lunch stop.

We said our goodbyes, put him on the bus, and drove to REI, where Beth bought herself some new walking shoes and I went to a nearby Starbucks to drown my sorrows with a latte. It was an emotional day, not only because Noah was leaving, but because in the afternoon I was attending a gathering in support of a friend (the mother of one of North’s preschool classmates) who has stage IV pancreatic cancer.

The friend’s family moved to Switzerland six years ago and we haven’t been in close touch, except during a couple of their visits back to the States, but I was distressed to hear of her illness. At the meeting, attended by a half dozen preschool parents plus a teacher, we had a Zoom call with her husband, he gave updates, and we discussed ways we could help. After he got off the call, we talked more about our own lives and a few people had heavy news of their own. Despite the sad occasion, it was still good to see the mothers of a couple of North’s classmates and their beloved teacher, none of whom I’d seen in a while.

North requested some special dinners in the runup to their birthday. On Tuesday we had ravioli with vegetarian meatballs and on Wednesday I made a tater tot-topped casserole they like. That night they didn’t have a headache for the second day in a row and they were in a good mood. They proposed a walk down the block to see the cherry trees that line the block around the corner. They were almost at peak bloom, so after dinner, we all strolled down the street, admiring the delicate pale pink blossoms. Cherry blossom time always seems magical to me. I guess it helps that my youngest’s birthday often coincides with the bloom. That’s why we sometimes call them our cherry blossom baby.

On the Birthday: At Seventeen

“Happy Birthday to me,” North said when they came out into the dining room and saw the “Happy Birthday” gold balloon banner we’ve been re-using since 2020, and a new balloon with an image of a slice of rainbow-striped cake on it. North has appreciated balloons since they were a small child. I remember how excited they were when they were turning two and Beth took them to the grocery store to get “b’oons for my birfday.”

I offered to make them cheese grits for breakfast, but they wanted leftover tater tot casserole from the night before. Their astronomy class was cancelled, so they only had one online class (English) before they left for school.

While they were at school, I sent them a playlist of songs about being seventeen.  I’ve been working on it for months. I got the idea to make it because I noticed a long time ago there are a lot of songs that mention that age, more so than any other teenage year. I have two theories about this. The first is that if a songwriter needs a three-syllable age of a teen to fit the meter of the song, there’s only one choice, whereas there are six two-syllable choices, so those get spread out across songs. The second is that there must be something particularly evocative about the year before you turn eighteen, graduate from high school, and leave home.

The playlist is called “At 17,” after the Janis Ian song. There are twenty-four songs on it, arranged chronologically from Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie” (“She’s too cute to be a minute over seventeen”) to Demi Lovato’s “29” (Finally twenty-nine/Seventeen would never cross my mind). When I told North about it ahead of time, they asked if it had ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and Olivia Rodrigo’s “Brutal” on it. The answer was yes on both counts.

A lot of these songs are about the painful side of being seventeen, as you know if you’re familiar with the lyrics of “At Seventeen” or “Brutal.” But there’s joy in some of them, too. As Frank Sinatra sings, “When I was seventeen/It was a very good year.” My aim was to pick songs that ran the gamut, because there’s no one way to be any age. They listened to about half of the playlist on the school bus ride home and told me of the songs they didn’t know, they liked Amysthst Kiah’s “Wild Turkey” best.

I met them at the bus stop, and we walked to Starbucks so they could claim their birthday reward. They got a pineapple refresher and didn’t like it as well as their standard strawberry-açai refresher, but they wanted to try something new, and they said they weren’t as disappointed as they would have been if they’d paid for it. It was a warm day—I was in a t-shirt—and I got my first iced latte of the season. On the way home, we lingered on the bridge that goes over the creek and admired all the daffodils and other flowers growing in the woods. “It’s so pretty here,” they said.

North’s cooking night is Thursday, so they made their own birthday dinner. I’d offered to switch with them, but they said no, and they heated up some canned soup. If this seems like kind of a sad birthday dinner, I should re-assure you that North really likes canned soup. Plus, they wanted to have some of the higher carb dinners they requested earlier in the week so they wouldn’t interfere with my ability to eat birthday cake, which was considerate of them.

Beth made the cake, red velvet with cream cheese frosting and cherry blossom decorations, which North had requested. We ate it after North opened presents—a new Apple pencil to replace one they lost, a book and many shirts. They’d asked for long-sleeved shirts, but we also got them a short-sleeved one because on the Cherry Blossom Festival website, Beth found one that had blossoms on stripes that look a lot like the trans flag, and she could not resist it. North received it enthusiastically and slept in it that night. After presents and cake and ice cream, North wanted to play Clue, so we did. I won, by default, because Beth and North both made false accusations.

After the Birthday: When They Were Seventeen

When North got home from school the next day, they opened more presents that had arrived in the mail—another shirt and a glass with a pattern of bees and rabbits and other spring symbols on it.

At 5:30 we met four of North’s friends outside Roscoe’s, picked up a stack of pizzas and took them to the community picnic tables that have been under tents on Laurel Avenue since the beginning of the pandemic. It was in the high forties and raining, not particularly inviting weather for outdoor dining, but North had decided against having their party inside a crowded restaurant, and we’ve all gotten hardy about this sort of thing. Some of the guests went to North’s middle school and some go to their high school, and some have been involved with theater at one school or the other, so conversation bounced between these and other topics. North got some presents: a blank journal from Zoë, and some window clings of flowers, a snail, and a raincloud, plus a small plush octopus from Sol.

After we’d all eaten, the party moved to our living room. Beth drove everyone back to the house in two shifts and we served the guests leftover birthday cake and peppermint tea to warm them up and left them to talk for the next couple hours. All the guests except Zoë, who was sleeping over and spending most of the next day with us, left by 9:30.

Saturday morning, we left the house around ten, hit the closest Starbucks for provisions, and drove to the Tidal Basin to view the cherry blossoms. In the car on the way there, Zoë said turning seventeen was “kind of terrifying” and I asked why, and she said it’s because you’re a year from being an adult and you can’t make mistakes anymore, and I said you can make mistakes the rest of your life and she said, “I’m going to make that my motto.”

The trees had reached peak bloom two days earlier and I was worried the rain on Friday would have knocked them down, but they were just perfect. And the fact that it was now in the mid-forties and still drizzling kept the crowds away. Beth let us off and parked the car. North and Zoë took a lot of pictures, with Zoë offering instructions like “look pensive” and then complaining her subject was insufficiently pensive. At one point she was taking a picture of North taking a picture and I asked her if she wanted a picture of herself taking a picture of North taking a picture and she was all over that.

We walked over the bridge, took in views of the monuments across the water, and wandered around in the FDR Memorial and the MLK Memorial, where we met up with Beth. North didn’t want to go any further, so Beth and I left the kids to wait there and walked back to the car among the profusion of pink puffs.

I commented that even though we’ve lived in the DC area for over thirty years, and we’ve visited the blossoms almost every year, “I will never not be awed by this.”

Beth agreed, “It’s not over-rated.”

Parts of the path were flooded because of rain and sea level rise—we saw ducks swimming by partially submerged benches—so we had to double back and walk on the grass a couple times.

We got to the car, drove to pick up the kids, and headed to Silver Spring after a pit stop for North to grab some catheters and to order lunch from Cava. Then a few blocks from home we had to go back again so North could get their i.d., which could be required for the afternoon plans. We ate inside Cava because it wasn’t as crowded as Roscoe’s and there was no good, sheltered place to eat outside.

After we’d eaten our salads and rice bowls, we went to a movie theater to see A Good Person. North’s vision was to walk up to the ticket taker alone, because as a newly minted seventeen year old, they no longer need adult accompaniment at R-rated movies. We followed behind, with Zoë, who won’t be seventeen for a few weeks and still needed us to get in, or maybe not because though North anticipated being carded, they weren’t. “It’s your new maturity,” Beth said.

The Post gave the movie a rather harsh review, so I didn’t have high hopes, but it was considerably better than I expected. After the movie we dropped Zoë off and North’s birthday celebration was over.

The week was full of boons: most of the items on their wish list, a lovely cake, natural beauty, and time with friends. I hope the year ahead has many more.