It’s my fourth birthday, and Mom stands on the hem of my memory. I’m playing musical chairs with cherry-cheeked friends in the next room. And I think I see Mom on the edge, putting candles in a cake while standing barefoot in the kitchen. But it’s all so fuzzy.
Fast-forward to another party: I see the faint outline of Mom in the foyer, where she’s taping a paper donkey to the radiator, so we can pin the tail to it. If I squeeze my eyes tight enough, I can feel Mom pulling a dish-towel around my head, tying it in the back like a blindfold. I can’t say for sure, but I think Mom is the person spinning us around three times before we shuffle forward with that tail.
I remember some details with clarity: gifts, the names of the guests, what I wore, the elaborate cakes made by a neighbor lady. I remember the way our dignified dining room table—with its chunky legs and swollen feet—would humble itself to serve duty for a bunch of frosting-fingered first-graders. And, whether it’s true or not, I believe there was always a magical snowfall outside the dining room window.
But Mom, the one who loved me most? On the playback of birthdays past, Mom is always this one long blur. She was habitually in the background, I guess, like the butter that made the whole occasion slide from cake to song to gifts. Maybe she was the one taking the pictures, the images that made the memories stick.
I’m not sure that I even thanked Mom for making me feel special.
Months later each year, we celebrated Mom’s birthday, right as the summer’s first tomatoes ripened. Truthfully, “celebrate” is too generous a term. My little brother and I would habitually scramble to come up with a present at the last possible moment. Panicked, we would “borrow” a few bucks from Dad’s billfold and then pedal our Schwinn bikes like mad to the hardware store to buy something like a whisk or a ceramic knick-knack.
And if we couldn’t find Dad’s billfold? Well, we’d fish an old comb or Avon perfume bottle from the back of a bathroom drawer, wrap it up in newspaper and call it good.
It was the ultimate in “re-gifting.”
Mom always thanked us, like we had delivered her a crescent moon on a silver plate.
* * * * *
Mom turns 76 years old in a few weeks, while tomatoes ripen on vines.
For many years, our family of four has celebrated Mom’s birthday with her, at our parents’ little cabin on a quiet Minnesota lake.
Last year, I hastily purchased a necklace for her. I knew Mom would love the present, but I knew what Mom would love even more than jewelry. I knew, because Mom isn’t just in my DNA. She’s inside the folds of my heart.
And I knew, because most of the time, people give to others what they themselves would like to receive.
I knew that more than anything Mom would love a party.
So, on a whim, we invited a few of Mom’s friends from church to the cabin for a dinner party. The birthday girl would not be allowed to step one calloused bare foot on the kitchen floor, or dip one wrinkled finger into a sudsy sink—rules that are a bit difficult to enforce with a woman whose workplace has always been the home.
But my husband and I insisted she hold down the seat of honor. This was her night, and this was our turn to be the butter in the background, making all the parts slide.
We baked Cornish hens with rosemary. We stirred chives (and extra butter) into the red potatoes. We lit candles and served fresh peaches on ice cream. And we marveled, from the background, as that sparely-styled pine table, with its scrawny legs, made itself a stage for one of life’s simplest and grandest pleasures: the joy of giving.
The dinner was appallingly simple. It was one of those moments when a person stands back, shakes her head, and realizes how easy it is to let people know they matter.
It starts here:
Look for the clues. If people are givers, they would love gifts. If people make time for you, they desire to have time given to them. If they love encouraging words, they will want them in return. Give to your people what they tend to give. Most people give away what they themselves like to receive.
Yes, look for the clues. Light extra candles. Make spaces for conversation. Keep it simple, and use paper plates. Share your table. Add an extra chair. Turn your iPhones off. Turn the lights down. Turn the music on. Turn the joy out.
We don’t have to complicate it.
Perhaps the most valuable thing we have to offer to anyone — to our aging parents, to our growing-up-too-fast children, to our churches, to our spouses, to our next-door neighbors — is our time. That’s the easiest way to let people know they matter.
I’m learning from people like my mother, how true this is:
At the heart of giving, is the simple act of opening a space, of making room. It is a quiet acknowledgement of the automatic sacredness of another human being’s life. It’s the easy dignity of sharing a table, of celebrating another person with simple acts of love.
All evening, my husband and I watched from the wings as a group of friends celebrated the life of one beautiful woman.
I forgot to take actual pictures, but this time, I made my brain like a camera, snapping each moment, because I didn’t want this birthday party to end up like so many others—with Mom’s part getting fuzzy around the edges.
The guests lingered around that table, while the candles melted down to nubs. And outside that little cabin, a wisp of a crescent moon hung itself in the sky.
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