The Truth About Birthdays

Colors of yellow and orange drift through the sky reaching out their stems to clutch one last ray of glistening warmth. Daylight seeps from the heavens through the growing stretch between the sky bound branches. Beneath our feet, crackle the fallen pigment-free remnants of a bygone summer. Forever discarded like crumbled brown paper bags after the final lunch bell rings.

These are my memories of autumn, the thoughts in my mind of a place I’ve called home for most of the years of my life. The days I missed most when I lived as a singleton for 8 years in California. The only time I have yearned for Iowa during our time in Ecuador.

Autumn is also the season of birthdays. Not just my own, but for three quarters of my family. Over three weeks, three of us count one year more between September and October. And this season we will complete the first cycle of all our birthdays on the road.

Birthdays, just like holidays, are a strange phenomenon while living abroad. The oddity is only exaggerated as nomads. I suppose this is just a growing pain and in time we will find the rhythm of how to celebrate these sacred days of our lives. For Carlos and I there is no big tragedy. We are one year older, hopefully one year wiser, and gleefully one year better traveled. Festivities and presents have long since ranked high on our list of priorities.

But, when you are 5, the story is written a bit differently. Or so we thought. Our daughter didn’t ask for much this year, she usually doesn’t. We instilled in her from very young that celebrations are not about gifts. But, in the same stroke we have taught her that these precious moments are about people and experiences. Even after just 6 months of travel, all of us have more friends than we have ever had. Friends from more corners of the world than we could ever imagine. Friends that we have made in just one day, one week, or even over a month. Friends that we will carry in our hearts near and far, even if we never see them again. Yet, they are friends that are everywhere but here.

We moved into a small cabin at our hostel the night before our daughter’s birthday. The place is charming and homey with more space to jump around for our little ones. We filled the rooms with balloons and piñatas, and ordered a special pink cake. Our daughter proudly wore a hand embroidered, indigenous blouse made by a good friend of ours. A couple of local kids came to play and celebrate. But, the mood was strange and her obvious discomfort hung thick in the air. After an hour she retreated from the festivities, saying she’d had enough.

Not sure what to make of it, we let her be. Allowing her to spend the rest of the day lost in her sketchbook. In the evening, she spoke to me. In Spanish, actually. As if this special language was the safest way to package her disdain. She quite literally told me that she did not like her birthday. I swallowed my tears and bravely asked her what it could have been, what would have made for a birthday that she loved?

What came next, I never saw coming. She calmly and quietly whispered the words of her wishes. She said that she wanted a house, one with her very own room in it. One that was close enough to walk to her Grandpa’s. My stomach sank to the floor. Dread filled my heart and my mind raced in circles wondering what mistake we had made. Had we misread her, misjudged her, misunderstood the flourishing accomplishments she gained through travel?

Blinking back my concerns, I quickly reached out and pulled her into my arms. We talked that night about her old room, about Iowa, about all her old friends, her cousins, and her Grandpa, too. We reminisced on her favorite library and her favorite park, too. We talked about the pumpkin patch and trick or treating, which we don’t celebrate here. We laughed about how the Spring season here does not make it feel like birthday time at all. Then we ate a bowl of fruit loops in bed…a food we virtually never eat anymore…and watched Christmas movies in October while listening to a hail storm that sounded like an April tornado.

Just before we said our good nights, I saw the wanderlust twinkle in her eyes. She asked me about the place in the travel magazine on my nightstand. A foreign and unimaginable destination called Athens. She said that she would like to visit the place where people use real chopsticks. Then, she asked me if the lands in “The Sound of Music” were a real location, and could we visit there? I told her that we will see all of them one day, and I truly believe we will.

I laid awake all night, thinking about birthdays and nostalgia, symbolism and expectations. Why do we put so much stress on ourselves to make a birthday just right? When was it that as a society, we started planning festivities and stopped asking our children about thoughts on their lives? Even at the innocent age of five, a child can reflect on times gone by. She can dream of the future. She can live in the moment. She can tell you exactly how she would like her day to be.

Maybe we did not give her a house with her own room. Maybe she didn’t really want that at all. But, perhaps she did need permission to remember and to miss the past. It could be that she has been afraid to forget it. Maybe we are wrong to dismiss our prior life in lieu of the excitement of our new one. Perhaps this day was a hint that it’s okay to be homesick. An important reminder to remember where we came from. And a heavy reality check on our views of a so-called birthday culture.

2 Replies to “The Truth About Birthdays”

  1. What a sweet poignant story Stephanie. It seems it’s always the very young that are the wisest, and yet in the end your willingness to listen, and to let here speak her truth, is probably worth all the birthdays put together.
    Alison

    1. You are right, Alison. We have so much to learn from others..and not always our elders. That is something I have thought about a lot since having kids. Of how much I have learned from them and how much they have improved my perspectives because of their influence! 🙂

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