Birthday No. 41


I opened the front door and Maria dashed down the stairs and chirped “Happy Birthday!” I heard a wail from the top of the stairs. Mario mourned at the failure to wish me a happy birthday first. He showed his anger by yelling “you are the worst sister and mom ever!” And so began my 41st birthday.

Jon had a “shape it up” talk with the kids, and after 10 minutes, they arrived in our bedroom bearing cards and gifts. Maria showed me her cards first. I had told her that all I wanted for my birthday was a poem and a cool picture. I knew I was asking a lot because Ri is not a big gan of drawing unless it’s pictures of glamorous girls. I try to get her to sit down and make something but it’s always a fight. So, I wasn’t expecting anything too elaborate, if anything at all. But she came through with a quirky poem and even a picture for me. Mario drew his signature multi-colored blocks picture that I always admire and a stick figure of himself. Precious.

They also grabbed a few items from the basement to give as presents truly believing that I had never seen them before. Maria grabbed the framed baby pictures of her and Mario. Mario gave me a book I bought a long time ago at the used book store and never read titled “An Unknown Woman.” Perfect for turning 41.

I hugged them both with mad intensity and thanked them for being so generous. As we made our way downstairs, Ri looked back at me with an excited look on her face. “Are you taking off work today, mom?” I answered “I wish.” She started to pout. “I wanted to stay home with you today, mom.” And she pouted the entire way to school refusing to kiss me goodbye when she left the car.

It feels wrong and inequitable that a seven year old’s attitude can have such a negative impact on an adult. I got ready for work thinking ” It’s my fricken’ birthday and I have this attitude all around me?” Really?!

I tend to idealize how events will turn out and 95% of the time, that leads to disappointment. So I have been trying to be conscious of that habit and avoid it.

However, that habit had reared it’s ugly head on my morning run and as I stepped into our house, I framed a perfect scene with my kids and hubby greeting me at the door holding elaborate cards and smothering me with kisses. Then they’d sing happy birthday and tell me how I am the greatest mom and wife on Earth.

Seriously?! What mom has ever experienced such an event? Pretty sure not even June Cleaver.

I took a deep breath as I pulled my bike up to the front entrance of my work. I looked around me. The sun was finally out. I had gotten to bike to work. Jon was taking me out in the evening. The kids had been sweet in the morning and only hot excited because they wanted to spend MORE time with me. Really, life was pretty good.

When I walked in my office, a bright pink and black package sat on my desk with a card. All of my colleagues had signed the card and I discovered an assortment of fine chocolates in the package. Always a good way to start a day.

My busy day received welcome interruptions from distant friends and relatives sending messages and close friends and family calling.

My sister left me the most hilarious message singing “Happy Birthday To Freak” on my voice mail (it’s a Menkedick tradition to call each other “freaks.”). My mom left me a “you are still young” message reiterating how active and vibrant I remained at the ripe old age of 41. My dad and Meg left separate messages sending their love. My mother-in-law called me with good news about her heart tests and wished me a great day. My brother met out with me for a coffee and a brisk Fall walk. I received a lovely card from Jon’s brother and family. I felt immensely loved, and that’s a darn tootin’ good feeling.

After work, I received my ultimate present – Perkins Pancake House! But before we could head out, Mario pounded out some fine pieces of craftsmanship for me. He has learned quite the hand-eye coordination to hammer nails. I kept cringing as he hammered the nails into the wood but he made it through with no bloody fingers.

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When we walked into Perkins, a torrent of memories flooded my brain. The muffin case, the kitchen, the booths. I waitressed at Perkins (as did many of my Heile aunts) for six years through high school and college. Waitressing at Perkins left an indelible mark on my speech – I still call people “hunny” and “dear.”. That’s all good and fine when it’s Jon or the kids but when it’s my boss, it’s not cool. I met a lot of struggling, flawed, surviving-on-a-shoestring folks working at Perkins and they taught me a heck of a lot about life. hard work, laughter, compassion, friendship to name a few. I wish I could find Annie, the bucktoothed mama of five who rode three buses to get to her morning shift at 5:30 am. Or Jessie, the black patch wearing night shift manager who carried a billy club by his side all evening. I never felt scared with him around. These folks were my extended family and I loved them dearly.

Perkins not only formed my speech but also my taste buds. I fell in love with Perkins’ food, especially the pancakes. They have a buttery lightness to them that I have not found anywhere else.

I could barely contain my excitement at work; I bragged about heading to Perkins at every meeting. People laughed thinking I was kidding. They need to make a trip and they will be converted. The men were jealous of Jon wishing their wives were as cheap of a date as me. I’d pick Perkins over Hyde Park any day.

And dang if the food didn’t taste just as good as I had imagined – absolutely delicious. I savored every last bite while the kids and Jon found immense pleasure in my giddiness. If I ever lose my job, I am heading back to Perkins.

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I felt so incredibly happy when I walked out of Perkins. The kids might as well had stars swooning their bodies and Jon a halo over his head – they were my angels and had absolutely made my night by feeding me pancakes and providing me the best of company.

And asif it couldn’t get any better, it did! We picked up a Giant Eagle sheet cake and ice cream. Yes, I ate a huge piece of cake with ice cream within one hour of demolishing pancakes. What are birthdays for?

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Mario sang happy birthday to me for the third time that night and Ri videotaped it (she is going to be a videographer at some point in her future). Jon wrote me a sweet card and I scored free massages and a gift certificate to FrontRunner. Nothing better.

At the end of the evening, I laid in bed staring at the muted light streaming through our blinds. I thought about the angst of my 20’s – trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to be. My 30’s – feeding my ego, graduating law school, working in the white tower firm, marrying my man, and having two babies. And then my 40’s – starting the decade off with my girlfriends in Italy. How apropos to start my 40’s, I thought.

I think these next few years will be for me to enjoy myself – travel, take long runs, eat good food (Perkins!), watch a movie in an actual theatre, meet up with friends, read enthralling books with M&M, connect more with my siblings, get lost in Jon. Enjoy all I have accomplished and endured these last 41 years, and give myself a little break. Laugh a little more. Do something spontaneous. Be silly and wild. Dig into nature. Watch an Oscar-nominated movie. Celebrate who I am and who I love and feel comfortable in my own skin.

Ahh, nice.

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