Birthdays are too important not to celebrate

cake and ice cream, birthday party
Cake and ice cream are the traditional birthday party favorites. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Some people cringe when their birthday rolls around. They look at the annual demarcation as making them one year older. Indeed, it does. Conversely, I prefer to think of birthdays as the beginning of another new year of opportunities and wonder.

birthday candles, birthday cakes, cream sticks
Sometimes birthday cakes are not always “cakes.” © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
That approach may have come naturally. Ever since I can remember, birthdays have always been important in our family. My brothers, sisters and I joyfully anticipated our special day.

Our poor, already overworked mother would bake the cake we wanted. Even though chocolate was my favorite, I always asked for pineapple upside down cake. I had my reasons.

I loved pineapple. I also loved maraschino cherries. The citrus and syrupy sweet flavors melted into an irresistible caramelized topping that made the yellow cake extra moist and pleasing.

I have to confess that I also had a secret reason for requesting that cake. My other brothers and sisters didn’t like it as well as I did. You know what that meant? I downed more than my fair share of my cake all by myself.

Though our family was never rich, that didn’t mean we didn’t celebrate. It took love, not money, to make birthdays special. Every once in a while, each of us five kids was allowed to have a real birthday party. That meant a bunch of rapscallions whooping it up until the cake and ice cream were served.

birthday presents, celebration, Bruce Stambaugh
Birthday presents. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
Usually, though the parties were confined to the immediate family. The cake naturally served as dessert for the evening meal. After dinner, came the present.

What should have been an exciting time didn’t always turn out that way. For my 16th birthday, my folks got me a car, a toy car. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

That may have been the consequence of having a birthday sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I always suspected that my parents bought what they could afford and thought I needed, needing to save for Christmas.

On the other hand, having been born in December made the birthday tradition at my elementary school pretty easy. Students were expected to bring a treat on their special day. I often handed out store bought Christmas sugar cookies, stars, wreathes, and candy canes sprinkled with red and green sugar, to the joy of my classmates.

Birthdays were equally greeted with cake and occasional parties in the home in which my wife was raised. One year a neighbor made her a cake so pretty the family froze it instead of eating it.

We tried to make our own children’s birthdays special, too. Neva pulled out all the stops to make or buy special cakes, often in the shapes of baby dolls or baseballs or whatever our son and daughter fancied. Of course, they had parties with friends, neighbors and relatives some years, too.

first birthday, birthday party
There is only one first birthday. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
This year I get to celebrate my birthday, never mind which one, with my three grandchildren. They live in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, a place that is lovely any season of the year.

I’m really looking forward to the time with the grandkids since my wife and I don’t get to see them regularly. Our home is west of the Appalachians, and theirs is set on the mountains’ eastern foothills.

I’m sure they will enjoy watching me blow out all those candles. I just have two birthday wishes though.

I hope my array of burning birthday candles doesn’t set off their fire alarm. And I hope they don’t like pineapple upside down cake.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

Cold weather can’t cool the warmth of a birthday party

Lego Dolphin cruise boat, grandkids
Ready to launch. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

By Bruce Stambaugh

We wouldn’t have missed this birthday bash for the world. As Maren’s grandparents, we were among the chosen few to attend her fifth birthday party.

Like we needed an excuse to visit. Nana and I would gladly traverse the 350 miles across eight mountain passes between our home and our daughter’s in Virginia’s always-lovely Shenandoah Valley to attend this special event.

Unfortunately, a dubious hitchhiker volunteered to accompany us on our trip. The nice Virginia weather changed to the stuff we had left in Ohio not long after our arrival in the valley.

We weren’t going to let a little discomforting inclemency spoil our celebrative spirits, however. The blue-eyed towhead Maren would turn five regardless of the climatological elements.

The party was just what Maren ordered. You would think a five-year-old girl who loves pink would go glitzy when given the chance to help plan her own party. But no, Maren only wanted family, plus a few close neighbors.

That is exactly what she got. She was the youngest in the cozy crowd.

Surrounded by her parents, her two ornery older brothers, and her MawMaw and Nana and Poppy, a festive evening of fun began with the opening of gifts and cards. What does a preschool girl get for her birthday? Why, jewelry of course, and books, and the one gift Maren hoped to receive, a Lego Dolphin Cruise liner.

The wet weather did postpone the only outside activity planned. The breaking of the piñata had to wait until the next morning.

While the kids went to a room to assemble the multitude of plastic pieces to create the boat, the table was set, and dinner prepared. Dessert was a delicious and preciously decorated cake done by a family friend. Of course, multicolored sprinkles, including pink, speckled the creamy white icing.

A candle in the shape of the number five topped the tiered, sparkly cake. A lone, perfect flame danced atop the crooked candle until one strong puff from the five-year-old snuffed it out.

Maren and her parents posed for a photo, and then it was back to the dry dock for the kids to complete the boat building. With three young engineers, the cruise ship was assembled in record time, encouraged on by teenage neighbors. The youngsters were all smiles when the last piece snapped into place.

birthday party, birthday cake, girl and parents
The Birthday Girl and her parents. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
However, there was one remaining meaningful gift for the birthday girl. The graduate school tenant who occupies the apartment in the basement of our daughter’s home brought a rather special surprise. It seems earlier in the year Miss Maren had secretly negotiated a contract with the tenant, who wanted to raise a garden, including watermelons.

Since Maren loves watermelon, she took it upon herself to wrangle a deal that had her receiving a portion of the ripe melons. Being a good sport, the tenant, majoring in peace studies, put her lessons into practice.

As the crops grew, however, nothing more was said about sharing the watermelons. Apparently, Maren was more satisfied with sealing the deal than cashing in on it.

Maren may have forgotten about the compact, but the tenant hadn’t. The last gift presented to Maren was a miniature watermelon saved just for her.

The watermelon gift was a cool idea that warmed the congenial birthday gathering all the more. Unless it was a stowaway, I don’t think the fruity cargo made the maiden voyage of the Dolphin, however.

birthday party, watermelon, gift
Watermelon surprise. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Celebrating more than a birthday

siblingsbybrucestambaugh
Our birthday gathering.

By Bruce Stambaugh

There we all were. The five Stambaugh “kids” gathered around a common table, celebrating another birthday. This wasn’t any old birthday either. Wait. I better rephrase that.

We were gathered to celebrate the oldest sibling’s very special day, his 70th birthday. All but one of our spouses joined in the merrymaking, too.

We met in a nice restaurant that the birthday boy chose. It was centrally located, which made it easy for us to assemble. Given our ages, stations in life, and individual schedules, it was a rare treat to gather together.

The food was excellent. The fellowship was better.

Despite the din in the open, high ceiling eatery, the conversation around the table was lively and animated. It reminded me of meals at dinnertime at the little brick bungalow where we all grew up in the suburbs of Canton, Ohio.

Craig was the only pre-World War II child in our immediate family. The rest of us were all of the Baby Boomer generation. Consequently, there was never a dull moment in the Stambaugh household. That’s what always made for lively interaction at mealtime in our younger years.

Take the time my older brother bet me a nickel that I couldn’t eat a spoonful of mustard. As I recall, I got the nickel, but Craig really won the wager.

I marveled at the table talk that evening. You would have thought we were all children again by the enthusiasm and joyous chatter. I liked that a lot. Our late parents taught us well.

There was one main difference, however. Instead of acting like children, we talked about our children and grandchildren. They are scattered from New York City to Orlando, Florida and many places in between.

brickbungalowbybrucestambaugh
The house that our father built and where all of us “kids” grew up.
Growing up, it wasn’t always so lovey dovey. We quibbled and quarreled and played together throughout our childhood. But being four years or more ahead of the rest of the clan, Craig’s recollection of times gone by enjoins a wider view of our family history. I’m trying to be kind here.

Take the time when I was a toddler, and Craig was charged with watching me while Mom focused on other agenda. Craig was specifically told to make sure that I didn’t step into our yet to be seeded front yard, which was one giant mud hole.

When our mother heard the wailing from the front yard, she rushed to my rescue. My shoes were stuck fast smack in the middle of the mud, and Craig was nowhere to be found.

I was much too young to remember that traumatic experience. Craig was not, however. To his credit, Craig is the one who told the story.

We always teased Craig that as the oldest he was the favorite in the family. In fact, I bribed the preacher at our mother’s funeral to say that Mom had had an only child and then four children. Mischief sometimes masquerades for love.

Craig may have hit 70, but the rest of us are right on his heels. Our celebrative gathering was far more than a birthday bash. It was recognition of the kinship we all share, and the unspoken affection we all have for one another.

Though it wasn’t a surprise party, I know my big brother thoroughly enjoyed the time. One of his daughters told me that being together was the best gift we could have given him.

Growing up, birthdays were always special days in the Stambaugh household. I’m glad they still are.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Confronting life’s unpredictable perils

wading in surf by Anna Bishop
Wading in the North Carolina surf. (Photo by Anna Bishop)

By Bruce Stambaugh

Within hours of one another, I received three divergent yet emotional messages about grandchildren.

The first came after I had changed my profile picture on Facebook to a shot of my middle grandchild celebrating his fourth birthday. The picture showed Davis heartily laughing in front of his makeshift birthday cake.

The four candles signifying his age burned as bright as his smile. The candles were securely stuck in a row in the thick, chocolate frosting of a cream stick that Nana and I had bought at a local Amish bakery before leaving Ohio.

Davis' fourth birthday by Bruce Stambaugh
A cream stick for a birthday cake.

It was a fun time, with the family finally gathered for his birthday. It was the first one we had celebrated with Davis. Texas was just too hot and we always seemed to be extra-busy in the middle of July.

But now that Davis and his family had moved to Virginia, we made sure we were there with and for him. The message about all this was from his mother, my daughter, asking for the pictures from the party. I had yet to share them with her. She loved the shot and wanted to see the rest.

When I checked my Facebook page in the morning, I found a disturbing and extremely sad posting by the son of a friend of mine. His sister’s newborn daughter had died right after birth.

I shared the sad news with my wife. We are close friends with the expectant grandparents. This baby would have been their first grandchild, one they had so longed for and had happily anticipated.

Now all expectation of playful days ahead had been dashed. I couldn’t imagine how devastated they must feel. I felt guilty for having three healthy grandchildren.

Their daughter lived in Indiana and I knew they would be with her. What could I do to offer my deepest sympathies, to reach out to them in their time of need?

While I struggled with this dilemma, I received an email containing the weekly column of a friend and writing peer in Virginia. He had written about his vacation with his grandchildren and included a picture of him wading in the ocean, a towheaded granddaughter tugging on one arm, a brown-haired grandson on the other as the foamy surf broke upon them.

It was clear that both grandchildren hung on to their grandfather in trust and love as the soft, warm waves crashed against them. I was happy for him, sad for my other friends, and conflicted about being able to reconcile these seemingly disconnected incidents.

Grandparents are supposed to be wise and loving and adored. My friend’s picture clearly revealed those dynamics. But we also know that there are times when life simply isn’t fair and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it.

I hope and pray that my three grandchildren will grow and prosper and live lives of service to humanity. I am deeply distraught that my friends Bruce and Helen cannot now say the same thing for their granddaughter.

I am sure many of their friends will reach out to this fine couple in their grief. When I get the chance, though, I will pretend we are at the shore, standing knee-deep in the churning surf, readying for life’s perilous waves to come crashing against us, Helen clasping one arm, Bruce the other, trusting and loving.

At this mournful moment, that is all I can offer.
Seaside sunrise by Bruce Stambaugh