birthday stories

by christie shumate mcelwee

The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate.

Oprah Winfrey

In November of 1976, my parents organized a surprise party for my 18th birthday, and I didn’t catch on until I walked down the basement steps to my friends yelling “Surprise!”

Midwest birthdays in the 1960s and 1970s were simple affairs. In our family, it usually included a dinner of our choice. Growing up with a mother not known for her stellar cooking skills – but who possessed a myriad of other gifts –  my meal was baked mac and cheese, one dish she’d mastered. That year, though, my famously frugal dad took us all to Ponderosa, a 70s chain restaurant known for mid-grade chopped steak. I later realized it was a ruse to get me out of the house.

On our long and meandering drive back, I noticed many of my friends’ cars parked in front of Greg’s, a friend who lived a block up the street from us. I quickly spiraled into a pathetic pool of late adolescent self-pity. “Greg’s having a party and I wasn’t invited. And it’s my birthday!” I wailed.

As I stomped into the house, mom asked me to get something from the basement, and after the surprises and hugs, I realized they had all parked up the street instead of in front of our house. (Despite my mother’s instructions, my father forgot to take an alternate route, hence the spotting of cars.)

This simple party with friends, punch, and cake is still one of my favorite birthday memories. That my siblings didn’t give it away, that I never caught on to the subterfuge, and that I walked into a room filled with friends marks a special page in this old heart.

My pandemic birthday didn’t include any grand surprises. It was quiet and sweet, with friends and family wishing me joy. Our children called and texted. I was able to safely share a meal with my mother, who had ordered an ice cream cake with my name on it! Later that evening, my husband and I opened a bottle of wine and noshed on charcuterie before we watched the final three episodes of Schitt’s Creek. Christmas lights twinkled. Cold rain pattered the windows. Finn the cat snored from his perch on my pastel chair.

Despite the total freaking crappiness of this past year, there are moments that offer up grace, and my 62nd birthday was one of them. And like the Roses of Schitt’s Creek, I am surrounded by magical messy magnificent love.

~Dylan Thomas

And I rose

In rainy autumn

And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.

Dylan Thomas

I’m gonna need a stiff drink to get through this.

David Rose
Photo by spemone on

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