It’ll be my birthday this weekend. I don’t like a lot of fuss over it. Nothing’s been mentioned – always a bad sign – and there’s a lot of furtive scurrying going on around me which I studiously choose to ignore, so there’s some plan afoot and events will unfold as is their wont and I will of course be suitably surprised.
Coming from a large family, birthdays were not really remarked upon nor celebrated. That’s not one of those poor little deprived me whinges, it’s just those were the times and the circumstances and I’m sure I wouldn’t be alone in that experience. It’s not something we ever particularly missed as children or were traumatised about in later life as adults, but rather something I had to start doing as a parent myself in fortunately a more prosperous situation.
Their annual problem is what to buy me as a birthday present. I’m still not used to presents and that blind spot is reinforced by quite frankly an indifference to what’s called “stuff” nowadays. Sure, when I was younger, I wanted stuff but the desire was never that compulsive or strong; I think I was just trying to fit in with my peers who were heavily into their stuff.
I like decent clothes but nothing flash, good solid food but spare me the overblown cordon bleu dollops of overpriced mediocrity, a small circle of good friends rather than a cast of thousands but above all a good laugh and lively conversation, rather than some turgid second-hand insights badly expressed by some crashing bore who’s melting my logic chip.
The real problem is that at this stage in the game anything I might really want can’t be bought in a shop, and I’m not even sure what that might be. Perhaps to meet up again with a few friends who’ve gone away. All my real wants tend to be apples growing on an ivy tree things and I’ve always grouped needs and wants into two distinct sets, with the needs sorted and settled well before even starting to think about the wants.
As a child, what I actually looked forward to was Christmas, rather than my birthday. It was the one time the rigid family budget was relaxed. We’d all be jammed into the car and driven into town to a department store. We’d arrive in it and after being briefed by our parents on exactly how much we each had to spend, we’d mill around the toy department, doing agonising calculations about which combinations of toys we could afford on our particular budget.
For an outsider, it must have looked like the flocking behaviour akin to starlings towards the end of an autumn evening; swirling together, dashing apart as if hitting an invisible anvil high in the sky and yet somehow coming back together again, coalescing into a new dark cloud.
Someone would find a great toy and somehow sensing that, we’d all surge from all corners of the store to that location to examine the find, and split off again, each to go seeking after our own individual heart’s desire. After a few hours, we’d all come back home clutching our own golden fleece or our own particular combinations thereof. Dollies, model soldiers, ten in one compendium board games and the odd Ned Buntline Special cap pistol, complete with belt, holster and the little string on the bottom to tie it to your leg like a real gunslinger.
I still remember the pleasure on my parent’s face as they explained the rules, told us we’d all meet up again at where we were standing, and shooed us away. It was the one time in the whole year when a perennially cash strapped couple could indulge their children. They were also for once letting us out of sight but they never strayed far from the only entrance to the store, just in case someone might take one of us. I used to sneak back to check they were still there, and then suitably reassured, I would re-join the general melee.
You’d have to walk a long way to find more caring parents. They had us and loved us, but they also had something very strong and exclusive between them as well. You could see it. Their very own thing. As a couple they were the perfect complimentary match. He was the deep thinker who occasionally needed to be brought back by her out of the walkabout reverie he was prone to go on, and she was a superb reader of people’s feelings who occasionally needed to be reminded of life’s practicalities by him.
When we had our own children, my wife decided to take a career break to raise them. It wasn’t something we had a big discussion over and as I was a good earner, we could stay afloat as a family. The only downside was for me; I’d always be commuting or working abroad and I’d miss the bunch of them. The one thing I always tried to do was be at home for their birthday. They’d always get whatever birthday present they wanted, after the usual negotiations down to something reasonable, but the bit I really enjoyed was taking them into town.
Me and the birthday boy, dad and son, would spend an hour or two walking around town visiting every shop in it that sold toys. Nothing would be bought. As what by now had become a tradition, we’d retire to the same working man’s café to mull over the purchasing options. Over a steaming mug of tea and a double egg, bacon and chips, deep discussions would be had and fine judgements would be made. At the end of the meal and after agonies of indecision, we’d swagger out of the café like two gunslingers on a mission.
The decided combination of purchases would be made with a swift surgical precision by a child that unnerved your average toyshop owner, and we’d be on our way home, with them safely bootied up with this year’s swag.
I’d never noticed the similarities to my own childhood until I wrote this piece, but of course it’s there. Perhaps they’ll have fond memories of days like that, but for me it was always the pleasure of making a little child very happy. Yes, a bit of tough love was involved. They had to have the discipline to stay inside budget and not buy the first toy they saw. They marched all over town, looked at everything that was on offer, weighed the relative merits and finally made a decision.
For me, I finally understood that smile of pleasure our parents had as they unleashed us on the department store.
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