When Birthdays Had Themes

For several years back in the 1990s, Diamondqueen insisted that our birthday celebrations have “themes.” Fortunately this only applied to me, Mom, and Diamondqueen, not the entire family. We had some creative themes, though. And those celebrations took a lot of work and planning.

I celebrated some really interesting themed birthdays during those years. There was the English-themed birthday (the country, not the language) with gifts that included a volume of James Herriot, a video of A Fish Called Wanda, and two handpainted treasures from Mom. One was a spoon rack she built herself and painted with bagpipers and dancers doing the Highland Fling. I loved it on sight, and it still hangs on my wall, holding spoons I picked up in England and Ireland, naturally. The other was a small cedar box she painted with flowers; on top was a small picture of Big Ben and Parliament done in a reverse painting on glass.

I was so stoked by that birthday I turned to Diamondqueen and said, “I’ve been thinking maybe we should try to go to London again next year.” I’d taken her to London the year before, and we’d had a blast. When I mentioned a return trip, Diamondqueen pumped her fist and shouted “Yes!” (and possibly “It worked” — leading me to suspect that influencing my decision was part of her strategy for picking that theme in first place).

Another year I’d recently completed a children’s novel (as yet unpublished), and that novel was the theme of the celebration. It was staged as if it was a launch party for my book, with glitzy decorations and champagne. My gifts reflected various aspects of the book, a Medieval-style fantasy. There was a silver chalice with the title of the novel and the year engraved on the side. There was a tiny crystal castle to represent the castle in the book. I’d asked for a bobbin lace pillow, which my mother made; a family friend fashioned a wooden stand for it, and Mom painted this with scenes from my novel.

There was also an illustrated version of my book, printed out and enclosed in a special binder. Mom had created watercolored line drawings to accompany the text. There was also a painted box, with key items inside that related to the book’s plot and characters. It was all wonderful.

Another year was a kind of “poor man’s celebration” theme, with really economical, plain decorations, cut lilacs from the yard instead of the flowers Diamondqueen preferred to buy, and other calculated cost-cutting effects. All this was because Mom and Diamondqueen had gone in together on a new CD player/turntable/tape deck/radio unit that had far exceeded their budgets. They let the gift provide the glamour and excitement to the celebration, which was fine with me. It was my first CD player, and the unit overall was an extremely nice Sony (which I’m still using).

I guess my favorite was the big 40th birthday mystery trip. I got a special “hint” package, with a long rhyme explaining that I’d need to pack a bag and leave work early; and there was a reference to seeing “Curly, Larry, and Lo.” I was ecstatic when I discovered on the way to the airport that Diamondqueen and Mom had planned out a special trip to Gettysburg for the weekend.

This probably doesn’t sound like a trip that would put a twinkle in most women’s eyes. When I told friends and co-workers what this exciting mystery trip turned out to be, I could see their faces freeze into polite smiles while their eyes said, “What? Why in the world…” I was longing to go back to Gettysburg, though. Mom and I had made our first trip there the preceding September, and we’d had to work hard to salvage the trip from a number of unfortunate events. For one thing, it poured rain until the evening before we went home. Worst of all, though, we had serious car trouble that started in Chambersburg and tormented us (and at times terrified us) the entire trip. Seeing Gettysburg had been extremely important to me; the first trip had felt dampened and incomplete, and I dreamed of returning.

Mom and Diamondqueen had planned it all out: We flew to Harrisburg to save time and picked up a rental car. I think it was midnight when we actually entered Gettysburg, but I insisted on driving out past Little Round Top in the moonlight.

I’d said one of my dreams was to have breakfast on Little Round Top on the site where Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain had made his stand with the 22nd Maine. Saturday morning we bought pastries, juice, and coffee and drove up to the site on Little Round Top, making an informal breakfast on one of the big boulders.

Unfortunately, Mom developed one of her terrible migraines by mid-morning, but she insisted Diamondqueen and I make the most of the visit, so we did. We toured all over the battlefield and stops and snapped pictures. When Diamondqueen decided she wanted to go back to the room for awhile, I headed back to the business district and had myself photographed in Civil War dress. I bought two copies of Chamberlain’s account Little Round Top, and took all this back to the room as thank you gifts for the wondrous birthday surprise. Mom didn’t feel well enough for the evening’s entertainment, so Shannon and I attended the “ghost evening” in a local haunted tavern as planned.

Mom felt well enough next morning to participate in some more battlefield touring, we had lunch at a little restaurant near the base of the cemetery, then drove back to Harrisburg for our return flight. Except for Mom’s migraine, it was a magical weekend and one of my favorite gifts (and birthdays) of all time.

(What was that “Curly, Larry, and Lo” hint all about? “Curly” was George Pickett; “Larry” was Joshua “Don’t Call Me Lawrence” Chamberlain; and “Lo” was Confederate General Lo Armistead. Okay, guess you have to be a Gettysburg fanatic to appreciate the wit.)

Our themed birthdays trend kind of petered out over time, especially after Diamondqueen got married and had the Hooligans. Of course, THEY have themed birthdays (J.Hooligan is counting the days until his Star Wars-themed birthday), but we adults have settled in to more traditional celebrations centered on cake and presents. But those theme-driven extravaganzas of the 90s were great while they lasted.

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