Looking Back at Birthdays

Since this is my birthday week, the gift I’m giving myself is reminiscing here about birthdays past, now through next Sunday.

My earliest birthday memory is my mother giving me a gift to open the morning of the big day. I don’t know how old I was, but I have a lot of clear memories from about the age of four on, so it may have been earlier than that. The gift was tubular in shape; when I tried to open it, the ribbon on the end wouldn’t come undone and I had trouble getting paper to come off. What emerged was something about Snow White, I think — a coloring book, probably. I understood it was my birthday, and I understood we were celebrating that evening, but I think I was a little confused about the surprise gift so early in the day. (This would have been 1958 or earlier; if it was something to do with Snow White, it must have been connected to a re-release of the original movie. Songs from Snow White turned up on Uncle Al, our local kids show, and I have memories of seeing a presentation of Snow White as part of the Ice Capades when I was little.)

I don’t know if that was the same birthday of the shopping disaster my mother had downtown. I’ve never been completely sure if I was along or not. Here’s what happened: Mom had gone downtown to pick up gifts and party items, including a special paper kit used to decorate a homemade cake like a merry-go-round. At some point she set the bag down and walked off without it, and when she returned, it wasn’t there. We didn’t have a lot of money, so this was a big loss. I do remember a merry-go-round cake, but I’m not sure if it was from that year or later.

Another early childhood memory is of a shopping trip where I DID go along. Downtown Cincinnati wasn’t that far on the bus from East End, while there were few shopping centers (i.e., malls) and they weren’t conveniently located. In those days, downtown included as many dime stores and variety stores as it did bigger department stores. We usually stopped in one or more of the big stores, like Shillito’s or Mabley & Carew, but for less important, everyday things, Woolworth’s and Kresge’s were major destinations.

On this birthday shopping trip, I remember selecting various kitchen toy items in one of the dimestore toy departments. I recall the small, shiny aluminum sauce pan with the red wooden knob on its lid (there may have been a frying pan as well). I think I may have selected a toy canister set, tin, painted pink with black flower sprays. Even as a child, I was enchanted with miniature versions of the adult world’s trappings; that canister set made my heart beat faster. I’m sure there were a couple of other items, too. I don’t recall many other particulars, but my overall sense of that excursion was that Mom and I had a wonderful time.

That may have been the same year of the big surprise gift in Grandma and Grandpa’s front room in their flat downstairs: This big rocking contraption that safety standards probably wouldn’t allow to be produced and sold today. It consisted of powder-coated tubing that formed two long rockers on the bottom and looped up into short ladders at either end, with something like curving parallel bars cross the middle. At the base of each ladder was a wooden step. The idea was a child could stand at each end and make the thing rock up and down like a standing see-saw. When it wasn’t in motion, the piece served as a kind of jungle-gym.

I’d never seen one before. It took up the whole end of the tiny front room. Grandma, who worked as a type setter and sign maker at Shillito’s, had printed a small sign that said “Happy Birthday, Nancy.” The sign was tied to the parallel bars with ribbon.

We played with that huge toy right there in the front room, my brother and my cousin and I. I don’t know how we managed not to throw each other through the front room windows onto Eastern Avenue, or how we avoided killing ourselves generally when the toy moved outside. The big rocking toy wasn’t all that sturdy and tipped over easily, whether we were rocking too hard or simply climbing on it while it was sitting still. We played with it a lot, though. Despite its lightweight construction (we could move it around easily, and sometimes tipped it on its side for one make-believe use or another), it survived long after we had moved to Oakley in 1961. In fact, we pretty much destroyed the meager lawn in the shady backyard on Maple Drive with it, and I can still hear the snap of twigs and the crunch of acorns and beechnuts as the tubes rocked back and forth, up and down.

Eventually it must have fallen apart; or else my mother got sick of it one day, dismantled it, and put it out for the trash without our realizing it. By then we’d probably all outgrown it, since it vanished from our lives with so little notice. It was a terrific gift, though, and a challenge to surviving childhood perils that we mastered heartily.


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