I love looking through old photo albums. We have some fantastic specimens from the mid-70’s. Giant puffy volumes covered in padded fabric that may have been harvested from a couch in Burt Reynold’s bachelor pad. They smell like an old librarian’s purse seasoned with a splash of Aqua Velva. Vintage.
But there’s something missing from the albums. Namely, photos of my childhood birthday parties.
My first thought is to blame birth order. My sister came first. There are so many baby pictures of her, you can put them in a stack, hold them tightly, flick through them with your thumb, and relive the first three years of her life as if it were a home movie.
Next came my brother. He was the first boy. ‘Nuff said.
I was the baby. Tucked away deep inside the album is a picture of me in a onesie, and one of my high school graduation. Nothing in between. With three kids, my parents were just too exhausted to advance the film on their old Vivitar camera.
Alright. Maybe I’m exaggerating. But not much. The real reason there aren’t any photos of my grade school birthday parties is because I had only one. That’s right. Just one official party where I sent real invitations.
I was four years old. Even though it was long ago, my memories of this party are vivid. I wore my favorite outfit – a tan jumpsuit/overalls combo that my mom made for me with a pattern she bought from Montgomery Ward’s. It was covered in little cars. I had a yellow cake with chocolate icing. I blew out the giant candle shaped like a "4". We played red-rover and I busted through the line. I got to hold Amy Clifton’s hand during said Red Rover game.
Note to self: wear more jumpsuits.
But I never had another birthday party. Sure, I invited a friend or two over and we went swimming, or saw a movie, or blew a bucket of tokens at an arcade, but nothing official. It’s not like my parents banned parties as “the devil’s handiwork” or anything. In fact, my mom encouraged them. Every year she would ask, and every year I would decline.
You want to know a secret?
I didn’t want to have another birthday party because I was afraid two things might happen. I was afraid no one would show up, and I was afraid everyone would show up. If no one showed up, that would tell me my friends weren’t really my friends. And that’s not something I wanted to know.
And if everyone showed up? Well, all eyes would be on me, and that’s just too much pressure. I know it’s surprising to think that a guy who publishes a weekly blog about himself would shy away from attention. But it’s true. A me-centered party seemed kinda’ overindulgent for someone who hasn’t done anything special beyond surviving the not-so-mean streets of a suburban Oklahoma City subdivision for another year.
And yes, I can hear you saying, “This guy needs a therapist.”
Fast forward 35 years. In preparation for my 40th birthday, I told my wife I didn’t want anything special. No parties. I just wanted to relax with my family and have some cake and ice cream. And, with our “Year Without A Purchase” in full swing, I knew that Gabby would have to work wonders to throw a major fiesta. After all, she’s into decorations. I kept my eyes on our supply of toilet paper Ziploc baggies just to make sure she wasn’t pilfering from the stash to make streamers and homemade balloons.
The morning of my birthday came early. Call it neuroses, paranoia, or simply a healthy lifestyle, but I wanted to give myself the gift of accomplishment by running farther than I ever have before. So I woke up at 6:00, strapped on my running shoes, and gave father time a one-finger wave as I walked out the door. Gabby, face down in her pillow on her side of the bed, mustered a muffled “Happy Birthday” before I set out.
My Dannemarathon lasted just over an hour. When I arrived home, I was greeted by the smell of Gabby’s famous chocolate chip pancakes and two very loud, overly-excited children. According to my calculations, these two small people were burning the caloric equivalent of a surprise party of 40 full-grown adults. And it was exactly what I wanted.
I peered over toward my seat at the table and spotted a couple of envelopes and a CD case. Gabby instructed me to open one of them. Inside the first envelope was a homemade card that read simply “The Grey Owl flies at midnight.” Nothing more. The reverse side was printed with the date, “August, 2013." I smiled a mile wide, as I knew this to be the secret code of my college buddies signaling a get-together was imminent. Some of these guys I haven’t seen in years, and a surprise trip to see them is one of the best gifts I could have received.
Next up was the CD case. On the front was a beautiful photo of Gabby and the kids, each holding a guitar. I asked where she had the picture done, and she told me that our friend Mari Wilkes, a professional photographer, was happy to donate her services to the cause.
Inside the case were three CD’s and a thick booklet. As I leafed through the pages, I saw a list of songs, submitted by friends, that reminded them of me, along with a story of why the memory was stirred. It’s over fifty tunes ranging from “Never Gonna’ Give You Up” by Rick Astley, submitted by my brother because “Scott and Rick Astley have never been seen in the same place at the same time” – to “Play That Funky Music White Boy”.
Submitted twice. I’m not sure whether to be flattered or offended.
Every single song told a story, and conjured a wonderful memory. When I put the CDs in the player, the first song on the playlist wasn’t a song at all. Apparently, Gabby had coordinated with my family who own and work at World Music Nashville to commandeer their studio for an evening and capture my kids’ voices on tape. First up is a priceless interview with Jake. Gabby asks him all sorts of questions about me, and he answers in his tiny, toothlethhh voithhhh.
Next up brought me to my knees. It was Audrey’s song to me. Every night she asks me to sing her to sleep with “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” As a gift to me, Gabby had her sing along to a version of the song recorded by a children’s choir from Newtown, Connecticut. Instant waterworks. In four weeks of CD ownership I have played it almost as much as my old Michael Jackson’s Thriller cassette. It’s a treasure.
That night, a makeshift party erupted at the house. My mom and dad stopped by. And my sister and her family picked up my favorite cake from the grocery store. I had made a giant pot of spaghetti sauce that afternoon, so we all shared a meal crammed in our tiny house. I couldn’t help but think, “It doesn’t get much better.” Especially because we were scheduled to start our summer vacation the next day. A drive to the Florida Gulf coast to meet up with my family (sister, brother and parents for a week of beach fun. A perfect “experience gift.”
The next day, we filled the car with gas and enough highly processed snack foods to send the entire state of Montana into a diabetic coma. I was looking forward to the drive to Florida for two reasons. First, the kids are allowed to eat whatever they want and partake of our vehicle’s DVD system on long trips. It’s a small Dannemiller family policy shift that creates harmony in the car. Second, the snacks and entertainment lull the kids into a rare, trance-like state allowing Gabby and me to have uninterrupted adult conversation for hours on end.
I popped one of my new CD’s into the car stereo and kicked off the Gab-fest.
“So, what do you see yourself doing once Audrey starts kindergarten? It’ll be the first time we’ve had both kids in school.”
I waited for a meaningful response. Instead, I heard,
“Audrey. Starting Kindergarten. Are you excited?”
I glanced over at Gabby and caught her texting.
“Oh. Yeah. Sorry. Just trying to see where your sister is.”
“Why does it matter? We’re not in any big rush. We’ll all get there today.”
“Yeah. I know.”
But the texting continued for the whole drive. We’d be talking and then Gabby would take a break to send more messages.
“Don’t you just want to listen to your CD?” she would ask.
Irritating. I didn’t realize I was such a crappy conversationalist.
The drive lasted eight hours. After that much time at the wheel, I was ready to sit on the couch and have a cold drink. According to the GPS, we were less than a minute away. I started to look for the others’ cars, as Gabby had told me they arrived before us.
And that's when I saw her. A woman. The spitting image of Carla, an old friend from Austin whom I haven’t seen in years. She was standing next to my dad on the porch of a beach house. She looked scared. I thought to myself, “What a coincidence! That woman looks like Carla.”
Then I looked closer. “Wait… I think it is Carla! What a coincidence that she happens to be in the Florida at the same beach house at the same time as us?! “ I turned toward Gabby to say, “Can you believe it?!”, when I noticed she had a huge smile on her face and tears in her eyes.
I looked back at the porch and saw a flood of people come out of the house. More old friends. Gabby’s dear family. Other kids. Twenty-seven people in all. All making a surprise trip to Florida to celebrate a week-long birthday party.
Gabby had been planning it for 18 months. How everyone kept the secret, I’ll never know.
I was absolutely floored. It took me several days for the surprise to sink in. The week is a beautiful blur of time with people I love. Sharing meals. Riding bikes. Swimming. Playing in the sand with nieces, nephews and other kids. An honest-to-goodness heart-to-heart talk with my old pal David. Sitting on the porch drinking beer, telling stories for hours on end with family and friends, old and new.
* my huge, crazy family
*Love them Taylors! David and Carla. And no, I'm not pressing charges.
*Me and my wonderful wife. I'm almost as tan as her. Almost.
* The whole Brand clan
* Boys memories being made
* The big kids
* Jen and John on the beach
It’s the best gift I could have received. Far greater than anything item Gabby could have purchased from a store.
And the best part?
I have photographic proof. My very own, official birthday party. With real invitations. Vivid pictures on paper and in my memory. Just perfect for an album.
And the only thing missing is the Aqua Velva.