August 25, 2005
“Happy birthday, Jane!”
Inwardly, I groaned. Couldn’t our too-efficient receptionist have forgotten to consult her calendar just this once?
“Thanks, Carol.” I tried to inject enthusiasm into my tone as I zoomed into my office. The less said about this momentous occasion, the better.
However, by leaning forward at her desk, Carol could look through the open doorway right toward my desk. She did this, beaming a huge smile at me. “Lordy, lordy, look who’s forty! Planning a big celebration tonight?”
“Nah. Just family.”
My mother would probably bring over a cake, and my sole hope for the day was that it would be her heavenly chocolate, full of fruit and nuts and spices.
My daughter, Kathy, had the night off from the movie theater where she worked part-time – “shoveling popcorn,” as she put it – and my son, Stewart, would have finished his paper route long before I got home.
We would sit down together to something quick and simple, maybe the tacos the kids liked. No romantic candlelit dinners for this birthday girl.
Carol’s smile widened, if that was possible. “It’s nice with just family.”
Faker that I was, I agreed. Then I grabbed my coffee mug and scurried off.
Unfortunately, to get to the kitchen, I had to pass through the art department. One of the designers looked up and chortled, “Over the hill now, huh, Jane?”
“Rub it in, Bill,” I grumbled. Still on the sunny side of thirty, Bill just grinned.
Another designer, Dottie, was a little more perceptive and with good reason. At about forty-five, she was even more shopworn than I was.
“You know what the French say, don’t you?” She peered up at me slyly through her auburn bangs. “They don’t think a woman is even worth noticing till she’s forty.”
I grimaced. “I don’t know any Frenchmen.”
Back in my office, my desk was turned so that my back was to the raw January day outside; it didn’t matter, I was more than capable of making my own gloom.
As I slurped coffee, I summarized in my head: I had achieved no real career, just a low-paying job as a small-time copywriter. I had salted away no savings.
I had provided my children with none of the things that all their friends had: No cell phones, laptops, palm pilots, mp3 players or even vacations. They never complained, but I worried.
Worst of all, for one who had spent her childhood playing Cinderella, I had failed – both in my marriage and during the three years since it had ended – to find true love.
Yes, I was having a pity party and I invited no one. I was silently sulking; it seemed life had passed me by.
Just then, I was startled out of my lamenting when I heard an unfamiliar voice speak my name in a questioning tone.
I looked up. “Yes?” A man was standing in my doorway holding some sort of huge, shapeless mass covered in tissue paper.
“Flowers for you.”
He stepped forward, deposited what he claimed to be flowers on the corner of my desk and disappeared.
Carol took his place in the doorway and demanded, “Did somebody send you flowers?”
“I guess so,” I replied, dazed.
“Some secret admirer you forgot to tell me about?”
I tried a shaky laugh. “I doubt that.”
“Well, aren’t you going to look at them?”
“Well… yeah.” As I ripped away the tissue, I wondered if Carol could possibly be right. Had I somehow impressed one of the few men who had taken me out?
My rational side butted in to remind me that wasn’t likely. Maybe the people in the office or a kind client had taken pity on me.
The bouquet that emerged from the tissue paper was an enormous sheaf of spring flowers: irises, daisies, carnations – quite a contrast with the scene outside my window. I was stunned. These were expensive. “Who?” I thought out loud.
“Well, see who they’re from,” practical Carol ordered.
I fumbled for the card. The tiny envelope bore my name in the unfamiliar handwriting of someone at a florist shop, so I pulled out the card.
“Dear Mom.” I smiled as I recognized the self-conscious, curlicue letters I had watched develop for seventeen years:
“Today, life begins – right mom?
Happy Birthday, Mom. Thanks for being my mom.
My eyes stung. Of course. Who else could it have been but Kathy?
Kathy, who had lent me her favorite top because she thought I had nothing suitable to wear to a party.
Kathy, who had offered to split weekend nights out with me so someone would always be home with Stewart.
Kathy, who had once found me sitting alone in the dark, sat down with me and whispered, “Mom, what’s wrong?”
Kathy, who loved me more than life itself. Tears began to stream.
I reached out and started touching petals. Each festive pastel made a memory spring forth and I thought with tender dismay that my hardworking daughter could ill afford such an extravagant gesture.
Dottie appeared next to Carol. “Oooh, flowers! Who from?”
I blinked against my tears and said proudly, “My daughter.”
“Aaaw,” Carol cooed. “That’s so sweet.”
I could tell it was more of an effort for Dottie. “That’s very nice.”
My only answer was the radiant smile a woman is supposed to wear on her birthday. I just couldn’t hide the fact that I had all along, love that counts.
My two children were my love and my joy. They were two wonderful reasons to get up every morning and look forward to each day.
My beautiful daughter Kathy had just reminded me once more that life was not passing me by; it was home waiting on me.
A wonderful return on my years of investment. I no longer felt old. I felt loved and I felt blessed. Very blessed.
Happy Returns By Jane Robertson
From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Mothers and Daughters