September 20, 2006

Reporter's Notebook

Happy Birthday, Anyway

My mother was definitely a shopper. She'd start her Christmas buying spree in January and go full force for the rest of the year until, come holiday season, our small apartment was swimming with bags filled to the brim with gaily wrapped gifts.

They didn't have to be expensive gifts — although my mother was fond of those, too. But the bottom line was she had a penchant for packages — the more, the merrier. And so, every year, as her only child, I'd sit myself down under the tree on Christmas morning before a pile of 50 gifts or so; I'd still be opening come lunchtime.

We might not have had a lot of money — no fancy cars or cruise vacations, but we always had Christmas.

But, while my mother found sheer pleasure in lavishing gifts upon others, there was nothing she loved even more than receiving her own bevy of booty. Her birthday, in particular, was a huge deal. Not shy about asking for presents, my mother would pepper her conversations with not-so-subtle hints, starting around June for her special day in September.

And her wish list wasn't always for humble mom gifts such as pot holders or pencil holders made from Popsicle sticks. No, my mom was a material girl before Madonna belted out her first note on MTV. As I got older and started working, she far preferred pricey purchases such as Lladro figurines or Department 56 collectibles and had a penchant for anything that glittered, particularly gold.

And, truth be told, she wasn't always easy to please. I remember one particularly traumatic Christmas when I saved my pennies and purchased what I thought was the perfect gift for my mother, who was a smoker. It was a tiny replica of an antique gun with a mother of pearl handle, which I purchased at the jewelry store. Pull the trigger and voila, a tiny orange flame shot out of the gun. As a kid, I thought it was a funny and decorative gift.

My mother thought it was a death threat. Or some other hideous subliminal message of suppressed anger. What followed was a Christmas morning of tears and recrimination. Another snapshot for the family album.

But despite the rare misstep in the carefully choreographed gift dance, I usually was able to make my mother smile. She told me once, on one of her last birthdays, that I was the only person who'd ever really known her well enough, or loved her enough, to listen and hear what it was that she really wanted. My presents, she said, were the ones she treasured most.

My mother died when she was 53 years old, one month short of her 54th birthday.

For years, I could barely make it through a September, couldn't go near a card store or any kind of store that sold collectibles or her beloved Christmas houses. It was just too hard. September 12 was still my mother's birthday, but she was gone. No candles. No brightly colored packages.

This year, though, for the first time, I remembered my mother's birthday, not with sadness, but with a smile. She would have been 66 this year — a senior citizen! Hard to imagine my dancing, singing livewire of a mother flashing an AARP card and heading out for an early bird dinner. Hard to envision her gone gray, her slightly flashy clothes traded in for granny sweaters and sensible shoes.

My mother died young, but her life ended in a blaze of glory. She was still beautiful. Still vibrant. Still so very much alive.

My mother always told me that she wouldn't live to be an elderly woman. I thought she was being morbid. Turned out she was right.

But maybe that's why every holiday, every birthday, was such a huge cause for celebration. Because somewhere in her heart, she knew she'd better savor each moment, while they were hers to embrace.

I can't give my mother a birthday present anymore, but I can give her this. I can tell the world about her, write about her so that wherever she is, she will know that I have not forgotten her, and never will.

So here it is, Mom. Your belated birthday present. I love you.

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