hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

April 18, 2013

Letting a birthday cat out of the bag

By Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — Sooner or later, we all want the same thing for our birthday — not to be reminded of it.

I can see a child looking forward to an annual milestone, given the gifts and cake, but seniors like myself may be a tad above that stage, as are a wife or two out there.

Women tend to be a little more sensitive about birthday reminders then men. Oh? You have trouble remembering dates?

The only sure way to remember your wife’s birthday is to forget it just once. They’ll refresh your memory and head out to buy themselves that dress you didn’t bother to buy.

On a cruise recently, a night didn’t pass when the waiters all formed a serpent’s line to somebody’s dinner table with cake in hand to sing a rousing birthday song, while the guest of honor cowered under the table.

I don’t need a refresher course to remind myself of my wife’s birthday. We chose that day to exchange nuptials. I couldn’t think of a better day to tie the knot than the day she was born.

Smart thinking, eh? That way, one gift serves both occasions. In the beginning, it got to be mind-boggling. Would we do a weekend get-away from the kids or buy each other a household necessity?

These days, it’s a movie or the theater, complemented with dinner at some cozy restaurant. The best gift of all is hearing the grandchildren’s voices on the telephone singing “Happy Birthday” and “Happy Anniversary.”

But honestly, it’s become just another day in our lives. We give each other a smooch and then go down to breakfast, burying our heads in the morning paper like any other day.

“You feel a year older?’’ I might ask.

“No more than yesterday,’’ she retorts.

“You want a cake?’’

“Not unless you want to play with fire.’’

I presume that last remark meant the number of candles you put on a cake. My mother could have blown out 98 candles — one for each year. That’s how long she lived.

But she was extremely sensitive about her age and never let on. She hid it well and would just as soon have forgotten all that attention. We reminded her.

It was always a good reason to take her out to her favorite restaurant. She refused to let us pay.

“Our treat,’’ we maintained. “It’s your birthday.’’

The nursing home she inhabited had the right idea. Birthday months. Whoever was born in June got to celebrate together, enjoying cake and punch. When someone reached 100, a special moment was observed. The mayor would attend and there would be press coverage.

I remember the year I turned 70 and didn’t want anything special. Just a family dinner. That’s all.

The children had other ideas and concocted an all-out party with friends, relatives, former newspaper colleagues. They opted to choose a country club venue.

As a snoopy reporter, I sniffed it out. It wasn’t CIA. Phone calls were suddenly moved to the basement and closet. No telltale signs that such party plans were in progress.

Until, that is, I ran across an invitation buried under the Z’s in the telephone directory. Had I not bothered to call an acquaintance named Zelewski, I never would have known.

How many of these invitations were sent anyway? It wasn’t until later that I learned 150 guests were coming to party at my expense.

The plan became more gregarious with time. We were going to the country club for dinner as a family, then back to the house for some gifts. Six grandchildren were in the mix.

No one had the slightest suspicion that I had caught on to my own surprise party. All I had to do was be a good pretender.

My 50th was well documented. We rented out a room at a Lebanese restaurant with all the dining pleasures. Everything was going well until an Oriental (belly) dancer pranced her way inside and teased me with her vales.

Yes, it was a trifle embarrassing, but nonetheless, a half-century was marked and people got a chuckle out of it.

My 60th, as I recall, was highlighted by a bouquet of black balloons hanging over my chair and a visit from The Grim Reaper. A buddy of mine did a superb acting job in costume, even though I wasn’t ready for such an ominous visit.

Now here we were for Number 70, and the big day arrived. Guests had made it a point to park their cars in remote places to avoid any suspicions. Why was I so jittery when I knew the plan?

I opened the door and a chorus of voices ushered me inside. “Surprise!”

My acting job couldn’t have worked any better.

Writer and photographer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.