Birthdays: Looking Backward and Forward

A gaggle of eight-year-old girls is running through the hallways of my house right now. One just broke off from the group to play her most recent recital piece on the piano. (Live piano playing always makes my scalp tingle in the most relaxing way, even in the middle of an elementary school birthday party. It’s a real phenomenon called frisson.) Another girl is drawing. A third is sprinting in circles around the downstairs. Today is my daughter’s birthday and she is normally reserved in social settings. But I have invited only her closest friends and today, she is owning this scene. I’m about to pull out “Pin the Tail on the Donkey,” and I’m considering taping down hopscotch on my hardwood floors. Last night, I sugared the strawberries so they would be ready for shortcake this morning. I love a good vintage party. 

I wonder when people stop anticipating their birthdays and start dreading them. When do we start counting down instead of up? I haven’t gotten there yet. I adore birthdays. Any reason to throw a party is reason enough for me to feel good about life. 

Not long ago, Jim and I hosted a party for my birthday, and we asked all guests to bring a photo of themselves from childhood. We hung them on the wall like a collage just inside the front door. From the first moments of the evening, the air was filled with laughter and nostalgia and almost immediately, friends felt as if they knew each other better than they did before they arrived because now, they knew something of each other’s childhoods. Among this group were writers and artists, doctors and lawyers, entrepreneurs and homemakers, teachers and counselors. Some of them have occupations that are new in the grander scheme of things, and I can’t begin to tell you what they actually do with their paid time, but I can tell you that they wore a cowboy outfit for their fourth birthday party, and they are distantly related to Johnny Cash, who was also featured in the photo from said party. 

Dinner tables were labeled “Past,” “Present,” and “Future,” and guests were invited to select a seat based on which topic they would like to pontificate on with other guests. It was interesting to see where people landed. Couples chose not to sit together because one person was more interested in discussing the future while the other preferred to look back. I had written some questions to prompt good discussion, and then popped them underneath plates. The night was filled with rousing talks that brought nostalgia and reminiscing, forward thinking and creativity.

An evening spent looking forward and back at the same time is tremendously life-giving. 

Birthdays are ideal moments for this sort of life-pause. A minute ago, just after I wrote the second paragraph, I asked my daughter’s friends to name one thing they love about her. Honestly, I was buying time as we set up Zingo (the Gen Z version of Bingo). Their answers were simple—each just a word or two—but my girl lit up from someplace inside that radiates her unique brand of joy. I don’t think she knows how much her friends actually like her. I don’t think she knows what they really think of her. How many of us do? Birthdays are a picturesque backdrop for that sort of talk between friends and it’s worth creating an atmosphere that invites conversation like that; because sometimes it feels just as good to be liked as it does to be loved. 

No matter how old you are.

Candace Echols is a Midtown resident, wife, and mother of five. She has written for StoryBoard’s Page One Writing Workshops, and writes in quiet moments from her yellow chair. Candace recently published her first book, the children’s book Josephine and the Quarantine, and now writes a column for The Daily Memphian.

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