Tahlequah Daily Press

July 16, 2012

Birthdays and cakes, and why we let them eat it

Managing Editor

TAHLEQUAH — I’m not that big on birthdays. Since everyone on the planet has one every year, there’s nothing unusual about them – unless they’re attached to a body that’s been inhaling air for over a century. Call it a combination of factors: frugality, a genetic Poindexter trait; one too many birthdays, the acknowledgment of which eventually becomes redundant or downright embarrassing; or forgetfulness, a byproduct of way too many birthdays.

There’s also the cake-and-ice-cream problem. I’m not sure why these treats became traditional birthday trappings. We’re all getting older, but must we also get fatter? Or did bakeries and dairies in bygone days collude to cook up a nice windfall? True, the festive mood of a party would be dampened if the guest of honor were presented not with a decorated white-cake, but with a plate of steamed broccoli, which provides no pliable surface through which candles can be poked.

But back to the Poindexter tendency toward frugality, which explains my attitude toward birthdays. A more accurate word is “cheap.” In my family, this adjective is considered a compliment (except by my father, who has yet to admit this aspect of his character). My youngest sister, Shannon, is particularly parsimonious. A few years ago, I told my sister Lisa, “You’re cheaper than Shannon!” She said, “Why, thank you!” in a flattered tone. Much to my shame, my sisters are more successful penny-pinchers than I. But at least I can boast that I’m cheaper than my brother. And I believe all this can be explained by birthdays and the ritual cakes.

Not only were Lisa and I born two years apart, we were born two days apart,  in April. So not only did we have to share a bedroom, we had to share a birthday cake. There are reels of film showing years of birthdays. Most of the time, my parents did spring for a bakery-made white-cake with the “Happy birthday, Kim and Lisa!” scrawled in colored frosting, with our small cadres of candles lined up on either side. The videos show us dutifully counting our candles, before we blew them out and my mother cut the cake.

My brother was born in June, so he got his own cake. (He had his own bedroom, too.) The cake was generally chocolate, topped with figurines – cowboys, horses and fences one year, goalposts and gridirons the next. Lisa and I were a little apprehensive about eating a slice, and the video record explains why: When he blew out his candles, he drooled all over the cake. He admits he still has a drool problem, so he probably gets to keep his cakes all to himself.

The videos also prove someone in the family thought birthdays were important. Probably my mother, who has never celebrated her own birthday, as far as I know – although it’s only two days after my brother’s, in June. Perhaps she was afraid if she put her candles on one side of the cake and my brother’s on the other, the confection would collapse on one side. When my youngest sister came along years later, in July, she also got her own cake – sometimes more than one, when she couldn’t decide on a flavor. By the time she was old enough to agonize over such choices, we older kids were no longer gifted with cakes, but occasionally did get enough cash to fill the tank so we could cruise 32nd and Okmulgee in Muskogee.

Let’s be honest: Birthdays are gratuitous grab for gifts. As kids, we expected  presents, and we got them. We got “bigger” gifts at Christmas, but the birthday haul was nothing to sneer at. When it came to toys and other items not necessary for survival, these could only be scored on birthdays or Christmas, although when we stayed with our respective grandparents during the summer, they often annoyed my father by sending us home with non-essentials. This sort of grandparently behavior, we were told, “spoils” children.

Adults tend to be one of two types: They either want gifts, or at least recognition, on their birthdays, or they want the auspicious occasion ignored altogether. Birthdays make perpetual liars out of those who strive to infinitely remain 29 or 39, or at least to advance in age every three or four years. I always thought it didn’t matter how old you were, so long as you don’t look five or 10 years older than your actual age.

There are people who celebrate birthdays on dates other than when they were born. Teddye Snell, our weekend editor,  was born Feb. 29, so unless it’s Leap Year, she celebrates March 1 – but she wears the February birthstone, the amethyst, because she likes it better. Our former publisher, Brad Sugg, also celebrated his birthday on an alternate day, because he was born on Christmas, and early on realized he was was getting ripped off in the gift department. He selected the Fourth of July, because he figured it was a good halfway point to ensure ample gifting. My son, who was born Dec. 20, often grumbles about being “cheated” out of gifts, though the aforementioned “spoiled” label aptly applies to him, and all his cousins, as well.

I try to be discrete about my birthday not because I’m bothered about my age, but because I don’t want anyone to feel obligated to give me a gift – except my husband, and then a good house-cleaning will suffice. When someone wishes me a happy birthday, I’m tempted to say, “Define ‘happy’,” but then I’d also feel compelled to add, “But don’t buy me anything in a bid to MAKE me happy.”

Facebook has made things worse, because every day, you get a notification stating which of your “friends” are having birthdays. I try to wish everyone a happy one, but I’m always afraid I’ll miss someone. Then I wonder whether I’ve offended the person, and whether he or she will “un” me for the oversight. Truth is, unless the person has only a handful of FB friends, he or she probably won’t notice.

A free Facebook greeting does beat a cake or even a card in this economy, and it’s less fattening. I guess I should be grateful bakeries don’t use buttercream frosting anymore unless you ask for it; instead, they slather on that greasy whipped stuff. I’d just as soon take my chances on my brother’s drool.

Kim Poindexter is managing editor of the Tahlequah Daily Press.