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Posts Tagged ‘birthday’

I’ve never been a particularly good present person. Happy to receive presents, of course, but a bit lacking in inspiration when it comes to thinking of things for others. As with everything, I try hard, my intentions are good, but I am liable to fall short.

It is true that I sometimes surprise myself with wonderful ideas, and make a mental note that such-and-such would be ideal for so-and-so’s birthday six months hence. Sadly, the mental note, as with 99 percent of things committed to memory, promptly flies straight back out of the tiny slot through which it entered, leaving me bereft, as ever, once that birthday comes round.

Christmas is another trauma altogether. I have found over the years that my only way to cope in respect of the ‘what to get for whom’ dilemma is to place myself in a state of suspended animation until the 24th and then panic, big-time.

This time of year is particularly difficult because there are so many birthdays of friends and family that my inspiration drains away faster than you can say gift wrap.

One of my problems is that if I hit upon a formula, I dare not let go. This means, for example, that our poor daughter-in-law is almost certain to end up with something to keep her warm. Theirs is a very cold house so my instinct is always to wrap her up. Her stocks of thick, cosy hats, socks, jumpers and scarves could probably kit out a Polar expedition team.

It’s always worse when the luckless person on the receiving end of one of my gifts is a brilliantly inspired present-giver themselves. My sister-in-law, Geoff’s sister, for instance, just has a gift for it, if you’ll forgive the wholly intended pun.

She always gets it right. What, then, to give her for her birthday this year, after so many lack-lustre efforts on our part in the past? Geoff and I pooled our thoughts for so long that despair set in.

I know, I suddenly screeched. A voucher! Do you mean a book token, asked Geoff. No! A voucher for a day out! We’ll take her for a day out and fill it with surprises.

Geoff designed the voucher and put it in with the birthday card. We got her favourite cousins on side, arranged a date and planned the outing.

It was a great success, though I can take little credit for it. We picked up the bemused birthday girl from her home and drove her through the stunning Dorset countryside to a lunch rendezvous with the cousins, who she had not seen for a few years. They were lying in wait, their presence still a secret to her.

Surprise, surprise! Oh, the hugs, the happiness and the huge, huge smiles. It was wonderful to behold, and to be a part of.

Lunch followed, with not a gap in the chatter, and then we migrated south to West Bay. The plan had been to take a post-prandial walk, but the weather was dire and so we did the only thing Brits can do under these circumstances: we sat on a bench and ate ice-creams.

The wind may have blasted our faces, sent our hair all over the place, whipped flecks of ice-cream on to our clothes, but it didn’t matter. It was daft and wonderful and utterly memorable.

Our photos of the day only need one caption: Five Go Mad in Dorset.

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I am not an easy person to buy presents for, being neither acquisitive nor needy, and rarely lusting over anything other than a three-day eventer that would carry me to triumph at Badminton Horse Trials. I have put in a few requests for that over the years but since no horse has materialised, not even once, would you believe, I am beginning to think it may never happen.

I can live with that because the dreams sustain me, even while my body ages and the chances of my sitting comfortably on anything other than the sofa recede by the day.

However, some people just seem to get it right. Or, more correctly, get me right. Take my sister, for example, who has had the advantage of knowing me all my life and who understands my quirks and oddities.

It was my birthday on Sunday so she came over to share a celebratory cake with Geoff and me, accompanied by her husband and their quasi-human dog, a Jack Russell that is convinced she is one of us. We’ve all tried telling her she’d be better off being a dog, but she carries on being determinedly human in (almost) all her habits.

Sis presented me with a delightful and eclectic haul of goodies, including something that really intrigued me: a yellowed, slightly faded copy of The Times from December 5 1992. Sis has been enduring Kitchen Wars at her house, necessitating a massive clear-out of cupboards and drawers, and in one of them she discovered this old newspaper. Naturally, she read it from cover to cover, and knowing how much I would enjoy doing the very same, she added it to my birthday box of delights.

And so my birthday evening passed in a happy haze, not grooming my non-eventer in my non-stable but buried deep in the news stories of 25 years ago.

To me, 1992 seems like yesterday. When I read of someone born in the 1990s I think ‘Oh, just a child,’ but of course I’m wrong. Children nowadays were born in the century that begins with the number 20, not 19-something. It never ceases to surprise me.

In 1992 the American president was someone who many had feared would be a buffoon, a lightweight with dodgy hair and a propensity for not always saying the right thing. In fact, and I’m not suggesting for a moment that history could repeat itself, Ronald Reagan turned out to confound many of his critics. He was in Britain that December, addressing the Oxford Union where, as The Times reported, he proposed air strikes against Serbia and was critical of Nato for inaction over the wholesale slaughter in that country.

John Major was at the helm in Britain, Norman Lamont was the Chancellor of the Exchequer,  suffering the fallout from sterling’s forced exit from the European exchange-rate mechanism three months earlier (yawn yawn), and Prince Charles was igniting fury by sympathising with French farmers over European tariffs (yawn yawn).

Virginia Bottomley, the health secretary, announced plans to ‘drive down’ waiting times by introducing new guidelines for GPs (sound familiar?) and there were fears of a sustained period of terrorist attacks by the IRA in the run-up to Christmas.

On the lighter side, and my word that was needed in those days, just as much as now, there was a fashion feature on the seasonal joys of see-through chiffon and strategically placed sequins. Well, thank goodness for the sequins is all I can say.

It has all made such a riveting and revealing read, written evidence that the more things change the more they stay the same.

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A BIRTHDAY tea without cake is like Wimbledon without tennis. It was therefore vital that cake should be on the menu for grandson Joe’s sixth birthday – and preferably a cake that was ready for devouring the very second he arrived home from school in his usual state of near-starvation.

My daughter, who makes every scrap of her family’s food from scratch, had embarked on the cake-making part of the tea preparations as soon as she’d cleared away the chaos of toddler Zach’s lunch.

All seemed to be in good time, then, for the return of the hungriest small boy in the world. Joe is having his official party in the woods in a fortnight’s time so this tea, on his actual birthday, was just for selected guests: his mummy, daddy, little brother and Geoff and me.

The table was laid and looked so tempting and lovely with toothsome things to eat by the time we arrived after our two-hour journey.

However, crashings and bangings from the kitchen, interspersed with a few cries of woe, indicated all was not well in the bakery department. “I’ll have to throw this one away and start again,” said my daughter, normally so tense you could use her stress levels to power the National Grid, but now at absolute pinging point.

I asked what the problem was and learnt that the oven was too small to accommodate two layers of sponge cake so she was having to bake one at a time. The first one had come out at the due time with its top burnt and its inside still liquid.

“It’s OK, you’ve got time,” I lied, in a calming voice. Unfortunately, not only does my daughter currently struggle with a temporary dolls-house sized oven but her kitchen is on the less-than-grand size, too, so cannot comfortably accommodate two cooks while they spoil the broth, or in this case the cake. I had no choice but to follow orders and get out. My task then was to try and mask the sounds of exasperation and frustration coming from the kitchen and occasionally to put my hands over Zach’s ears.

Soon the birthday boy came bursting through the door, home from school with Daddy, and in a high state of excitement.

Naturally, the first thing he asked Mummy was if she had put the candles on the cake yet. Her “No, not quite yet,” came out a little strangulated.

Feeling brave, I peeped into the kitchen and saw that one cake half was successfully baked and the other was about to be mixed.

As the two boys, and we adults, too, grew increasingly hangry (hunger-induced anger) we decided to launch into the spread of food and hope the cake would make an appearance before bedtime.

We ate well and then my poor frazzled daughter eventually appeared from the kitchen bearing a prize-winning cake sandwiched with strawberry jam and topped with a translucent layer of icing, as per Joe’s specific request. The candles were lit, Joe puffed them out, Happy Birthday was sung, and at last everyone had a slice of cake on their respective plates.

“I’m sorry, Mum. I just can’t eat any more,” said Joe, who looked forlornly at his still-complete slice. We adults divvied it up between us. His small brother licked the icing off his piece before announcing that he couldn’t eat any either. “The jam is too strawberry-y,” he declared.

That’s the trouble with birthdays and cakes – you just can’t please everyone. Except greedy grown-ups.

 

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HOWEVER hard I try to be a smooth operator and ignore the nagging suspicion that I could be Calamity Jane reincarnate, it is indisputable that my life is like a series of out-takes.

The simplest tasks turn into dramas spread over several episodes. Take last weekend, after I’d returned from a day with Mum on her 93rd birthday.

We’d had a lovely time, which I recorded for posterity with various pictures to share with absent friends and family.

Come the evening, with Mum safely settled, I returned home and set about sorting the photos and writing emails and, in some cases, letters to accompany them.

One of these was to my cousin, who had sent her favourite and only surviving aunt a beautiful arrangement of flowers. I thought she should see the pleasure her kind gift had brought, illustrated by a broad smile across Mum’s face as she held the flowers.

Next I wrote an email to my son, daughter-in-law and toddler Poppy. I sent them a resume of the day, gushing expressions of enduring adoration and huge numbers of hugs for Pops (as is my soppy wont), as well as a photo of grandma (aka great-grandma) in her birthday plumage looking at their card. I signed off with approximately a quarter-of-a-mile of kisses for Pops and her parents and expressions of yearning to be with them and a fervent wish that the miles between us were not so great. Standard fare and nothing too over-the-top or embarrassing. Not much, anyway.

How surprised I was to receive a response a little later from my son which included the question: “Who are Phil and Jackie and why did you include them in your email to us?”

My heart sank and the blood drained from my face. Now what had I managed to do? What ludicrous, fumble-fisted ether-borne nightmare had I landed myself in?

I checked my ‘Sent’ folder. Sure enough, I had indeed sent the email to three addresses: son, daughter-in-law and a couple of our acquaintance called Phil and Jackie who live in Kent but it might be Essex.

As if that were not bad enough, I then forced myself to wade through the email again, wincing and cringing at its soppiness. There was nothing for it but to write an email to Phil and Jackie, a couple we don’t know well and last saw three years ago, explaining why they had received this curious missive and its photo attachment of a mystery 93-year-old smiling at them.

They were kind enough to write back. They said that at first they thought they’d received the ramblings of ‘someone who must be taking something’ until they tumbled to the fact it was me.

It was lovely to hear from me, they gamely said, and would I pass on their regards to my mother as they now felt acquainted in a minor way, what with hearing about her day and seeing her photo. They avoided any mention of the outpouring of granny-gushing mush I’d indulged in to little Poppy.

Renewing contact in this weird way with Phil and Jackie has had a silver lining. It turns out they’re coming our way later this year, so we hope to meet up with them again.

Out of calamity comes serendipity: that’s my view on this episode. Geoff sees it slightly differently. I have a strong suspicion he has put in a call for the men in white coats to be on stand-by, and I wouldn’t blame him.

 

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We went to such a lovely birthday party this week. It was no ordinary event. Our birthday boy chose to celebrate with a concert in the parish church where he has worshipped man and boy for the past umpteen years.

Music, from folk to classical, was selected to reflect significant interests and phases of his life and was played by two of his friends, a flautist and an organist. At one point the flautist put down her instrument and sang for us, beautifully and movingly.

It was altogether a remarkable evening with an added poignancy because this time a year ago our host was dangerously ill with a mysterious virus. I’m sure the thoughts of every one of the party guests turned to those worrying times as we sang a rousing Happy Birthday to our friend Storm. That’s not his real name, of course, but it is how Geoff and I refer to him in our silly, cryptic way.

Storm made a speech in which, Oscars-style, he thanked all those who deserved thanks, and all his guests, too, for sharing his landmark birthday. Then we all did the party thing, quaffing wine and scoffing delicious food while crowding into the aisle and hanging over the backs of pews.

It was delightfully unconventional and altogether very fitting as a celebration for a man who tends not always to take the blindingly obvious route through life.

For Geoff and for me it was a big night, too, as were back in the village where we’d lived until 12 years ago, back in the embrace of so many old friends whose lives, like ours, had moved on in strides both small and large.

On the drive over there we’d speculated about who we might see. We ran through the names of all the likely party guests, some of whom we remain in close contact with, others from whom we have drifted apart.

We were pleased we could remember so many people, their faces springing to mind as soon as we mentioned a name. And then, bam! We hit a brick wall as our memories jointly went on strike.

That couple, you know, they had two sons, live in the double-fronted house with the granny annexe, just down from the pub – oh, you know, he rides a bike and she gardens a lot. One son had an unsuitable girlfriend, remember?

As we discussed them, this couple whose lives – and, indeed, whose names – were once almost second nature to us, their faces floated in and out of our minds. But no names came to go with them.

We thrashed and bullied our brains, drilled into the deepest parts of our memories, and eventually Geoff came up with a triumphant result. “He’s Jim and she’s Maggie, I’m absolutely certain.”

I couldn’t contest that. I rattled through the alphabet and no more likely or suitable substitute names came up so we were happy to agree that they must be Jim and Maggie. It would be really good to see them again.

Then one of us, and I’m sure it would have been Geoff, asked quite unnecessarily what their surname was.

We were nearing our destination by now. Look, it simply doesn’t matter what their surname is, we told ourselves, as our guesses became more and more frantic. Nothing could matter less.

By the time we entered the church, Geoff was convinced it was Anderson. I wasn’t so sure.

During the applause at the end of the first piece of music, I leant over to Geoff and whispered “Thompson.”

At last, we could relax and enjoy the evening.

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