Cake and Unreserved Happiness

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On each birthday you’re supposed to be excited for your new age and the coming year. But every birthday since I’ve been young, I’ve been hungering for the ages I’ve left.

I started my life in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was raised in a pretty little house, on a quiet little street, in a tiny little town that was a short drive away from what I considered to be a bustling downtown.

Looking back, I thought the house was huge. The kitchen had enough space for my coloring books and drawings to be spread out all over the table; the beautiful stairs in the front hall were where we’d make our grand entrance on Christmas Morning as my dad videotaped our excited grins and bedheads; the yard stretched out endlessly for rain boots and bare feet to run rampantly; my bedroom was big enough to fit two little girls who stayed up every night whispering and playing card games after the lights had been turned out. My sister and I were not separated, and even when our house grew with the size of my family and my sister moved into her own room, I’d sneak into her bed every night, unknowing of how to sleep without the sureness of her and the sound of her breath.

This house was a castle and Cincinnati was a kingdom.

Nowadays, in the Fall, I think much more of my first home than I ever normally do. Back in these ages, when Cincinnati was the only world I knew, the most important time of every year was my birthday. In my mind, Fall was my birthday.

Of course, I knew there was one specific day designated to me, where my mom would bring cupcakes to my class and I would be surprised with the most beautiful cake, more and more beautiful every year, even if it was after my bedtime. It would be a day of celebrations. My grandma and aunts would take me to lunch with my cousins, I could pick out a special outfit to wear to school, and my parents would make my day magic. Even when I began to think I was too smart and too old to be surprised, they would do it all over again, even bigger and better than I expected.

I understood the singularity of birthdays. After all, it is called a day. But to me, I came from the leaves of autumn. My birthday meant so much more than just a day that would pass. I would look forward to the leaves turning brown all year round because it meant that my birthday was finally here.

My birthday meant cards from schoolmates and leaf piles, brainstorming Halloween costumes and playing school with my baby brother. The newness of my back to school clothes hadn’t worn off yet, and my grandparents always came to visit, which meant rushing home from school as soon as possible, for as long as they were there.

My birthday was one day, but my little mind confused celebrations with seasons, and year after year I found that the leaves falling from trees were falling for me. They fell for my grandparents that would arrive from the huge city of Chicago with cakes and presents in their hands and arms stretched out for the little birthday girl, who they claimed had the best hugs in the world.

The leaves fell for my parents who loved to surprise me, and always knew exactly what I wanted for my birthday. They never let my birthday become standard or usual, and nothing was impossible. My dinner was whatever I wanted it to be, even though it usually was odd requests with gross, unusual pairings.

I’ve never had a “normal” birthday cake. And the leaves knew this. They fell for my mother, who knew me inside and out, knew every present I’d want but never imagine to ask for, and searched and searched until my cake was perfectly chocolate. It was pink and princessy and magical, but so different every year I was always blown away. It was almost hard to eat it; it was always so pretty! But I never did think twice about eating chocolate.

The leaves fell for my dad who worked all day every day, came home, raked the leaves, and then happily threw his insisting, laughing, children into the piles, over and over and over again.

The leaves fell for the rest of my family who scheduled each September 24th to be all about me and waited anxiously to know whatever I wanted to do. They made me feel like the most important thing in their entire life was the 4th, 5th, or 6th birthday of their granddaughter, niece, cousin, or sister.

Above all things, Fall was the cotton candy sky on my birthday every year. I remember walking back into my beautiful, Victorian castle with leaves scattered on my huge lawn, after my birthday dinner. Every year, I swear, the sky is always pink and blue on my birthday. The sky changes just for me. And I remember looking up at this cotton candy sky, stretched over our beautiful house where loving voices called me inside, and I will truly never feel such an intense amount of happiness.

I truly believe the happiest I’ve ever been is under this cotton candy sky as a 4 or 5 year old, believing that nothing in the world could be wrong. This is my birthday, all these people love me. I don’t even think the happiness came from the cakes, the presents, the cards from schoolmates. I was not on a sugar high from treats or an ego high from a day all about me. I felt anunreserved happiness because everything was together. Every person I loved was under one roof, in one beautiful perfect house. And they were calling my name, like it’s the most beautiful name in the world.

In the spring before the leaves fell for my 8th birthday, my family left our perfect house in order to move to Chicago. It felt like this scary, big place; the place where we went to visit my grandparents after Christmas in the winter, not the place to build a life around all year long.

It was Cincinnati that knew me and raised me like tulips in a garden. But bigger things called for us, so we packed up our two dogs and a cat and moved to Chicago.

Suddenly, our street became even bigger, our house had more room, but our yard had shrunk. “Downtown” became more than just the few restaurants and the theater we went to on special nights. “Downtown” was everywhere and had everything and felt more crowded and cramped than Disney World on spring break.

As you must know by now, Chicago changed for me. It became my home and my favorite city in the world. But I also changed too, as people usually do when they grow up.

As each year added a new candle to the elaborately designed cake, the importance of my birthday became smaller and smaller until it became a means of passing time, instead of unreserved happiness.

Of course I look forward to it, and of course it is exciting and I always have a big celebration.

But my birthday is no longer about the people that I love being under one roof, calling to me from inside a perfect home under a perfect sky.

When I moved away from Cincinnati, I moved away from the cotton candy sky; from my cousins and aunts and grandmother that were a mile drive away. They could not make the trip every year for my birthday, and we were forced to make new traditions.

Now I moved away from even Chicago; from the fancy dinner downtown I had come to love and accept as a birthday tradition. Now it’s time to make my own traditions away from my Mother who would search for a cake that would leave me speechless and my Father who threw me into leaf piles after school.

I’m not sure what a birthday is without these people, but growing older means accepting the new traditions you must start in order to keep up with a life you chose.

Occasionally, I’ve gone back to visit my pretty little house, on my quiet little street, in the tiny little town. The house is nothing like I remember. It’s small and old and broken in so many ways. The yard is decently large, but only enough for a play set and a tree swing and sidewalk for drawing with chalk. It is not the grand mansion I had remembered.

While my house shrunk, I grew, and I became bigger than that house could ever hold. While I miss the unreserved happiness I felt when I turned a year older under a cotton candy sky, I know I couldn’t have felt that happiness forever, even if I had stayed right where I was.

Chicago and Cincinnati seem worlds apart, even though they’re just a six-hour car ride away. I’ve outgrown the little life I had, even though it came with unreserved happiness. I have more happiness to find than just in my own little world under a cotton candy sky. So while I’m off to find it, and turn twenty years old in a couple weeks, I will be thinking of the family who will undoubtedly be thinking of me, and what a perfect cake my mom would’ve found. 

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