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Icing and pickles

Yesterday was my birthday. I’m now 43, which depresses my daughter because I’m not 42. That was the age of the answer to life, the universe, everything. She was mournful as she noted it. When I told her I had re-slipped into obscurity and mediocrity, she told me to stop talking about it, I was making her sad. We can only be the third primary pseudoperfect number once. I’ve accepted this, as we all should.

43 is one of those ages that might as well be 41 or 44. I decided to spend my big day in the manner of one who is obscurely mediocre: I switched winter and summer clothing for six of the boys. It’s been warm for weeks and they were tiring of wearing the same few pairs of shorts and t-shirts we left out for warm days along with the winter clothes. They were excited to see old shirts and were amused by how much they grew since last fall, when everything was packed away. Shirts were passed down from big brother to little brother to littler brother. I stood barefoot in the basement directing folding, barking orders to bring all long sleeve shirts, save two, and pants, save two, to me. Say goodbye to the snowboarding abominable snowman shirt! Farewell, waffleweaves! Smell ya later.

I did laundry. I went to the grocery store. I made my bed. My parents called and sang to me and I missed them, terribly.

When my husband got home from work, he whisked me off to one of the best German bakeries in the Denver area so I could choose my cake. While we stood waiting for the baker to write on a ribbon that would perch on top of the seven-layered torte I claimed, we were offered samples. A clerk shared messy cubes of coffee kuchen littered with slivered almonds and creamy white icing. I took a bite. I stopped and tasted. The icing was exactly, exactly, like my late hungrily-missed Grandma Alice used to make.

A cool June morning. I was sitting at the vinyl-covered picnic table on her back porch eating breakfast. A dozen baskets of lush flowers hung around the edges of the awning jutting off a wall of red bricks. The day’s newspaper was scattered in sections, stained with coffee rings and pencil smudges from the partially-filled out crossword. A small black radio played classical music broadcast by an AM station.

Happy birthday, Gretchy.

I heard her voice. Thick Minnesota accent, warm, low, I heard it.

Grandma Alice, late 1930s

Grandma Alice, late 1930s

Archie and Beatrix, who came along on our sugary errand, pulled at me to go look at a case of outlandishly beautiful cookies. They snapped me out of the daydream.

I held back tears. Was that a memory or a promise?

Birthdays arrive loaded with expectations. Even the idea you won’t have any expectations is an expectation. You can’t tell yourself it’s just another day, business as usual, let’s sort sweaters without hoping you are maybe a little wrong. Maybe something magical will happen? Maybe you can feel like a child again because your mom and dad call and sing to you—over you—like bird parents to bird babies, teaching the most important songs.

Later, at a date night dinner at a southern comfort food restaurant, I bit into a pickle. It tasted just like Grandma Alice’s. Tongue-spanking sour, dill pummeled, hellbent garlic, cold.

That time, I talked back to her.

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