There’s something magical about our parents’ lives in the years just before and after we were born. Or maybe it’s only me that finds them magical. My parents met, fell in love, and made me. Out of nothing, something. Out of love, me. Magic.
Cleaning out my parents’ house after my father’s death and my mother’s move into a retirement home, I came across two slides. In one, my father and I blow the candles on his 27th birthday cake. I’m in a blue dress with white princess sleeves, and he sports a stylish narrow tie. My chubby hands brace on my legs as I take a deep breath. Seven months later, I’m in the same dress for my mother’s birthday. She wears white cat-eye glasses and a cobalt blue shift.
The setting for both dinners is my paternal grandparents’ house. My grandmother has perched homemade cakes atop pedestals, chocolate cake on a glass plate for my father, and vanilla (baked Alaska?) on a white ceramic plate for my mother. The table is set with crystal goblets, candle holders dripping glass beads, and teacups on saucers. No one else in my life set such an elegant table.
I imagine my grandmother parading in with the cake, everyone singing, and then my grandfather, a lifelong amateur photographer, setting up the shot: put the cake here, get the child, prepare to blow, hold still. I was the first grandchild. I got a lot of attention.
Part of what’s magical is seeing myself alive in moments I don’t remember now. I remember that house on Mercer Island and that dining room with the plate glass windows looking out on the deck. I remember that textured beige wallpaper and the polished cherry table. I have early memories of my mother’s hands and of my father tickling me. But I don’t remember the blowing candle moments. My brain couldn’t hold those memories yet.
But my three-year-old brain was pulsing with toddler life. Neurons were growing and new synapses firing. This frenzy of growth was developing the person who would one day find these slides and sit at the computer writing about them. The person who would one day mourn the father who wore such a fashionable tie. The person who would try to compensate for her mother’s tangled brain.
Maybe what I mean by “magic” is really “miracle,” the miracle of our selves living trajectories that can seem inevitable when looking back. But if birth and growth are miracles – if all life is a miracle – then aging and death are, too. My father’s hair would recede and grey. My mother’s would thin from chemotherapy in her fifties. The slides in their little boxes would stack up, and then prints, and then digital photos, all accumulating in the closets and computers of my parents’ house. Birthdays after birthdays, cakes alight, our lips pursed with blowing.
Some of those crystal goblets survived. After my grandparents’ deaths, I boxed up what was left and stuck them in a storage locker. This week, I unpacked them. Some had chipped but some hadn’t. I think for Easter I’ll set the table with the goblets and my grandmother’s plates, the ones painted with cherry petals and peacocks. Arline, my mother, and I will clink the crystal and sip mimosas. A little of my grandmother’s elegance will grace the table. And we’ll resurrect our memories of birthdays past.