Cathy’s Birthday

Today is the first day of Spring. The bunch of crocus off the back kitchen stoop sign “hallelujah!” from thawing ground as yellow stars tip long skinny branches of an old forsythia in back of the shed. Arbiters of warmer weather tickle a wily charge out of nowhere to jumpstart my low mood with possibilities in spite of one raw rainyass afternoon. The flowers wear their colors proudly, bellwethers of sunshine to come after months of wet weather in the rainforest.

Memories seep under the surface like an incoming tide overrunning the shore with fishes from deeper places once thought to be extinct. When the tide and light is right their shapes shift between light and darkness, air above, water below, rampant reflections blinding definition as movements tease my eyes into focus, lost again when I look away.

I sit back up in my seat and roll my shoulders to shake the past back to “before” and resume. Circumstances range the lines of my face caught sideways in the mirror across from my desk. Laugh lines counter the child I once was, now hidden far behind the face of an old lady.

If I had known then what I know now, my life might have been different. For better or for worse, who’s to say? I do know that someday my grandchildren will need to understand the role I played in the family story. As they grow from toddlers to teens, questions of where they came from will rise and curiosity will need answers. I am determined to love them freely now before I scramble to unhook the chains of regret hung across my heart. My story will shape karma in their lives. As I keep praying for happy endings, they will be working through what remains unfinished and it will be them, not me, who determine how the story turns out. My job is to be true and to give them love that is sound and good.

When Cathy’s adoptive parents came to visit years ago, I asked her mother if she had any pictures of Cathy’s childhood that she could share with me. It was an innocent request and Dottie’s response was “Of course. I’ll bring them next time.”

On their next visit that following Christmas, she handed me a wax envelope filled with a dozen pictures of Cathy in her childhood. I gasped with the prospect of seeing what I had never been allowed to see before. Except for two pictures Sr. Alice sent me of Cathy when Cathy was 4 and 6 years old, I had never seen pictures of my daughter as a child. Dottie and I sat down on my living room couch and she recounted each photo in a gentle, matter of fact voice.

“This is Cathy’s christening picture” (Cathy’s a baby is in a perfect white taffeta baptismal gown with satin ribbon, holding her mother’s finger with her chubby hand.)

“Here is one on her first birthday” (the identical feminine of my grandson, Quinn with a paper cone birthday hat tied under her chin and sitting in her chrome throne high chair – Cathy points her finger at the birthday cake with the candle lit to wish on top.)

“These are from her tap dancing class at dance school when she was eight.” (four small portraits in dance costume… Cathy looks so much like I did at that age – her hair is auburn, thick and wavy – her smile is warm, bright and wholesome under a headband adorned with a red and white feathers to match her showgirl outfit trimmed with pearls and bow-tied tap shoes. Her smile is radiant as she poses in long over-the-elbows fingerless red gloves.)

“This is Cathy’s 8th birthday. (Cathy looks a little pale as she blows into a party favor, a top heavy blue corsage hangs on her flowered blouse at a table set for guests with birthday hats, plates and paper cups lined up around her birthday cake.)

“This is her First Holy Communion from that same year” (a tiara-veiled beauty in white holding a sweet bouquet of daisies as she stands in front of the gold-embroidered “Alleluia” background draped behind her.)

“And another communion picture…(It’s 1979. Cathy smiles standing in front of the cake with her mother’s hands resting on her shoulders she looks into the camera with confidence, ready to cut the white sheet cake with two little statues of a child being blessed by Jesus and “God Bless Cathy” scrolled in yellow script.)

“School picture, age 9.” (round cheeks have thinned from little girl to young girl.)

The next picture is a school picture – she looks around eleven with braces, feminine lavender blouse with a high collar. I wonder if she’s started biting her nails – her nails so short on poised hands posed for the portrait.

Then she’s thirteen and looks like she may be getting ready to go to a school dance as she sits on a patio chair in a pink skirt and pink sweater patterned with white hearts under a double strand of pearls. A peanut butter sandwich and a plastic mug of milk rest on a red and white-checkered tablecloth. Everything looks so normal.

Next she’s in her cheerleader uniform with “Captain Cathy” embroidered on her jacket and her hands in her pockets standing in front of an autumnal living room fire. Her face is in the shape of a heart and her smile is serene – so lovely.

Then high school pictures followed stylish blonde-colored hair, more prominent makeup, proms with boyfriends and high school and, finally, high school graduation.

To see her framed in snapshots over various stages of her development of the life she had lived without me had an unexpected effect.

I thanked Dottie for the pictures and carefully put them back in the wax envelope. I brought them upstairs to my bedroom and tucked them deep in the back of my writing drawer and made a mental note not to forget where I put them before I closed the drawer, turned and went back downstairs to finish making Christmas dinner for all of us.

It had been a generous gift for Dottie to share those pictures with me. I didn’t want to appear ungrateful as they opened up a volcanic pile of emotion that I kept forgetting lived behind my sunny disposition. Vapors of feeling steamed at my seams and I felt the volcano getting hot. My heart was racing and I practiced a smile to break the tension in my face. I took a breath and forced myself to forget about it for now and shifted my focus on the turkey in the oven, refilling drinks and passing hors d’oeuvres around the room.

I took out the pictures today to look at them for the first time since that Christmas almost ten years ago. The wax envelope has yellowed to a dry crinkle. In a couple of weeks Cathy will turn another birthday. She’s coming up on the train to write with me this weekend. Maybe we’ll celebrate early.

Maybe I will get to bake her a cake this time. We’ve had a few birthday cakes together now. She’s due for one. I’ll sing her happy birthday on my ukulele. My heart is grateful for all the cakes her mother baked and for the gift in turn that I may do the same. That we both love her and call her “my child” is an enigma of a mother’s heart, first and last.

To view my daughter’s blog on the same topic, please visit ReunionEyes.

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