Happy Birthday, Dear Mama

On my birthday, a friend gave Olivia two crisp 20-dollar bills and instructions to take me out to lunch to our local favorite, the Silver Diner. All I had to do was drive, I was told, and Olivia would do the rest. Well, let me back up. I was awakened at 3 a.m., 4:30 a.m., 5:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. by a little girl way too excited about my birthday to sleep. You would have thought Santa and all his reindeer had arrived during the night of August 21st, or that it was Olivia’s own birthday arriving in a few abbreviated hours. She was promptly put back to bed each time, with less and less patience as the dawn threatened to hover and sleep kept stumbling along, tripping over itself with each disruption. Perhaps hiding the wrapped birthday presents in Olivia’s shower, attached to the bathroom in her bedroom, was a mistake. Anyway, we did not begin the day opening presents, as was our plan and has become our custom in the past few years, since I was just too irritated and tired and had visions of this excitement getting only worse with the Easter Bunny, Valentine’s Day, Christmas, quickly approaching. So, she got to give me ONE present in the morning and we waited until evening for the others.

Olivia gave me a small purple tube of lavender lotion that she’d bought with her own money. This was a big deal because during her shopping day with our friend, Olivia had found a nickel on a shelf. When they got to the cash register of one store, the bill came to twenty dollars and five cents. Since it was a gift for me (they were tired by then, this was toward the end of their excursion), Linda asked Olivia to chip in her nickel. Well, she would NOT. She pitched a fit. Linda could not believe it. She told Olivia in the car how disappointed she was that she did not feel at all generous about buying me a present if it required her own money. And, it was money that she FOUND that very day. Their last stop was to a card store. Well, evidently Olivia thought the matter over while Linda was reading birthday cards, because she walked over with this little purple lotion tube and said, “Do you think my mama would like this lotion? I think it’s lavender (which everybody knows is my all-time favorite), and I want to buy it with my own money.” It cost $1.99 and Linda told her she thought the whole transaction was a wonderful idea. When they got to the cashier, try to guess what the total came to, including tax. You got it, two dollars and five cents. Olivia got to use her nickel after all.

Okay, so jump back to Tuesday, lunchtime. We drove to the Silver Diner and parked the car. We were seated at a nice window booth, non-smoking section, of course. Before I could even sit down, Olivia started to crane her neck in search of our waiter. When he arrived, my five-year-old instructed me to go to the ladies room and wash my hands as she needed to “chat” with our waiter. I complied, of course, and after this exercise, checked with Olivia to see if the coast was clear enough for me to return to our table. She nodded that I could be seated. Not a minute later, our waiter (Edwin, a darling young man from England) approached the table again with a small tray carrying a coke and a plate piled HIGH with maraschino cherries. I said, “You may be in charge of this lunch date, but I am still your mother and you are not allowed to drink Coke. You may have the chocolate milk that we already discussed and keep just two of those cherries.” I thanked Edwin, and sent him back to his counter with new instructions, an untouched tray, and a plate of bright red cherries staggering enough to fill a Costco-sized bottle. Olivia was quite impressed that I knew his name when I’d been in the ladies room washing my hands when they met. I explained to her that it was one of the benefits of getting older on days such as this. I can read, and by her next birthday she will as well. (Edwin was wearing a nametag.)

Olivia grinned in a guilty way, and I had to sort of admire her resourcefulness in trying to order everything she could get away with. She had Cherry Coke precisely once in her life when I took her to a matinee on a rainy Sunday afternoon last winter. I think she was trying to replicate it, and then charmed the waiter into bringing her some extras.

Well, we read our menus and ordered. She ordered for us, mind you. Our food arrived and we ate. Well, I ate. Or, I tried to. She kept staring at me, and craning her neck to see where Edwin was standing. We did get change for a dollar in order to play the jukebox at our table a few times. Let’s see, we listened to Happy Birthday Baby, and Wake Up, Little Suzie, Wake Up, as well as You’re the One That I Want from Grease, and Puff the Magic Dragon. Olivia loves dancing in the aisle to Oldies. She kept asking me, between bites, if I was finished yet. I said, “I’d like to actually eat my lunch, if it’s all right with you.” She relented, albeit reluctantly. It was very exciting for her to be in charge, to be celebrating, and to have so many surprises still in store for her mother.

I finished my salad, about 2/3s of my entrée, and nodded to her that I was, indeed, finished. She practically ran from the table, calling out, “Excuse me a moment, Mama. I’ll be right back.” I tried not to look at the activity building behind the lunch counter, but I could see Olivia talking animatedly and pointing, gesturing to waiters and other interested employees of the Silver Diner. I could just imagine her bossy little self, making “suggestions” to all of these people and smiling at them one by one.

Within a couple of minutes an entourage of people, led by one small girl and Edwin, bearing a sparkling candle atop a mountainous slice of chocolate cake on his tray, came walking toward my booth. Olivia had collected all of the wait staff, a couple of cooks, the hostess, an assistant manager, a busboy, the woman who’d been mopping the floors, a construction worker from his ladder by one of the windows, as well as the woman in charge of watering the indoor plants and they ALL burst into a rousing version of “Happy Birthday, Dear Mama.” Even the cake was topped with vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup drizzled all across the oversized bowl spelling out, “Happy Birthday Mama.”

It was quite a sight. “I laughed, I cried, it moved me, Bob.” (Veggie Tales, 1998) Olivia was in her element. She was a little conductor; they were her choir. She was a small director; they were her cast. She was a short military leader; they were her troops. On her command, they smiled and fell out, returning to their regular jobs there at the Silver Diner.

When Edwin brought Olivia the check, she took her carefully folded twenties from her change purse and set one of them on the ticket tray when we realized that the total was around $14. As he walked away from our table, saying, “I’ll be right back with your change, Ma’am,” Olivia called out to him to come back. She took the other twenty from her change purse and pressed it into his free hand. “Here’s a little something for you,” she smiled. Once more, I had to assert myself as the mother and suggested to her, “Why don’t we wait for him to bring you the change and then we can figure out the tip?” She reluctantly took back her second twenty and agreed to wait for the change. I guess she knew she’d have to return what was left of it to Linda anyway. Smile. We did leave a five-dollar bill on the table for Edwin. We thanked the entire staff of the Arlington Silver Diner and were on our way later that day, August 21st.

That night after dinner and the rest of my presents, following our entire day together doing nothing else quite that special, Olivia announced that it had been the best day of her whole life. She said she was so happy, she could just purr. And so, she did. I can’t think of any birthday I’ve ever had that topped this one. And until the day I turned 41, I had forgotten how to purr.

Copyright © 2001