Friday, July 15, 2011

Happy birthday, Dad.

My dad was always funny about his birthday.

Dad was not one to talk much about his upbringing, so I don’t know how birthdays were celebrated when he was young. During the time I knew him, though, he always expected his birthday to be a pretty big deal.

Achieving that wasn’t much of a stretch; in our family, we frequently joked that we celebrated “birthday week.” (My birthday is in December, so for me, it was more like “birthday month.”) First was the school party featuring the Bringing of the Treats; next was dinner with the family on your real birthday, and last was the “kid party,” usually held on the weekend closest to the big day.

For the adults, things were usually a little more subdued, but Dad still expected to be king for the day. During the course of his life, my sister organized a couple of surprise parties for him, and both times, he wasn’t the least bit shocked. “Of course you’re all here – it’s my birthday!” he would say, making no effort to feign humility.

My poor sister probably still rues the day several years ago when she suggested combining the family’s many summer birthday parties into one large celebration. My dad went along with it, but grudgingly; he had no desire to share. When I was pregnant with Caroline and mentioned that I wanted to give birth on his birthday, he said, “It’s OK if you don’t. That way we can have our own.” To his relief, I missed my goal by a day.

He was also funny about others' birthdays, including his children's. He was pretty good at remembering the grandchildren's, but when it came to my sister and me, for the life of him, he couldn't get the dates straight. We enjoyed giving him a hard time about that; after all, he had only two kids and they were born 20 years apart, almost to the day. "All I need to remember is MY birthday," he'd say with a chuckle.

I consistently dreaded my dad’s birthday. I feel terrible saying that now, but to point out that he was hard to please really isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. You’ve heard of the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which the mother refuses to accept a birthday card that one of her daughters had created in haste? She’s got nothing on my dad. You’d hand him a gift, watch him open it, and wait for him to say, “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” or “I’m going to have to take this back. I’ll never use it.” If you were lucky, he’d throw in a cursory “thank you” first – but usually only if his wife reminded him.

Toward the end of Dad’s life, I had finally resigned myself to buying him practical, consumable birthday presents – car-wash gift certificates, gift cards to Dairy Queen, and maybe even a few lottery tickets here and there. It was one of those presents that made my blood run cold a few years ago, though, and helped me realize just how much trouble might lie ahead of us.

I had gotten him a gift card to his favorite fast-food restaurant, one he and his wife frequented probably once a week, and he stared at it with a puzzled look on his face. “Wendy’s?” he said, looking at me with wide eyes. “There’s no Wendy’s in Des Moines.” There were at least four at the time, and he had eaten lunch at one the previous day.

On Dad’s last birthday, almost a year ago, I bought him sweat pants and sweatshirts, combing most of the Targets in the area for the precise brand, color and style he liked. He was exercising daily at that time, going with my sister to the gym in the senior-living facility into which he and his wife had moved the previous year, and he liked zip-front-style sweatshirts to wear over his t-shirts. Recalling his reaction to the gift makes me chuckle: “Jesus, Lisa, do you know how many of these I already have?”

When a person dies, a birthday simply fades away; the date no longer is a birthday, but a birth anniversary. Something tells me Dad wouldn’t like that, but he needn’t worry – with his attitude toward his own birthday, it will be forever impossible to relegate that day to anything but Charlie Lavia Day. I so wish he had made it to 92, even if that would have meant giving him another present he would have hated. I think that deep down, the presents really didn’t matter to him that much; the adoration was the important thing.

We rarely got the gifts right, Dad, but I know you know how much we cared. Go easy on the folks up there, and remember to say “thank you,” even if they get the cake flavor wrong. I’ll be baking a lemon one down here in your honor.


  1. The best birthday for my Dad was his 85th. We embellished the cake with the 85 candles due, and lit every one of them. His face reminded me of a little kid seeing his first cake. I'll never forget the day.

  2. I get what your saying about the gifts Lisa. My dad was the same way. Maybe it's the old fashioned Italian male thing. Who knows.