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It Only Comes Once A Year...
I can remember turning six, the first year I was an integral part of the party planning and celebration of my birthday. There had been birthday parties before six (which my mom had thrown) but six was the first time I participated in planning games and helping design invitations. Years before my mother asked, “What do you want?” and my naïve response provided her with a general outline for creative license. Six was the birthday I wanted to plan. The theme was The Wizard of OZ and I dressed up like Dorothy, my most favorite person in the whole world. My invitations were artfully designed (colorful scribbles on the cards to my guests didn’t embarrass me). I invited friends from Daisy Girl Scouts, family friends, and my sister (not my idea) to join me in celebrating what I knew would be the highlight of my young life. Even at my young age, I enjoyed the thought that everyone in the world has a birthday and that they could enjoy a special day just like mine. It was a very good birthday.
Birthdays in my family are accompanied by tradition. In the morning, the birth-ee eats off a reserved plate, saved for those (as is written on the plate) “Special!” days. After an excellent breakfast, there comes one gift allowed to be opened. It usually turns out to be just a little something to motivate the birth-ee to get through the day: you wait, agonize over the presents later to come, forced to know only one box’s contents. In other families, traditions may be more common, like sharing cake after dinner and opening presents in the company of family and friends, but every year in my family we practice our tradition of the sister gifts. It started when my sister and I were little girls, still easily provoked and just as easily pacified. To quell jealousy, the sister whose birthday it wasn’t opened one small gift. This way, both my sister and I had something to be surprised with and in some slightly selfish way, something to keep ourselves more content on the day that belonged to the other.
I recall being in third grade, when I first moved to California and was living in comfortable suburbia, the times shared with my best friend Kara: car rides, tuna sandwiches and naturally (because it was on the same day) our birthday. The party theme was TV Game Show, complete with contestants (we would each invite four) and shiny prizes (Hot Wheels, plastic jewelry, and an all-expenses paid trip to the movies). To share a birthday is to accept that the party is not centered solely on the birth-ee. This birthday was marked with significance because it was the last one I would have where I lived; I was moving to Virginia, the furthest away my parents could possibly take me. But at the time, I was completely focused on squealing with my girl friends, licking frosting off my fingers, and guessing that a tube of Sally Hansen lipstick was not as expensive as it actually was.
When thinking of worldly concepts- when lying in bed, when sunbathing on a desolate beach- it occurs to me that everyone in the world has a birthday. When I think now of this uniting universal factor, I think of how the only difference between my birthday and someone’s in Turkey is the details of the celebration. Similarly it is recognized, similarly it is noted that one day a new being entered earth. And this is when the world feels a little smaller.
My world expanded though, the year between my ninth and tenth birthday, which consisted of a cross-country move and entailed my sister and me bickering in the backseat of the car until we got to a hotel and befriended each other again in the swimming pool. It was an especially tough year making friends, as I had to start from nothing, meet new people, and find people who liked me. Thankfully, my birthday is at the end of the school year, allowing me sufficient time to make friends when placed in a new environment. There wasn’t really a theme attached to this birthday, unless “first sleepover” is a theme. I was ten years old and it was totally awesome that my parents let me have a sleepover. The night went well- nothing hindered our games of toilet paper fashion show or pillow case decorating. And at the end of the night, I was very content to fall asleep, my head on a personalized pillow, dreaming of how birthdays were wonderful.
There is no doubt in my mind that the time between twelve and thirteen was my awkward adolescent stage. I had braces, glasses, and bangs that parted in the middle, not to the side like I had seen in Vogue. By my thirteenth birthday, however, I felt fairly comfortable in my skin. Sure, I had to deal with bad posture and baby fat cheeks, but my terrible haircut had grown out and I was allowed to wear makeup, real makeup. I was becoming a Teenager. And this was awesome. My birthday party needed to encompass all that I hoped to be: cool, collected, awesome, fun- a Teenager. So I gathered up courage and asked my parents if I could host a co-ed party. Boys and girls. Together. I was so relieved when they agreed, despite the fact I had to cut the guest list from 35 to 12. I remember working with delicate accuracy the plans of my party. Perhaps the plans could have been a little more relaxed, but the day turned out fine. And it culminated with:
Scene- Sitting on a campfire chair, surrounded by a ring of friends and a roaring
bonfire, and holding a single present on my lap
I had no clue what it was, but it was from everyone there and a few others who had pitched in. Thoroughly confused, I pulled apart the tissue paper to reveal a brand new iPod.
“Do you love it?!”
“Isn’t it just the coolest?!”
My happy scream answered their question. Yes, I loved it. Yes, it was the best present I had ever received. Yes, my birthday could not get any better.
The month of May passed and left and while I had presents and cake remains to remind me of the party, I knew I would have to deliver goodbyes before an imminent move. Once again, I would need to pack my memories in boxes to have them transferred to the opposite side of the country. And once again, I would need to prepare for the mindset to make new friends.
To enter high school is to feel uncomfortable, awkward, and weird. I had no friends, but soon found the girls from elementary school, with whom friendships first seemed strained but gradually became more natural as weeks turned into months, months turned into almost a full school year. My birthday rolled around again, for the fifteenth time, and to honor my Latina roots, I contemplated a quinceñera. In Spanish-influenced Southern California, I knew there would be many quinceñeras taking place, because they are the traditional Mexican birthday for 15-year old girls. But would anyone recognize that here in Stafford, America? Deciding it didn’t matter whether people took it as a fiesta or what I really meant it to be, I aimed to make it as authentic as possible. My dad helped set up a bright piñata, my mom cooked a flavorful Mexican feast, and my sister helped me pick out a traditional white dress. Although even the 15-year old I had become must have recognized that the celebration was nowhere near as elaborate as a real quiñce, that party, which reminded me of California and helped me feel a little closer to my old friends, was delightful. The support of my family, elementary school and new high school friends, mixed with my genuine desire to host a righteous party made my fifteenth quinceñera a lasting memory.
I’ve been to many different birthday parties, enjoyed most, disliked a few, and felt out of place at one (my uncle’s friend?). I love the whole idea of a birthday party. And I love that all people get one day to celebrate their birth with those they are close to. My seventeenth birthday is in a month and four days now. I haven’t planned what the theme will be or decided who to invite, what to wear, what to do. But I know it will be fun. And I know life cannot get any better than a birthday party with friends.