Mom’s birthday surprise

My mom was born on October 31st. While I’m sure it might have been fun to have a Halloween birthday while she was growing up, my mom basically spent 20-some years with her birthday a complete backburner because Halloween is all about kids: costumes, candy, parties, trick-or-treating. When I was in college, I finally realized that hey, mom should get to have a little bit of celebration that’s just for her, right? So a few times I’d take the bus up from Berkeley, meet her in Santa Rosa, and take her to lunch or to the movies on the weekend closest to Halloween.

This year, I decided to do a birthday surprise. With the help of Google Maps and a friend who commutes to the town where my mom works, I hatched a plan to personally deliver flowers to her school. In my camelback, I brought a glass jar I’d tied with leftover ribbon from my sister’s wedding, and my floral shears. My friend dropped me off at the Trader Joe’s at the north end of town, where I found a few different flowers I thought she’d like. Outside the store, I prepped the flowers, trimmed the stems, and put them in the jar, but left the plastic on the outsides to help protect them. I plopped my ridiculous sun hat (a remnant of sister’s bridal shower) on my head, tuned my ipod to a new audiobook, and walked 5.5 miles to my mom’s school, flowers poking their heads out the top of my bag.

It was a gorgeous fall morning: the air a bit dry and unseasonably warm, reminding me some of Denver. I walked past houses and stores, subdivisions with residences decorated for Halloween, large shrubs and piles of ivy, and vacant lots filled with fennel. I saw dogs, cats, birds, and squirrels, people perambulating with their babies, thirsty lawns. It was a sharp contrast to the audiobook (City of Thieves, about Leningrad during WWII) which was stark, hungry, cold. The sprawling city was warm, full of life and activity. A man peddling Mexican treats rode by on his bicycle. I got blasted with car exhaust. It smelled like blacktop and reality.

When I got to the bus stop right outside the school, I pulled my floral purchases back out of my camelback and spent a few minutes cutting stems and arranging everything to my liking in the glass jar, adding the floral food that had come with one of the bunches of flowers, along with a few bits of ivy and eucalyptus that had called to me during the journey. I walked onto school grounds, looking for the office, and a nice lady told me my mom would be in the gym supervising the holiday pep rally. I walked in, holding the jar of flowers, and my mom was standing right by the door, dressed in a doctor costume.

I think it took her a second for her brain to process what she was seeing (as one does not expect one’s oldest daughter to randomly show up during a pep rally at one’s school), but she gave me a big grin and a hug, and we brought the flowers to her classroom. The gym was full of screaming middle schoolers fueled by sugar and the excitement of getting to do something fun in the middle of the day. I half-expected it to smell like sweat and socks and desperation, which is how I remember my middle school’s gym smelling, and I wondered what the kids who might notice me would think of this strange woman (because I’m obviously not a kid) in the ridiculous hat. Some students and some teachers got up in front of the room to do a macarena contest, and I realized the song was popular before any of the kids were even born. Then I yelled at them to get off my lawn.

Wanting to preserve the last vestiges of my ancient eardrums, I waited outside for my mom to be finished with her duties so we could visit a bit more before I had to leave. As the kids streamed out of the gym in pairs and groups, I noticed an awful lot of the girls dressed in slutwear-type costumes; fuck-me boots and cleavage-baring tops and miniskirts and fishnets. A fair number of the boys were wearing costumes. The special needs kids with one-on-one aides, all of whom were dressed in costumes, came out to watch the spectacle.

We ended up at mom’s house for lunch. The avocado wasn’t very good, but the sandwich was filling, and she gave me a ride to the walking trail so I could head toward downtown where I’d be catching the bus home. My audiobook got progressively more bleak and miserable as the afternoon sunshine made the changing leaves and creek sparkle. People rode by on bicycles, talking on hands-free phone devices (really? on your BIKE?), chickens cackled right as I got to the plot point in the story about the main character needing to find eggs. Which was pretty funny, I had to admit. Once downtown, I continued to walk, in and out of stores, trying to find affordable tea lights for a project I wanted to do last night. I didn’t have much luck, and started to sweat a little in the heat, but then it was finally time to go catch the bus home.

I paid my fare and found a seat, reminded of all the times during my high school and college days I’d taken this exact bus to return to this exact house. The times I ran into people I knew; the times I met new friends (some of whom I still know); the times I wished desperately for a car so I wouldn’t have to sit on this bus ever again. It’s a 30-minute drive via freeway and a 90-minute bus ride, but yesterday it was even longer because part of the route is along a major street that’s undergoing major construction. Also, it passes by both a high school and a junior college, so by the time we were crawling through the morass of machines and traffic, the bus was full of shrieking, laughing teenagers. Some of whom continued to shriek and laugh for most of the rest of the ride. I turned up the volume on my audiobook, thankful I had something to distract me from the gaggle of probably-19ish girls who had to discuss everything in their outside voices for over an hour.

Finally home, I visited my last hope, a tiny drugstore across the street from my house, and managed to locate affordable, unscented tea lights. I cut some yellowish paper into strips, cut out holes, taped them into cylinders. Each was set along the driveway with a tealight inside. I put the blacklight into the porch light fixture, the two little pumpkins on the porch, and hadn’t even managed to finish my ghost before my first trick-or-treaters showed up at 5:30 PM. I’d had all these lofty goals of dressing in some sort of costume to hand out candy, since we were offered no other costume opportunities surrounding the holiday, but didn’t have enough time to even figure out what I’d wear, let alone do makeup, before the kids showed up. I made a ghost out of an ancient bedsheet and a balloon, taping two sharpied eyes and a smiling mouth on the front. At around 6:15 I lit the tealights, struggling with the matches and using way more than I probably should have.

I only got twelve trick-or-treaters. I saw them going to the other houses; perhaps the house on the end of the cul-de-sac was just too scary a proposition, but the faux luminarias were pretty, and my mom got some flowers, and my plans worked the way I’d hoped, so I’d say Halloween 2011 was a success.

"I got a rock."


3 responses to “Mom’s birthday surprise

  1. What a wonderful thing to do for your mom! As an Oct 30 birthday, I kinda am over the holiday but understand how important it is to everyone else.

  2. I absolutely LOVE this tale! I continue to be so impressed with you, Em. love and hugs, Ginny

  3. What an incredible and thoughtful surprise you did for your mom. I love it.

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