Winter announced itself each year with blasts of icy wind screaming across the frigid waters of the great Kootenai River. It was firmly settled in by the time Old Man McConnell made his yearly trek to send his big wife, Mandy, out to test the ice to see whether it was safe for him and his mules to cross the river.
“Good men are scarce on the Kootenai,” he’d shrug when he was questioned.
In my tiny hometown of Warland, just on the Montana side of the Canadian border, December found us hunkered down by our wood stoves without electricity or running water.
The community (population slightly more than 100 if you counted the chickens,) enjoyed one winter celebration. We gathered in the one-room school house on New Year’s Eve and feasted on ice cream made from the icicles on the roof. It was the only time we had ice.
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The high point came at the stroke of midnight. There was no mirrored ball to drop, but we did stand outside banging on dishpans with spoons or shooting guns into the air at the moment the baby New Year came in, no doubt shaking his little head and wondering what he’d gotten into.
Let me tell you, by the day after the New Year started, which happens to be my birthday, no one was in the mood for a party. Since I never had a birthday observation, they became very important to me. I vowed I’d never skip a birthday celebration for my children. That’s a pledge I kept, even during the week every May when there are three birthdays.
Each person had their own celebration and their own theme cake, anything they wanted. My most triumphant moment came when I created a Darth Vader cake baked in three sizes of Pyrex bowls and dishes. Art has no limits.
My No. 3 son had a perfect birthday the year he was 5, so good that he simply decided not to go on to 6. He declared he’d just be 5 again, had a second cake for a 5-year-old, and then he skipped to 7. We ought to be able to do it our way.
It’s popular for adults to say, “I don’t think about birthdays. It’s just another day.” Former Buckley Mayor John Blanusa, used to say, “Age is just a number and mine is unlisted.”
Someone remarked to me just the other day, “It is better to be 80 years young than 30 years old.”
“Young” is supposed to be a synonym for being active and ignoring age, but I want credit for every day I’ve lived, every wrinkle I have earned, and every important thing I’ve learned along the way.
I planned to celebrate my birthday last week with a “Frozen” singalong party. You’d be surprised how hard it is to organize such a gathering, but then the grandkids in Minnesota sent me the singalong DVD from the movie.
I will say, my friends are much more creative than expected. I received some remarkable regrets. I want to be supportive, but these people are all in their 70s.
What’s the chance their grandfather really just died — especially when he’s already done it twice in the last couple of years — on previous birthdays.
Several said they had to take their dog for a walk, a long walk. At least three actually bought a dog just for the event.
Finally, the list was narrowed to four loyal, but apparently slow-witted people who weren’t able to produce an excuse and are directly related to me. Maybe the simple celebration is best.
My grandma was dirt poor. There was no electricity or running water in her Oregon ranch house, but when one of her eight children had a birthday, she prepared a feast. On that day, she cooked a chicken the child could have prepared any way the child wished. The child could have a friend come to share it. They could eat every last bite themselves if they wanted. On that day they were rich.
“Today was good. Today was fun. Tomorrow is another one.” Dr. Seuss said that.
“I’m grateful for the special people who brighten our time on earth.” I said that. Today would be a good day to get in touch with those special people to tell them so. Happy New Year.