Birthdays mark the passage of another year of learning, growing, laughing, loving, and best of all, being alive. They should always be celebrated — especially in a pandemic.
I grew up in a family that observed birthdays with only a cake. No cards. No presents. No parties. Just "Happy birthday, pass me a hunk of that cake."
It was a good cake. My mother made it. Sometimes we cranked it up a notch with a churn of ice cream. No matter how other kids celebrated their birthdays, to me, a cake was enough.
Imagine my surprise years later to find my own children expected a bit more than a cake.
After some discussion, we reached a compromise. They could invite only as many friends as would fit in our VW van. I'd take them swimming at an indoor pool that charged 50 cents per kid and had lifeguards to keep them from drowning. When they were exhausted from swimming, I'd take them to our house to eat pizza and cake (storebought, not homemade) and let the birthday person open gifts. Finally, they'd all pass out on the family room floor.
The next day, I'd feed them pancakes and send them home. Except my three, who stayed to fight over the gifts. We did that until the kids were teenagers and preferred parties without my help or my presence.
After they grew up and had children of their own, the parties became real wing-dings.
I will never forget my first grandchild's first birthday. Randy stood surrounded by dozens of family and friends and ate his first-ever cupcake.
I wish you could've seen him.
Red curls glittering like a halo in the sun. Hazel eyes wide with wonder. And a look on his frosting-smeared face that seemed to say, "What is this and where has it been all my life?"
In years to come, his parties would fill a city park with a bounce house, a face painter, a taco truck and a guest list that included all his classmates with their siblings and parents.
This week, Randy is turning 10. Ten is a pretty big deal. But his birthday — like so many other things that have changed in the months since the pandemic began — will be a bit different.
He's not expecting a party, just a small celebration with family. When I asked what he wanted for a gift, he said, "I want to spend the night with you and Papa Mark, like we used to do."
The last time he slept at our house was months ago, before we began "sheltering in place."
He has missed it. So have we.
"I'll talk to your mom," I said through a mask, and he grinned.
So I talked to his mom and here's the plan. It's a surprise, so don't tell Randy. He's having a "drive-by" surprise party. Carloads of family and friends will drive by his house honking and shouting, "Happy birthday!"
Papa Mark and I will be in the last car. Then we'll take him to our house to spend the night. He'll play checkers with me, and make music with Papa Mark. I'll bake a cake. Or buy one. And I will whisper in his ear my favorite birthday wish: "I am so glad you were born."
The next day, on his real birthday, he'll celebrate with his mom and dad and brother and sister. It will be different from his other birthdays. But it will surely be a celebration.
A birthday is a gift, not just for those who turn a year older, but for everyone who loves them. It should always be celebrated, especially in uncertain times such as these, when we need to remember what matters most.
But a true celebration doesn't need a party or even a cake. It takes place on its own, with a prayer of thanks and a burst of joy, somewhere in the heart.
Happy birthday, Randy. I am so glad you were born.
Sharon Randall can be reached at P.O. Box 922, Carmel Valley CA 93924, or by email at