Ellen Freeman Roth                      

March 29, 2007

Birthday ritual grows in meaning

"Remember, tonight I read to you," I told my son.

"I know," he answered lazily from the couch, his hairy legs sprawled across two cushions. Today was his 17th birthday and we would share our birthday tradition, started when he turned 6. At bedtime I'd read him the picture book "On the Day You Were Born" by Debra Frasier. Bedtime now, of course, meant mine, not his.

I was glad we had a ritual to mark the day. He no longer wanted a party with friends or a cake iced with the Fenway Park scoreboard showing the Red Sox crushing the Yankees.

He wanted simply an afternoon of family games. So he, his dad, his sister, and I played Canasta and Ticket to Ride, ordered in sushi, watched football, and called it a night.

"You ready?" I poked my head in his room after we went upstairs.

"I'm not going to sleep yet, but you can read now if you want," he said in a tone that was half tolerance, half invitation. Fully clothed, he crawled between his sheets while I plucked the book from his bookshelf. I put my knee on his bed, a gesture that seemed to me no different than his "I love you, Mom" hugs.

"Whoa," he protested.

"I thought I'd sit next to you. OK?"

"Yeah, I guess."

I leaned back and opened the book.

"On the eve of your birth word of your coming passed from animal to animal. The reindeer told the Arctic terns . . ." I pointed to a few details, looked at him, and abruptly pulled my hand back. He earnestly listened and looked at the pictures.

"On the day you were born the Moon pulled on the ocean below, and, wave by wave, a rising tide washed the beaches clean for your footprints . . ."

He interrupted. "I give you two more pages until you start crying."

I chuckled, swallowed, and continued, "while close to your skin and as high as the sky, air rushed in and blew about, invisibly protecting you and all living things on Earth."

The next page went blurry.

"Here she goes," he said, staring at the book.

I had widened my eyes to absorb the brimming tears, but a blink pushed them down my cheeks. "On the day you were born, the Earth turned . . . and then, with a push, you slipped out of the dark quiet where suddenly you could hear a circle of people singing with voices familiar and clear."

He pointed to the illustration. "Don't ask, Mom, I know. This is the birth canal."

We laughed. I sniffled, and choked out the final page. " 'Welcome to the spinning world,' the people sang, as they washed your new, tiny hands . . . And as they held you close they whispered into your open, curving ear, 'We are so glad you've come!' " I smoothed the back cover and wiped my eyes.

"Thanks, Mom. That was nice. I love you."

"Yeah, that was nice. Thank you, hon. I love you, too. Happy birthday."

I kissed his cheek, took two steps to the door, and stopped. "By the way, kiddo, two years from now I'll be visiting you at college on your birthday to read this to you."

He eyes widened in panic. "Ah, no, Mom. You can read it to me on the phone."

"Gotcha! Just kidding."