JC Schildbach, LMHC
In the few weeks leading up to my eighth or ninth birthday, I remember driving my mom crazy asking her if I was getting a present.
She returned the crazy-driving favor throughout most of that time with vague, non-committal answers. On some level, I’m guessing she thought if she answered my question affirmatively, I would sneak into her room in search of the gift. (I went through a few periods of extreme snoopiness as a child—or perhaps spikes in an overall pattern of snooping). On another level, I think my mom just enjoyed goofing on me—especially when I was being extremely annoying (again, a constant throughout my childhood with plenty of spikes).
I have one photograph of each birthday throughout my childhood. In each picture, I am posing with the cake my mom made (including a number of cool cakes in the shape of animals, people, etc.). In some of the photos, my siblings stand behind me and to my sides, the birthday boy clearly the center of attention. And in some—only some—the gift I received that year is situated next to the cake.
I don’t specifically remember why I became obsessed with the idea of getting a birthday gift, or rather, the idea that I might not get a birthday gift that year. I suspect my big sister had something to do with it—either floating the idea that I was not getting a birthday gift because of what a little turd I was, or letting me know that she knew what I was getting for my birthday—with the certainty that it would drive me mad to think she knew something that I didn’t, and was not about to let me in on the secret—no matter what. Either way, the more I obsessed about whatever gift I may or may not have been getting, the more turdly I became, probably leading my mom to consider the idea of not celebrating my birthday that year or any other for the rest of time.
What is oddest in my memories from that period, though, was my sense of the novelty of getting a birthday gift. That is, what had sparked my obsession with getting a gift of any kind was a feeling that I had never gotten a birthday gift from my mom before. The idea that I might be getting one now was so exciting that I couldn’t deal with the thought that it might not be true. I needed to know if a gift was coming or not, so I could adjust my expectations. What a fantastic thing it would be if I just knew that I was getting a gift! What a crushing blow it would be to expect a gift and get none!
Of course I had gotten gifts from my mom before. There was plenty of photographic evidence of me with a birthday cake and a toy—and the physical evidence of those toys still residing on the shelves of my bedroom. Then again, I don’t recall spending a lot of time looking through family photos. In the years since then, the narrative that my sister was somehow involved in provoking the situation caused me to wonder if she had been so insidiously clever as to show me one of the photos of me with just my birthday cake as proof that I did not get birthday gifts. ‘See—there it is! Pictures don’t lie! No gifts for Jonny!’
I need to be clear that I don’t actually recall my sister doing any of the things I suggested. It’s just a bit more comforting to think she was messing with me than that I completely lost my mind speculating about whether or not I was getting a gift—not what the gift may or may not be—just the idea that I may or may not get any gift.
In the weeks leading up to that birthday, I seriously could not recall having ever gotten a birthday gift before. I could’ve gone up to my room, and looked at the toys, and puzzled out their origins. But logic and rationality were not in order. I needed someone in authority to tell me—definitively and right now—was I getting a birthday gift?!?
And after all that torturing of myself and my mother, the sad conclusion to this tale is that my mom wasn’t able to get me a gift that year, or even a cake.
I got an awesome gift. The Adventure People Sea Explorer set.
I couldn’t find a commercial specifically featuring that set, but for a strangely simple earworm that haunts me to this day, watch this commercial and try not belting out that one line, “The Adventure People!”, for the rest of the day, or maybe the rest of your life.