Knots on a counting rope

by Jan Wheatcroft

As a child, my mother always made a big fuss whenever I had a birthday. It was a day just for me, without sharing with anyone. I got to choose the dinner menu, have a party and get presents. I was special. Mostly I loved it and the feeling of that day has remained.

But sometimes it felt like a burden, such as when I was turning 16, my mother had planned a Sweet 16 surprise party and somehow I found out. I felt that I must not let my mother know that I knew, which was difficult for me to pretend and then to act surprised. Mostly birthday parties became experiences all of us children had together.  At one of my birthday parties, everyone was given a cake of their own that my mother had baked. All of the frostings and decorations were spread out on the table and we each decorated our own cake. Then each child took her own creation home. 

My favorite part of the day was choosing the dinner menu. Everyone would eat what I selected, and I always chose what I liked best. My favorite was Southern crispy fried chicken, mashed potatoes with butter, peas and apple pie and ice cream for dessert. I can see how important food became to me as part of being special. Today food occupies a very large part of my life as well as the way I experience the world and how nicely I treat myself. It has become a burden as it is a continual battle between eating, cooking and enjoying food and putting on weight. 

I have just passed my birthday, which seemed to be a celebration that never ended. I have no complaints about that. I could almost hear my mother telling me that it was my special day and it belonged just to me. 

Although it was more my special weekend as it stretched over 3 days, I knew when I woke up that one day was totally different after midnight and it really did end by the next midnight no matter how the celebrations went. Birthdays seem to mark us in so many ways; how we feel about the aging process, how we celebrate or ignore them, how we pinpoint birth times and view them astrologically, associating personality traits, abilities and connections with that moment of arrival into the world.  I just know that I had a birthday and for me it was a memorable day, and I allowed the world to center around me for 24 hours of pleasure. 


When I was 10 years old my mother remarried and we moved out to the San Fernando Valley. It took me quite a while to accept my stepfather. I was not very generous.  He had big muscles and was strong. To get me on his side, he used to show off a bit and tear telephone books in half with nothing but his hands. I was impressed enough that I told all of the children in the neighborhood about it.

One day, they all came over and lined up to see him tear telephone books in half. I don’t think he had expected it but he really did want to develop a positive relationship with me so he began to collect the books that we had and proceeded to tear them in half. I remember that all the children stood in awe around him as he sweated and grunted and ripped them all in half. The kids were also very impressed. I was proud that I had something extraordinary to share. However I do not think I was very nice to him for a long time. I was known to be stubborn.


In high school every child took a driver’s ed class where we learned the rules of the road and watched a film about Goofy, who was a mild chap until he got behind the wheel of a car. This was a lesson to us all.

Then we took a driver’s training class where we were actually given driving lessons in a car and a practice driving test. At the end of the class, I was given a “fail” and the teacher was worried that I might never be able to pass. I felt badly and was scared to be behind the wheel of a car, so my mother signed me up for proper driving school lessons. At the end of the course, I took the test and failed it again. I could pass the written portion but not the driving part. The driving teacher told my mother that he was concerned that I might never pass. I ended up with no driving self confidence. I needed practice and lots of it. Neither of my parents would drive with me so I couldn’t drive on the streets with traffic. I think they were scared of what I might do. We lived on a dead end street so I took our rather big car and drove up and down the street, mastering the art of turning and parallel parking at our curb with no other cars, parked or otherwise. 

Finally my very pregnant aunt took pity on me and allowed me to drive her car with her sitting in the passenger seat while I drove all around town for many days building up enough practice and confidence to take the test again. This time I passed. I am ever-grateful to my aunt. Why she trusted herself with me while her own sister would not has always been a mystery. It is due to her faith in me that I drive. I always drove with my sons, even though I was nervous as I remembered how it felt driving up and down that limited street unable to get any help or any real practice.


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