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The Birthday Card



 

Everyone was moved by what Sophia and Lulu said at Florence’s funeral. “If only Florence could have heard them,” Florence’s best friend Sylvia said sadly afterward. “Nothing would have made her happier.” How, other friends asked, could a thirteen and ten-year-old capture Florence so perfectly?

But there’s a backstory.

It actually starts years earlier, when the girls were quite young, maybe seven and four. It was my birthday, and we were celebrating at a mediocre Italian restaurant, because Jed had forgotten to make reservations at a better place.

Obviously feeling guilty, Jed was trying to act jaunty. “O-k-a-y! This is going to be a g-re-a-t birthday dinner for Mommy! Right, girls? And you each have a little surprise for Mommy—right, girls?”

I was soaking some stale focaccia in the small dish of olive oil the server had given us. At Jed’s urging, Lulu handed me her “surprise,” which turned out to be a card. More accurately, it was a piece of paper folded crookedly in half, with a big happy face on the front. Inside, “Happy Birthday, Mommy! Love, Lulu” was scrawled in crayon above another happy face. The card couldn’t have taken Lulu more than twenty seconds to make.

I know just what Jed would have done. He would have said, “Oh, how nice—thank you, honey,” and planted a stiff kiss on Lulu’s forehead. Then he probably would have said that he wasn’t very hungry, and was only going to have a bowl of soup, or on second thought just bread and water, but the rest of us could order as much as we goddamn liked.

I gave the card back to Lulu. “I don’t want this,” I said. “I want a better one—one that you’ve put some thought and effort into. I have a special box, where I keep all my cards from you and Sophia, and this one can’t go in there.”

“What?” said Lulu in disbelief. I saw beads of sweat start to form on Jed’s forehead.

I grabbed the card again and flipped it over. I pulled out a pen from my purse and scrawled “Happy Birthday Lulu Whoopee!” I added a big sour face. “What if I gave you this for your birthday, Lulu—would you like that? But I would never do that, Lulu. No—I get you magicians and giant slides that cost me hundreds of dollars. I get you huge ice cream cakes shaped like penguins, and I spend half my salary on stupid sticker and eraser party favors that everyone just throws away. I work so hard to give you good birthdays! I deserve better than this. So I reject this.” I threw the card back.

“May I please be excused for a second?” Sophia asked in a small voice. “I need to do something.”

“Let me see it, Sophia. Hand it over.”

Eyes wide with terror, Sophia slowly pulled out her own card. It was bigger than Lulu’s, made of red construction paper, but while more effusive, equally empty. She had drawn a few flowers and written “I love you! Happy Birthday to the Best Mommy in the World! #1 Mommy!”

“That’s nice, Sophia,” I said coldly, “but not good enough either. When I was your age, I wrote poems for my mother on her birthday. I got up early and cleaned the house and made her breakfast. I tried to think of creative ideas and made her coupons that said things like ‘One Free Car Wash.’”

“I wanted to make something better, but you said I had to play piano,” Sophia protested indignantly.

“You should have gotten up earlier,” I responded.

Later that night, I received two much better birthday cards, which I loved and still have.

I recounted this story to Florence shortly afterward. She laughed in astonishment, but to my surprise, she was not disapproving. “Maybe I should have tried something similar with my kids,” she said thoughtfully. “It just always seemed that if you had to ask for something, it wouldn’t be worth anything.”

“I think it’s too idealistic to expect children to do the right things on their own,” I said. “Also, if you force them to do what you want, you don’t have to be mad at them.”

“But they’ll be mad at you,” Florence pointed out.

I thought of this exchange many years later, the day of the funeral. According to Jewish law, burials must take place as soon as possible after death, ideally within twenty-four hours. The suddenness of Florence’s death was unexpected, and in one day Jed had to arrange for a plot, a rabbi, a funeral home, and the service. As always, Jed handled everything quickly and efficiently, keeping his emotions to himself, but I could tell that his whole body was shaking, his grief too much to bear.

I found the girls in their bedroom that morning, huddled together. They both looked stunned and frightened. No one so close to them had ever died before. They had never attended a funeral. And Popo had just been laughing in the next room a week earlier.

I told the girls that they each had to write a short speech about Popo, which they would read at the service that afternoon.

“No, please, Mommy, don’t make me,” Sophia said tearfully. “I really don’t feel like it.”

“I can’t,” Lulu sobbed. “Go away.”

“You have to,” I ordered. “Both of you. Popo would have wanted it.”

Sophia’s first draft was terrible, rambling and superficial. Lulu’s wasn’t so great either, but I held my elder daughter to a higher standard. Perhaps because I was so upset myself, I lashed out at her. “How could you, Sophia?” I said viciously. “This is awful. It has no insight. It has no depth. It’s like a Hallmark card—which Popo hated. You are so selfish. Popo loved you so much—and you—produce—this!”

Crying uncontrollably, Sophia shouted back at me, which startled me because like Jed—unlike Lulu and me—Sophia’s anger usually simmers, rarely boiling over. “You have no right to say what Popo would have wanted! You didn’t even like Popo—you have this fixation with Chinese values and respect for elders, but all you did was mock her. Every little thing she did—even making couscous—reflected some terrible moral deficiency for you. Why are you so—Manichaean? Why does everything have to be black or white?”

I didn’t mock her, I thought to myself indignantly. I was just protecting my daughters from a romanticized model of child-rearing doomed to failure. Besides, I was the one who invited Florence to everything, who made sure she saw her granddaughters all the time. I gave Florence her greatest source of happiness—beautiful, respectful, accomplished grandchildren she could be proud of. How could Sophia, who was so smart and even knew the word Manichaean, not see that and attack me instead?

Externally, I ignored Sophia’s outburst. Instead, I offered some editorial suggestions—things about her grandmother that she might mention. I asked her to talk about Crystal Lake and going to museums with Florence.

Sophia took none of my suggestions. Slamming the door after I left, she locked herself in her bedroom and rewrote the speech herself. She refused to show it to me, wouldn’t look at me, even after she had cooled down and changed into a black dress and black tights. And later, at the service when Sophia was at the podium speaking, looking dignified and calm, I didn’t miss the pointed lines: Popo never settled for anything—a dishonest conversation, a film not quite true to the book, a slightly false display of emotion. Popo wouldn’t allow people to put words in my mouth.

It was a wonderful speech. Lulu’s was too; she had spoken with great perceptiveness and poise for a ten-year-old. I could just imagine a beaming Florence saying, “I’m bursting.”

On the other hand, Florence was right. The kids were definitely mad at me. But as a Chinese mother, I put that out of my head.

 




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