Sunday, we celebrated my wife's birthday for the 30th time as a couple. And for the 30th straight year, I came up short.
The problems revolve around bad timing. While it might not be as burdensome as having a birthday on Christmas Day, Sept. 11 or even Valentine's Day, a birthday on Aug. 3 never has been ideal for Cheryl. As a little kid, her summer birthday meant she never got to celebrate in school with a tray of Rice Krispies treats and the fawning of an entire classroom. When she grew older, the freedom that comes from having her birthday when there is no school clashed with friends' family vacations and the crush of summer activities.
Meeting me made her birthday even worse. Since we started dating, Cheryl's birthday has competed with a Constable family annual tradition that has been going on since 1895. Her birthday falls during the two weeks that bring all of us Constables (and Cheryl) to the Fountain Park Chautauqua outside the rural hamlet of Remington, Ind. Finding a moment during Fountain Park to acknowledge her birthday has proved tricky.
Some years, we'd escape to whatever eatery was deemed the finest restaurant in rural Hoosierland. Then we'd return to my family's rustic Fountain Park cottage, where we'd retire to an antique bed with an equally antique mattress in an upstairs bunk room shared with our three kids, my siblings, nieces and nephews and the occasional in-laws.
My family wasn't all that big on birthday celebrations. The most memorable birthday of my childhood came a couple of days after watching my grandfather die unexpectedly in front of me while I was playing on the floor. The shock of witnessing that trauma resulted in Mom letting me grab a bag of those green, plastic Army men from a rack near the grocery register as a present for my birthday as she and Dad went to the visitation and left me to "celebrate" my birthday with my Aunt Betty and Uncle Gene.
My wife, however, has given me wonderful birthday memories. She threw a surprise 30th birthday party for me that blended friends from different stages of my life, included my parents and couldn't have been more perfect. Three years later, the surprise 30th birthday party I organized for her suffered from poor execution, the most memorable being that I forgot to invite one of her dear college friends from Buffalo Grove who was a bridesmaid for our wedding and even helped get me the addresses of friends whom I didn't forget to invite.
For my 50th birthday, Cheryl planned a surprise getaway to Charleston, S.C. Booking the flights and hotel room and making reservations at restaurants, she even arranged my time off work during surreptitious communications with my bosses at the Daily Herald.
For her 50th birthday party, I had good intentions. While researching options to see if I possibly could surprise her with a long weekend in Paris, I learned that my younger brother, Bill, was dying of bile-duct cancer. Instead of a birthday dinner on the Left Bank with a marvelous view of the Seine, Cheryl celebrated her birthday at a suburban Italian place with our three sons. I made it back from Bill's hospital room just in time to see her blow out the candle on her dessert on a night no one wanted to celebrate.
For decades, I gave Cheryl presents that were more for me than for her. All the advertisements led me to believe that women loved small pieces of clothing with wires, zippers and odd patches of leather, Spandex and Velcro. Even the year that I went to her favorite store, I managed to pick out a garment that was black, silky, sleeveless, had buttons and was impossible to wear. When Cheryl went to the store to exchange it, the clerks admitted they were clueless as to what the thing was, but they thought it might have been the tuxedo vest Jennifer Beals wore in "Flashdance."
This year, I got Cheryl a sweater, which looks great on her and still manages to be comfy. During our laid-back celebration, we watched a couple of episodes of Season 4 of "Breaking Bad" and played a few games of online Scrabble. I made her a birthday eve dinner of scallops and healthy whole-grain linguine. I followed that up with an apple-pancake birthday breakfast, minus the bacon I forgot in the rush as our older sons departed for the last day of Lollapalooza. She assured me that her birthday celebration was swell.
But my real gift to her is the satisfaction I hope she takes in knowing that birthday celebrations in our house are the same as our games of Scrabble. I try really hard, and my wife always will be better at both.