by Paula Torly
Celebrations of any kind were put on hold as Papa struggled to find a way out of Vienna for the family in 1937. Birthdays came and went without ceremony or observation. It seemed inappropriate to celebrate anything in those perilous times – time which needed to be spent on survival. All our important anniversaries were therefore disregarded without acknowledgment, leaving me wanting something I could not have. Part of me understood why we had all become “have-nots,” but the yearning child in me still had fantasies of being celebrated, or at least acknowledged. We ultimately arrived in America, but birthdays or anniversaries were still not observed.
When I was ten, my longing for a birthday celebration intensified. I decided to allocate my long-saved allowance, plus what I could collect from my father and my sister, to give a birthday party for my mother whose love and appreciation I always longed for. I purchased a cake and other refreshments, set the table with a tablecloth, and invited my mother’s friends, thinking that maybe this would be the day Mama would realize how much I loved her.
She responded typically with her, “You shouldn’t have done it” manner and showed little emotion. Feeling crushed, I decided never to celebrate another birthday, mine or the rest of the family’s.
It was not until I was well into adulthood that I learned and understood why my mother was unable to appreciate being given to. Her parents had treated her more like an inconvenience than the young woman with potential that she was. She never learned that one side of being given to was the other side of receiving with appreciation.
When I married at age seventeen, I soon discovered that my husband was very irregular in observing my birthdays and our wedding anniversaries. Such events had not been a priority in his rather chaotic family of origin. Formalities notwithstanding, he was a very generous man, giving freely to me and to his family. Our earnings, the efforts of our labors, our creativity, were always shared. He regularly gifted me with intimacy in which we shared long satisfying talks about life in general, about our values, and of how we viewed the world and our little slice of it.
Celebrating birthdays became important again with the birth of our only child, a daughter. Family birthdays were then observed with gifts and parties. I also took great pleasure in sewing garments for her. I was determined to show her the love I never received from my mother. As my daughter grew older, she enjoyed taking charge of family celebrations.
Mama was always generous and happy cooking for our family and friends. Woe be until those who did not express strong appreciation for her efforts. However, she had enormous difficulty in giving of herself, such as giving praise instead of criticism. Without awareness, I manifested that trait for a time, until I realized I was being similar to my mother in that withholding tendency. Feeling there might not be enough, I conserved. Happily my daughter grew up to become a generous, caring, and loving woman. She, in turn, raised a fine son.
Looking back, I was able to understand that I had longed to be given that which I could give to myself. The pleasure of giving to myself is empowering. No longer waiting for something that might never be given to me, a new feeling of confidence took place in me, and I became independent.