The Birthday Season

Engagement ringMy mom and dad got married on September 17, 1955, and my brother George was born eleven months later on August 4, 1956. And the other six of us arrived one at a time over the next eight years: Jana on November 19, 1957; then me on December 19, 1958; Susan on April 9, 1960; Mike on September 17, 1961 (yes, child #5 came on anniversary #6); Sally on July 24, 1963 and finally Cathy on December 7, 1964.

Birthdays were pretty spread out, with only Cathy and me sharing a month.

Yes, we each had a special day to celebrate. And today is mine, December 19, 2014. I am 56 today.

But the name of this blog is “The Birthday Season.” And because my birthday is so close to Christmas, I celebrate a birthday season and not just a day. Let me tell you why.

My birthday and Christmas are intertwined.

1958: Jana, Baby Julie, George

1958: Jana, Baby Julie, George

I was always told that my real due date was closer to Christmas than the 19th, but Mom and Dad wanted me home from the hospital in time for Christmas Eve at Grandpa and Grandma Piskac’s house, so I was induced. (Amazingly enough, new mothers and their babies used to stay in the hospital for several days, even a week or more. Now they send them home practically the hour after birth!)

My birth announcement inside the 1958 Christmas card.

My birth announcement inside the 1958 Christmas card.

And so the very first celebration of my birth was Christmas Eve, 1958. And as I look back, I think that is very special. I have a birthday celebrated over the course of days from the 19th of December to the 24th.

1956: Baby George (this is the only one that is an actual original photo)

1956: Baby George (this is the only one that is an actual original photo)

My mom and dad used to create their own Christmas cards every year. My dad was a printer after all. It’s not so unusual in this day and age to do that with electronic files and digital printing, but back in the days of letterpresses and newspapers cuts, it was quite a process. I have copies of most of those cards.

1957: George, Baby Jana

1957: George, Baby Jana

The only one I am missing (and it makes me very sad) is the one from 1964 when Cathy would make her first appearance. I am working on finding one.

I always loved these cards when I was older. I inherited the boxes of old pictures and cards and report cards and communion certificates. There are copies of pictures of us with good face shots. Some of the copies are missing the heads as they were used as the pictures that Daddy would use to make the printing plates or cuts.

1959: Jana, George, Julie (no new babies this year.)

1959: Jana, George, Julie (no new babies this year.)

Years later when Jana and I became roommates we decided to revive the tradition. We have a whole series of similar cards with our heads cut into Christmas scenes along with our two dogs.

But let me get back to my birthday (she said selfishly).

1960: Baby Susan, Julie, Jana, George

1960: Baby Susan, Julie, Jana, George

Today is my birthday, the beginning of my birthday season.

In 2001, my idea of a birthday season was reinforced when I spent the Friday night of my birthday week with a new person. Steve.

1961: Baby Mike, Susan, Julie, Jana, George

1961: Baby Mike, Susan, Julie, Jana, George

My birthday was on Wednesday that year, but who goes out for a birthday date on a Wednesday? Steve had made plans to take me to a wonderful, expensive, dress-up kind of restaurant on Friday to celebrate my birthday. We went to the Flatiron, a dark, romantic place, with Christmas lights twinkling inside and out. We had wine. We had duck. It was just divine.

1962: George, Jana, Julie, Susan, Mike (no new babies this year)

1962: George, Jana, Julie, Susan, Mike (no new babies this year)

And then he took me to his house to give me a birthday present. It was a Christmas CD of the Trans Siberian Orchestra.

“I remember that you said ‘O Holy Night’ is your favorite carol and it’s on this CD,” he said.

“I love that song! Thank you so much. I can’t wait to get home to listen,” I replied.

I was sitting on his sofa, marveling that someone like Steve would give me a birthday present of a CD with my favorite Christmas carol. It’s good to have a birthday season!

And the next moment he was on his knee.

1963: George, Jana, Julie, Susan, Mike, Baby Sally

1963: George, Jana, Julie, Susan, Mike, Baby Sally

“Actually, I got you something else to go with it. It comes with a question.”

And then that ring with a bright blue piece of the sky was on my finger.

“I was wondering if you would marry me?” was the question.

“Pinch me. Real hard.” I replied “And then ask me again.”

He did both. And I said yes.

That was thirteen years ago, and tonight we are going back to the Flatiron to celebrate my birthday in the midst of my birthday season.

I look back at all those old Christmas cards and marvel that the little girl whose picture showed up in the 1958 card, who made her entrance before Christmas so she could celebrate as part of a family, is the same woman with the piece of sky on her finger, in love with a saint who shares her life every day. Somehow all those years later he has kept up my birthday season and made it even that much more special and sparkly.

And all I can say is, “Happy birthday to me.” And it is. And I am, happy, that is.

And I’m ready to celebrate.

‘Tis the season.

The Christmas Card


The Christmas Tree by Alan Beck

Jana's Christmas card 1976You’ll remember me as I look tonight –
In my Christmas dress, shimmering with tinsel,
Gay with brightness,
A star at my head and presents at my feet.
Through the window pane my gaiety is a bit of Christmas Spirit
even for the passer-by.
You’ll remember me in my Christmas dress.

But I’m remembering last Christmas.
From the North came a sifting of snowflakes
for my holiday decoration.
A red fox paused near my feet, sniffing the cold,
Then hurried on across the white meadow.
My presents, a pair of finches huddling close in my branches.
For a carol, only the hooting of an owl.
And overhead a million stars to light my Christmas night.

The card was homemade, with a silkscreen graphic of a simple Christmas tree. It was done in two layers: the green tree on a blue card stock, and the red ornaments, tree stand and yellow star on onionskin attached and overlaid on the blue. It has a handwritten note on the right and back panels next to where this poem is neatly printed and attached separately. It is dated December 8, 1976. It is a Christmas note from Jana to Aunt Sr. Carolyn when she was home for the winter break during her sophomore year at Iowa State.

It reads like this:

Dear Sr. Carolyn,

It may have taken me a while, but I am at last answering your letter!

I ended up with an “A” in my physics class, which I still don’t quite believe, but I’m nonetheless proud of it.

I changed my major to Leisure Services (alias Recreation) at the beginning of this quarter. Hopefully it won’t change again before I graduate!

Not much exciting is going on around here. While I was home I got my driver’s license – finally! My first “solo” driving job came about 3 hours after I got it! Some nerd hit our dog with their car and didn’t bother to stop. Since no one else was home, I had to run him to the vet. He was really lucky. He only had to have part of his tail amputated, and his foot bandaged for a while. That’s all the major news from the front!

Take care and have a super Christmas!

Love, Sprout

It came to me in another envelope of memories from Aunt Carolyn this week. There is another longer letter Jana wrote to her in 1982 that I will share at another time, but I wanted to share this one because of the memories it jogs for me, and the question it begs from me.

It is so Jana! Handmade. Silkscreened. In her time at ISU (1975-1980) she silkscreened so many pieces like this. She belonged to something called the Hawkeye Recreatory and every year the cover of their annual looked something like this card. It was a craft she learned in Girl Scouts and always loved. She had made her own silkscreen frame, so she could make her own cards and stationery. She’s a printer’s daughter after all!

The poem she quoted about the Christmas tree reminds me of a story we learned years later called “Alfie, the Christmas Tree.” John Denver wrote that story and you can just picture the tree in a glorious winter life on the mountain or in the meadow, offering its own worship to the creator who made it, in celebration of his incarnation at Christmas. Oh how Jana loved – and still loves! – the mountains and the meadows. That’s what drew her to Colorado.

The quick note in her neat handwriting brings back that fall and winter of 1976. Jana had refused to take driver’s education in high school and so was forbidden by our dad from getting her driver’s license and driving the family car. “It’s stupid!” she declared in her sure-of-everything Jana way. Somehow it wasn’t so stupid once she went to Ames for college. She took it there and thought it was great, worthwhile even. I was drafted to drive┬áthe car out to her one day when I had a day off of high school here in Omaha so she could take her driving test and get her license in Ames. (I didn’t think driver’s ed was stupid. I took it in the summer before my sophomore year and passed, enabling me to get my driver’s license in 1974! I could drive Jana when she was a senior in high school, but she couldn’t drive me.) Through a series of Three Stooges-like events, our car didn’t pass the inspection in Iowa. We got the problem taken care of (headlight was out!) and by the time we got Jana back to the testing station, it was closed. My trip to Ames went for nought and Jana was, let me say, not amused. But several weeks after that, Jana borrowed a friend’s car, took the test and passed.

That must have happened right before she came back to Omaha on a quick trip. She probably got a ride into Omaha from a friend, and so her first solo ride was in our VW squareback with the Road Runner sticker on the back. We all took turns driving that car, including Mike, who I have said before was driving it before any of us…and he wasn’t doing it with license or parental permission at his tender age of 13.

But I digress!

The dog I remember well: Tiny, our little chihuahua/terrier mix. I remember him making his way home in terrible condition, his foot in tatters and his tail hanging by a thread. I didn’t remember that Jana took him to the vet, but obviously she did from this note written at the time. He was bandaged up and had just a stump of a tail after that. He still wagged it just as hard when any of us came home. He was such a good dog. He paid the price for our lack of pet responsibility seven Christmases later when he was hit by another car on Christmas Eve. That was when Jana was back living at home, ten months after the train hit her. And we were all devastated.

Even through the sad images this card conjures up in my brain, I look at it and smile. Jana was always good about writing to SAC and keeping her in tune with what was happening in her life. Ames wasn’t that far from Dubuque where SAC lived, and Jana took many trips that way during her five years at ISU.

And the card is just so…Jana. The writing is neat. Her humor in telling a story is there. Her blunt honesty (nerd!) shines through. She doesn’t hold back. She has found her calling in leisure services, a way to live in the mountains and meadows and make a life from it.

There is also something that is not in the card: an expression of the faith that Jana came to call on sometime in her years at ISU. Sometime after this Christmas of 1976, Jana discovered that she did love God, and he loved her. I don’t know when, or how, or through whom, but someday I hope to learn. Because ultimately it was Jana who gave that gift back to me.

And so here on a day in September, I am experiencing a little out-of-season Christmas. Jana is sitting right here in the room with me and through Sr. Carolyn’s intermediary powers, has given me this gift from across the years.

And in the irony and happenstance of life, I am the one driving her once again. It’s the least I can do in response to the greater gift she has given me.

Merry Christmas!