B-days, bugs and beef bouillon
February 28, 2008
While visiting the Internet ” known as “the Insomniac’s Friend” in my household ” the other night, I came across the holy grail of radio treasure: a mother lode of several hundred recordings of Jean Shepherd’s radio shows from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, archived, no doubt, by fellow insomniacs.
I pulled up one of the shows ” it didn’t matter which one, I knew I couldn’t go wrong ” and settled into the warm, friendly sound of Shepherd’s oddly heart-tugging voice, telling tales of his childhood in Hohman, Ind., during the years of the depression.
To me, it’s an amazing thing that people can go back and actually physically revisit their childhood, as Shepherd used to do, walking back into the past by simply taking a few steps into an elementary school, an ice cream shop, a neighborhood bar.
If you grew up in Atlanta in the 1960s and 1970s, then recalling your childhood is like remembering a place that seems to have never existed. Atlanta has changed so much in the last few decades, it’s virtually unrecognizable from the city where I grew up. Even my first two schools, comprising my entire elementary school career, have vanished.
But I digress. As I sat, hunched over the friendly glow of my computer screen during my three a.m. wakefest, Jean Shepherd’s voice came reassuringly over my friend the internet, and posed a thought-provoking question for his listeners:
“What’s the first birthday you can remember?”
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Boy, could I answer that one! And how timely it was too, with my birthday coming up this Saturday. The question opened up a floodgate of memories, of birthdays spent in exotic locales, or either alone in front of a TV with a small furry animal next to me on the sofa, sharing the birthday fried chicken.
I have to admit, like most of us, I’ve had some wonderful birthdays in my life. There was the one I spent when I was performing on a Swedish cruise ship, many years ago. The casino girls dragged me down to the crew disco and, in accordance with Swedish tradition, poured a bottle of champagne over my head at the stroke of midnight.
My most memorable birthday of all, with the most lasting repercussions, occurred on a cruise ship as well. Five years ago, on my birthday, I met the man who would, a scant three weeks later, become my husband.
Since that occurrence, I’ve tended to view birthdays in a prospective, optimistic vein. Getting a husband for my birthday ” especially when I really wasn’t looking for one at the time ” was, and still is, to me, the ultimate gift, hard to top at any price.
But to answer Jean Shepherd’s question, my first real, sustainable birthday memory comes from when I was just turning 5 years old.
Before that, I do recall, with the help of some rapidly fading Polaroid black-and-white photos, a series of birthdays with my brother and me sitting in our flannel pajamas at the kitchen table, surrounded by wrapped packages and white poodles ” our surrogate parents in all our baby photos.
Oddly enough, in the Polaroid photos that survive, the dogs are not eyeing the huge decorated birthday cake in the middle of the table, but are looking straight into the camera and smiling.
That’s because they were show poodles, trained to pose at the drop of the hat, always aware that the unseen audience came first. Besides, they knew that they would get heaping platefuls of cake and ice cream after the picture taking was over, washed down with gulps of milk from our pink and blue plastic cups, which they shared with me and my brother in those unhygienic days.
As I said, my first real sustainable birthday memory occurred when I was four going on 5, because right before my birthday I had come down with “something.” I seem to have astounded the medical community with a stomach bug, unidentifiable to this day, that was so severe and even frightening in its repercussions, it kept me in bed for six weeks.
While there, I was allowed to eat nothing but cottage cheese, saltine crackers, Jello and beef bouillon. While not nibbling on this pallid combination, I spent the rest of my time reading “Little Women.”
I suspect the experience probably colored the rest of my life in subtle, yet earth-shattering ways. For instance, thanks to my reading material, it was years before I could get myself out of the Victorian period, either in my literary or my real-life tastes.
After six weeks, cottage cheese, saltines, beef bouillon and Jello ” even the tempting red variety ” pall considerably on the five-year-old palate. And worst of all, when my birthday rolled around, I couldn’t have any birthday cake.
I recall sitting up in bed, despondent over my Jello, saltines, etc., while my mother told me that we would have to postpone the cake and ice cream part of my birthday until later. When you’re five, a thing like that stays in your memory.
While I wasn’t allowed out of bed, it was nevertheless deemed safe for me to open my presents ” which I do recall were wonderful that year. Nothing like a sick kid for parents to come up trumps with the gifts ” although, to be fair, my parents were always great gift-givers.
The highlight that year, I remember, was one of those big gift packages displaying a vinyl doll with a blonde ponytail ” complete with a wardrobe and vanity set. She got me out of “Little Women” and back into the modern world for a while, which was probably just as well. I was beginning to talk funny, even for a 5 year old.
Every birthday no matter where I am, or how I am, or what I’m doing, I still remember that little doll. I also remember white poodles and pink rose-decorated cakes, which for some reason tasted better back then than they do now.
Unfortunately, I also remember the lingering taste of beef bouillon, red Jello and cottage cheese and saltines. I don’t suppose that the subtle tincture of bouillon cubes will ever go away, no matter how many birthday cakes may still be in my future.