Today is my birthday. The Winter Solstice. When people tease "the shortest day of the year," I riposte "the longest night." For the first 21 years of my life, I didn't have a name, legally. I'll tell the story the way my deceased mother told me, and like all children, I would always ask for the story of my birth. Do we ever tire hearing it?
I was born in Washington, D.C. during a blizzard. Was it truly a blizzard, and not just a snow storm? I don't know. I was always told "blizzard." My parents had taken my name very seriously, even to the point my mother (in a very old-fashioned sensibility) wanted me to have a "pretty" monogram. Early on they thought about naming me after my paternal grandfather, Jesse. I was to be Jessica. I am glad they dropped the idea, not that I didn't love my grandfather, but I don't think the name would suit me. Who knows, maybe if it was mine, I would have accepted it.
At the time of my birth, it was the rule (And still might be. I don't know.) that babies stayed in the nursery, not in their mother's room. Because there was a blizzard, because it was Christmas, for whatever reason, the maternity ward was not crowded, and I was allowed to remain in the room with my mother, and she found great comfort in this. I always liked the image of us in the room together in a snow storm.
In my family, we always celebrated birthdays with a special dinner, and we always seemed to want the same thing year after year. My mother was born during the time of strawberries, and she had told me that growing up there was always strawberry shortcake for her birthday. At some time in my early twenties, I started making sure we always had some type of strawberry cake for her. My father always wanted beef, and he loved banana pudding like you see on the box of vanilla wafers. He also loved fresh grated coconut cake, and he was in charge of cracking the coconut and grating it. For my brother, it was my mother's lasagna. Since we would normally do turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas, my mother liked doing New York strip steaks for my birthday, and she loved serving peaches she had frozen from summer as part of the dessert.
Not my feets. Mine were smaller. Another no name baby.
So it went. When my 21st birthday approached, my mother asked what I would like to do to mark the event, and I said, "I want us to go to D.C. Vital Records and record my birth." Can you imagine trying to establish your legal name when you have no written proof of a legal name? I teased my mother, and upset her, when I said that I could choose any name that I like. "You wouldn't keep the names that I gave you," she plaintively asked?
Many a time I have wondered about this namelessness and how it has affected my personality. It's a rip in the weave of things. We live and die by documents. Try getting a passport with no name. Try burying someone without a death certificate. Seeing that blank hurt for the longest time, because there was something just so fundamentally careless about it. Birth and death are marked by the proper documentation and gravitas of the moment. We are a nation of paper.
This morning, a friend, knowing this story, was calling me "Baby X" and "Baby ______," as in "What is Baby X going to do for her birthday?" Baby _____ went outside and took a picture of a polar sun in a clouded sky while listening to ice crystals hit dead leaves. Baby X continued to write her Christmas cards that needed letters. Little Miss No Name received calls and well wishes from friends far away. She is about to finally decorate for her long delayed Christmas.
After I have dinner tonight, I will light a candle and make a wish. My mother always told me that she could never view my birthday as just "my day," because in truth it was a day we had shared together. She would say, "We will always be bound by that moment." I'll think about our city covered in swirling snow and remember the day and my mother. We remain bound, Mama.
Labels: birth certificate, birthday, D.C., snow, The Washington Post