March 23, 1999
Birthday Cakes & Safety Pins


Daughter #2 turned sixteen over the weekend, and I wasn't there to put the safety pins in her birthday cake.

I wasn't there to throw the White Album onto the turntable at 5:30 a.m., either ... or to scotch-tape balloons to the ceiling fan, or to stick a limp candle into a mound of scrambled eggs, or to participate in the ritual birthday beating ("A pinch to grow an inch! And a sock to grow a block!").

But somehow, missing out on the safety pins gnaws at me more than the rest of it combined.

When I was a kid, Grandma Vert used to hide little *treasures* in our birthday cakes ... a safety pin, a button, a shiny new dime. They were individually wrapped in aluminum foil and tucked deep into the center of the cake before baking. Each foil-wrapped item foretold something about your future. Finding the button in your cake, for instance, meant you would grow up to be beautiful. The dime foretold future wealth (although we always interpreted that to mean we would marry someone rich). And the safety pin, of course, meant you would grow up to be a famous Bay Area punk rock singer.

(OK. I made up that last one. The safety pin meant you were going to marry a famous Bay Area punk rock singer.)

I grant you that it's a little odd, as family traditions go. It can be downright hazardous, too, if an unsuspecting guest isn't aware that the slice of cake sitting on the dessert plate wouldn't make it through an airport metal detector. (Or if no one in the room knows how to perform the Heimlech Maneuver.) And, on top of everything else, it's un-p.c. as all get-out.  Beauty? Marrying into money? Children?  THOSE are the options? How about a miniature pair of ridiculous three-inch heels? A teeny-tiny divorce decree? A little set of handcuffs?   Still, this is one of the few bona fide, passed-down-from-childhood traditions our family has continued through the years. So it has special emotional significance. For most of her life Daughter #2  --  along with the other Tots, and generations of the SecraTerri Family before her  --  has observed her birthday by raking a fork through a hunk of soggy Duncan Hines, looking for the unmistakeable glint of tinfoil.

This year I missed it. By a thousand miles.

And no, this isn't going to turn into one of those mewling, self-indulgent posts all about how much I miss the Tots, and about how tough it is having so many Zip Codes between us, and about how much this noncustodial mom stuff sucks. I made the choices. I live with the consequences. The Tots are growing into perfectly nice people  --  Daughter #2 included  --  and I give myself as much and as little credit as I deserve for that.

But birthdays are tough.

Anyway. This year, in lieu of a "real" birthday gift, Daughter #2 asked for money. She always asks for money, but this year she had a specific reason: her dance team was competing out of town, and she wanted some extra spending money for the trip. So I sent her a big fat check. ("Spend it all on junk food and gaudy souvenirs," I instructed her.) But sending a check wasn't much fun, so one night last week David and I went to the dollar store and filled a shopping basket with cheap, goofy trinkets. Rainbow hair clips. Breath mints wrapped in fake dollar bills. Eyeshadow, and refrigerator magnets, and a keychain with a tiny hairbrush attached to it, and a glorious pair of dangly giraffe earrings. I threw the whole mess into a gift bag, along with a birthday card.

"I'm sorry I can't be there with you,"
I wrote to her. The usual blathering Momisms. "But please know that I'm with you every minute, in my heart."

Taped to the bottom of the card was a safety pin.

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