More than a day

Barron with birthday presents
Celebration Part One: Barron’s 12th birthday celebration began with cake, ice cream and presents with his grandparents in Sandersville.

It wasn’t that long ago that a birthday was just that – a day.

In the New South, however, we celebrate a person’s birthday for many, many days. I have a theory about why this is: It takes us longer to celebrate birthdays now because of geographic dispersion of family, over-stuffed schedules and the vicious cycle of birthday one-upmanship.

My oldest son, Barron, recently turned 12. Our commemoration of this blessed event began with a Saturday trip to Sandersville to celebrate with Carla’s parents. There was cake, ice cream and presents. My folks live 8-10 hours away. Although they have sacrificially made the drive to be with us on some of the milestone birthdays, we don’t see them on most birthdays.

Grandparents are an important part of birthdays for us, and we have to make the time to go to them. When we lived in Macon, it was no big deal. We might even be able to scoot over to Sandersville for an afternoon. But now that we are in the Atlanta area, it’s a bit more of a commitment and takes some scheduling. When families lived closer together, it wasn’t as much of a challenge getting everyone together for a birthday, but covering the miles takes planning. With our schedule, making a trip to see family causes the birthday season to become elongated.

Barron with birthday card mustache.
Celebration Part Two: Barron’s other grandparents from Florida sent a cool card with a mustache disguise in case all of the birthday mushyness caused him to need a disguise.

This leads me to my second point: birthday celebrations take more than a day now because of our overflowing schedules. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find time to celebrate a birthday, particularly if it happens to fall in the middle of a work/school week.

Barron’s big day occurred on a Wednesday. We acknowledged his actual birthday by opening gifts on that day, but our mid-week church activities took precedence over any celebration. The sad truth is, most of our weeks are a sprint that may have only one or two small openings at night or on a weekend afternoon. And our kids aren’t even involved in sports. That ups the ante even higher.

We ended up celebrating with Barron by going out for pizza and bowling on a Friday. It was fun, and we all enjoyed it, but it was several days removed from Barron’s actual 12th birthday. This brings me to my final point: birthday celebrations have become a season because we feel the need to make each year better than the previous year.

If we started at the first birthday with a candle, a song and a cupcake, this wouldn’t be so bad. But we make the first birthday such a production that by the time kids are old enough to actually remember their birthdays we have to rent bounce houses or invite 30 friends to the gymnastics center or go bowling or play mini-golf or ride ponies or rent a limo or go to Disney World or on and on and on.

Barron at the bowling alley.
Celebration Part Three: Barron celebrates a strike as he dominates the family, including dear old dad, in a game of bowling.

Growing up in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, the birthday destination of choice was Crystal’s Pizza Palace in Irving. As a kid the place seemed massive, and it was the only place to play such arcade game classics as Sea Hunt, Galaxian, Joust and Pacman. I didn’t feel that my parents were under pressure to deliver a bigger and better birthday experience each year. I just wanted to go to Crystal’s.

But these days, it’s a hard pressure to resist. We want desperately to give our kids memorable birthdays. To do this, we sometimes have to schedule the event in increments, like Barron’s this year. It makes for a season of birthday celebration rather than a single day.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m talking about a societal phenomenon that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not like we take enough time to appreciate our loved ones anyway, and I don’t hear anyone complaining about getting too much attention for their birthday.

I just hope we can finish celebrating Barron’s 12th birthday before his 13th rolls around.

Do your birthday celebrations extend past the actual day? How do you handle it? What was your most memorable birthday celebration? Leave a comment and extend this blog beyond a single day.

A foot in two states

Heavy clouds and the threat of rain couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for a trip on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway last Monday for Carlton’s third birthday.

Lance and Carlton on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway
Lance and Carlton inside car 549 on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway

For weeks leading up to the big event, I felt pangs of sentimentality about my youngest son following the same journey as his brothers from toddlerhood to full blown boyhood. I wanted – maybe even needed – this day to be meaningful and memorable.

After a 2-hour circuitous journey from Lilburn to Highway 5 that took us through Forsyth and Cherokee counties, we arrived in the quaint town of Blue Ridge all set for our low-speed adventure.

Thanks to a school holiday there were a few families among the 515 passengers on the full train, but the clientele was mostly seniors, including a group of Lutherans who filled our car. My wife and I had agonized over the decision to purchase seats in a closed car rather than an open air car. As it turned out, we had plenty of opportunity to enjoy both.

With the airbrakes wheeshing and the whistle blowing, the Lutherans belted out a rousing rendition of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” It was value added.

The train covered the 13-mile journey to McCaysville in right at an hour. The leaves weren’t quite at their peak, but we weren’t really looking at the leaves. The boys seemed more interested in the snack bar and the on-board toilet.

I could write an entire essay on the juxtaposition of the hillside mountain homes with the ramshackle houses along the Toccoa River, but let’s just say the scenery was a mix of urban escapism and quaint nostalgia backdropped by an occasional golden- or crimson-leafed hardwood.

When we got to McCaysville, our volunteer hostess, Frances, helped us escape the train before the Lutherans, allowing us to get at the front of the line at Georgia Boy BBQ. After pulled pork sandwiches, slaw, beans and sweet tea, we poked around in the railway’s northern terminus gift shop before following the walking map to McCaysville City Park overlooking the river.

The boys worked out their restlessness, and Carlton met a friend, a boy about his age with the appropriately Southern name of Atticus. They pointed at ducks in the river, enjoyed the slide and swung on their stomachs like toddlers do.

Blue Ridge Scenic Railway engine
Thankfully, the engines don't talk or sing on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway.

We headed back a few minutes before the train gave the four blasts on its whistle to signal the return trip to Blue Ridge. Carrying Carlton, I stopped at the blue dotted line in the parking lot of the IGA grocery store.  Frances had told us it was the state line, separating McCaysville, Ga., from Copper Hill, Tenn.

Deriving an odd thrill, I straddled the line, holding Carlton close.

“Hey, buddy. We’re in two states now,” I said, prompting a puzzled look from the newly-minted three-year-old.

That’s how I felt – a foot in two states. I still wanted to be a parent of a toddler, at least for a day longer, but I knew Carlton was quickly maturing into boyhood.

There would definitely be more monumental birthdays and more significant rites of passage along the way, but for me, this was the moment I had been searching for to validate my grieving the loss of Carlton’s infancy and early childhood.

The ride back was nap inducing, but Carlton sat in my lap and forcibly held my eyelids open. He didn’t want me to miss anything. Though drowsiness almost overtook me, I didn’t want to miss anything either. It all goes by too quickly, even on a slow train.

We concluded the experience with a fried apple pie at Mercier Orchards and set off back toward Atlanta. It had been a good day. The Blue Ridge Scenic Railway provided a journey I’ll cherish for a lifetime.