Teri’s Notebook: Happiest birthdays are sometimes the worst

I was talking this week to a friend about children’s birthdays. As a parent, he felt a lot of responsibility to make it a special day, and a lot of guilt and disappointment when it didn’t turn out as planned. And they should be special days.

But it got me thinking about my own childhood birthdays, most of which blend in with all the faded images of a happy youth.

But there are a couple that stand out. The first one is my fourth birthday. I remember it because my dad gathered my older sister and I up in our sleeping bags and carried us out — like gunny sacks over his shoulder — in the middle of the night to take us to our aunt and uncle’s house.

The next day — my birthday — my mom had my younger sister, which I like to call the birthday gift that keeps giving.

My aunt, in the days before Pinterest and the Internet, made me a birthday cake in the shape of a hot air ballon, using licorice string to connect the balloon to the basket.

The second one I vividly remember is when I turned 8. My older sister stayed home sick from school that day and my two little sisters were too young to go.

So when a huge snowstorm rolled in that day, I was left alone snowed out. The school bus could drive me the 45 miles north of Elko, but the seven-mile dirt road to my home was buried deep.

Instead, I got dropped off at the Haystack Ranch a few miles away, a sort of satellite ranch to the Saval Ranch my dad managed at the time. It was closer to the highway and Emory, a hired hand, picked me up and brought me back with him to the bunk house.

Emory had worked for my dad when he managed the T Lazy S Ranch outside of Battle Mountain, and followed him when he moved to the Saval.

Emory, I think, had polio as a child, which left him with one leg significantly shorter and skinnier than the other.

He was good with horses — and children, even if he didn’t consider himself so.

We spent an awkward evening together, I’m sure hanging out with an 8-year-old girl was not his idea of fun. Before he went to bed — in a quilted vest for some reason — I told him I was scared to sleep alone.

So he turned the television on with no sound, and I watched MASH reruns until it faded into static, which my sisters and I referred to as ants running across the screen.

As snow continued to fall that night and into the next morning, I wasn’t sure how long I’d be staying at the Haystack. But late that morning, my dad showed up, looking like the abominable snowman and smelling like diesel fuel, on a snowmobile.

It took us most of the day to make it back home, having to stop several times to dig the snowmobile out. But when we got home, my mom had a birthday dinner and cake ready.

She kept apologizing for my ruined birthday, but more than 30 years later, it’s among my most clear, and most fond, memories.

So maybe what we see as perfect or a failure isn’t really so, especially in the eyes of a child.

Teri Vance is a journalist, freelance writer and native Nevadan. Contact her with column ideas at terivance@rocketmail.com.


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