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I Remember Birthdays

I remember that I asked for a steak dinner for my 5th birthday. That gave my parents license to plan a menu they’d love, too. Daddy told me there was a gift inside my artichoke. I eagerly savored the leaves in anticipation of the teensy little wrapped box, topped with a golden bow, that I was just SURE would be inside. Instead, I discovered what a delicacy is upon eating my first artichoke heart. But the truth is there is no gift as valuable as the precious memory of my father tenderly passing on his love of food to me one taste of hollandaise sauce at a time.

My 6th birthday he bakes me a cake and decorates it perfectly. “Happy Birthday Erin” with a shamrock and an Irish flag. Hardly a princess cake. I was so lucky. I was named for a country and born to poets. I don’t remember a thing about my party, but I will never forget that cake.

My 18th birthday party dad wants to make his famous beer belly chili. He prints banners off of his Corel draw program proclaiming my emancipation in at least 10 languages complete with flags for each country. His own beer belly cutting a bulbous silhouette as he mock conducts the classical music blaring through the house. These gestures were de rigueur if he was cooking for a party. The real show stopper of that meal was Joe’s bread. Everybody loved Duffy’s food, especially Joe’s bread.

My 21st birthday I choose to spend with my family instead of boozing it up in a bar with pals. I have a new man in my life and my parents have never visited us at our new apartment. My sister drives over from the town she lives in. We enjoy dinner at a fine restaurant, the same place my beau and I met. I thought the weekend was lovely. Mother reports to me that my father was apoplectic on the drive back home, saying “This relationship is much more serious than I thought!” He was right. I married that man.
My 25th birthday, I call home. He doesn’t even remember it is my birthday. I let him talk for 45 minutes about some bullshit before I call him out on it. He didn’t even try to act sheepish. He would be dead in another 5 years. We couldn’t know what was coming, but that should have been a clue.

I turn 36 in my childhood home. Everyone is dead. Mom, Dad, Uncle Dan, Aunt Susan. I keep thinking that I am 18 twice now. I feel emancipated in an entirely different way this time. That birthday was spent styling food and taking photos for the cookbook. Carol, my second mother has prepared the meal. Our family friends, mom and dad’s stalwart fixtures, people who have known me my entire life are gathered around the table. Together we are able to invoke their presence. Everybody loved Duffy’s food, but they loved Duffy’s hospitality even more. For a few fleeting moments that night they are present. Dad conducting an invisible symphony in between telling bad jokes in great accents and mom over my shoulder, hand on my hand as I cut the cake on my own now.

Erin Duffy Osswald | Great Falls, Montana

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