"Happy birthday to you ... happy birthday to you ... "
The voices were quiet, partly out of consideration for the sleepiness of the birthday girl, who was being roused, and partly because some of the singers were themselves semicatatonic from their own recent awakening.
"Oh — thank you darlings — "
The three girls arrayed themselves at the end and along one side of the bed, looking expectant. The boy smiled wanly, fell across the bed and lapsed into a coma.
"Well, this is nice," I said groggily, struggling to prop myself up under blankets pinned down by 16 years' worth of adolescent male.
A smoky fragrance wafted across the room. "Here's your coffee," said my husband, placing the sacred beverage on my bedside table.
Breakfast in bed may be a great luxury, but when you are a parent and it is your birthday (or Mother's or Father's day), it is an indulgence that requires you to have your wits about you so that everyone has a good time — particularly the young people who are giving you the early morning treat.
It is easy to hurt a child's feelings by failing to be warm or enthusiastic enough when accepting their gifts, as I knew all too well from my own childhood. Once I had presented my mother with a lavish bouquet of flowers made with pink Kleenex and pipe cleaners that, for verisimilitude, I had spritzed heavily with cheap cologne. Thrusting this reeking gift into my mother's face, I had yelled, "Happy Mother's Day!"
How did she react? My mother yields to no parent or grandparent in her ecstasies over handmade cards, macaroni necklaces and lumpy clay pots. But on this occasion, surprised by the aromatic assault, she had reared back and made a face of disgust. Poor her! Poor me! My 11-year-old self burst into tears, ran away and hid outside for a good 45 minutes before I was able to forgive my unhappy parent. The experience, as you can imagine, was formative, and so, on this birthday morning, I was prepared not only genuinely to appreciate my children's gifts, but to make sure they knew it.
"May I go first?" asked the 7-year-old. She held a piece of loose-leaf paper and looked grave.
"Of course, sweetie."
With an expression of deep concentration, she looked at the paper and sang: "Happy birthday ... may this be the best day of the year ... you are so sweet and gentle, too ... I love you so much, I really do ... so let's all join hands because we love you, cha-cha-cha!"
"That's beautiful, thank you!"
"I wrote it myself," she said modestly, handing me the lyrics. (These read, in part: "Lats all jony hans case we love you." )
"I love it."
The teenage boy cracked an eye and said, "Mummy, my present still needs tweaking, so I'll give it to you later."
"Oh no worries, darling," I said lightly, to spare his feelings in case he'd actually forgotten the occasion and was covering it up. As a person for whom other people's birthdays always seem to come as a sudden surprise on the calendar, I knew very well how unpleasant this feels. Still, a future wife might not be as understanding as a current mother, so I made a mental note to emphasize to him the prudence of preparation, for later.
"Now mine," said the 11-year-old. She had made a beautiful card decorated with hearts, flowers, a smiley face and exquisite black-ink line drawings of birds in flight. Inside, the message wished me — bless you, child! — a happy 20th birthday. With this came a hand-lettered promissory note for one Starbucks coffee.
"Yum!" I said, hugging her.
"And mine," said the 13-year-old, whose handmade card appeared to be some kind of contract. When I opened it, coupons fell out.
"Good for 5 strange juices!" said the first coupon, which depicted a glass of sinister carbonated liquid. "Good for 1 yoga class with ME!" said the other.
"What a thoughtful gift," I said, grinning. "So, for my birthday, I get to watch you drink five strange juices from our juicer?"
"Even kale," she said nobly.
"Yecch," said her sister, "you're not getting that present from me!"
We all laughed at that.
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.