February is my least favourite month. Everything about it is wrong. It is the runt of the calendar’s litter. But it survives despite its’ twenty-eight, short dark days (and just to be difficult, twenty-nine in a leap year to nudge that little extra bit of winter). As soon as Wharton Willy makes his appearance and determines whether I will be depressed for six more weeks or whether Mother Nature will bless me with an early Spring, the inescapable dread of shopping for family birthday presents starts to grip me.
My mother and two older twin sisters, Sarah and Kyla, were born on February 20th and 21st. There was an orchestrated karmic wand that allowed this trifecta to exist. The thirty-two-year age difference was a small obstacle for this trinity of likeness with their lithe bodies, strawberry blonde hair and hazel eyes just like my mother. The equilibrium of my parent’s home became unbalanced upon my unexpected arrival when the twins were seven. Not only did I arrive alone in the midday heat of August, I came out short and stocky with dark curly hair like my father instead of the preferred likeness of my mother. I became daddy’s little girl by default. My Leo and his Libra were a formidable duo, riding bikes, playing tennis and in quieter moments snuggled in blankets on the couch watching Hockey Night in Canada, my dad drinking beer while I drank ginger ale.
Since I was nine, I have been obsessed with finding the perfect birthday presents for my mother and sisters. My frugal offerings were received with mixed enthusiasm but I persisted in my efforts to be accepted into their tribe. When I turned twenty, I started saving money from my job as a cashier at the local grocery store so I could bestow more lavish gifts. Acceptance was a costly endeavour. As the February that my sisters turned thirty crawled into view, I dutifully rose above my hatred of shopping and reluctantly walked to the mall. I was welcomed by the harshness of fake lights as I entered the bright, cheery stores.
My first stop was the Dollar Store for cards. After reading countless “Happy Birthday to a Loving Mother” and “To a Special Sister”, I found three cards which were not too cheesy, not too insulting, and not too sweet. Next stop, jewellery store. I had decided on jewellery, even though I did not understand the need to be constantly adorned. My sisters were both accountants in their own firm and my mother worked as the Human Resources Manager at the University of British Columbia. Wardrobe and trinkets can transform an ordinary woman into a superwoman, according to the tenets of my mother. I have never understood what is wrong with being an ordinary woman.
As soon as I passed the threshold of the jewellery store, an overly pleasant middle-aged woman with short blond hair and a perfectly pressed black pant suit sidled up to me with a pasted-on smile and a curt “May I help you?”.
“Yes, I’m looking for three necklaces, for family birthday presents. Not too expensive and I want to be able to pick the colors of the stones”
At the “not too expensive,” the salesperson directed me to a display case near the back of the store. “These Birthstone Family Tree necklaces are quite popular. They have a sterling silver chain with birthstones placed on the branches of the tree, which hangs inside the oval pendant. They are $89.99 each but if you buy three I’m sure I can give you a discount,” she rattled off with an unenthusiastic tone. I think she doubted my ability to pay after sizing up my unkempt hair, tattered grey hoodie, well-worn jeans, and dirty sneakers.
“That sounds perfect,” I replied, proud I had stumbled upon these gifts so easily.
“What color of stones do you want and how do you want them arranged?”
“Three amethysts and one peridot. Put the peridot in the middle of the centre branch surrounded by the amethysts in a semi-circle.” I smiled at the thought of finally being in the center of my family.
I paid and left as fast as I could, almost sprinting into the outdoors. I daydreamed about my mother and sisters overjoyed with my unique gifts.
My mother had planned a birthday dinner at her condominium– just the girls, she said. I don’t think she had much patience for Sarah’s twin two-year old boys or Kyla’s six-month old baby girl. Mom never embraced the messiness of grandchildren. She had also given up cooking family meals, so Chinese takeout with lots of wine became our dinner plans. I decided to add an extra layer of surprise to my birthday presents by baking a Duncan Hines Chocolate Fudge cake with ready-made frosting. Not fancy, but it’s the thought that counts, right?
Although I arrived on time for the party, my mother, Sarah and Kyla were already well into the festivities. My mother thanked me for the dessert as she led me through the kitchen but said she would probably freeze it as she had decided to special order a lemon sponge cake with cream cheese icing and white chocolate shavings.
“It’s ok,” I said, feeling somewhat deflated before I even ventured into the living room. Sarah and Kyla were huddled together on the leather couch, high heels off and feet tucked under them. My mother soon joined them at the other end of the couch. I sat across from them in the worn recliner my father used to fall asleep in. It was the only reminder of my dad in the house.
Seeing that chair always brought me back to the last time I saw my dad, just a few months before my ninth birthday. My mother and sisters had gone shopping and my dad had taken our dog and small aluminum boat to launch at the nearby dock for fishing. It was a postcard clear, blue-sky June day. He asked me to go with him but I came up with an excuse as I was secretly making us friendship bracelets. I was planning to give him his bracelet in September as a birthday gift. I finished the bracelets that day, weaving his favourite colors of green and brown through wooded beads. Neither of us ever wore them.
My mother burst through the back door of our house shortly after lunch, ashen-faced with mascara tears, my sisters silent and equally ashen behind her. She had gotten a call from my dad’s friend, Rick, who was out fishing when he heard a distress call for a drifting boat. Rick said dad must have had a major heart attack and died instantly. I had a heart attack that day too, but instead of dying I momentarily disintegrated. Amid the chaos of a house blown down, no one seemed to notice my disappearance. I reappeared after tightly tying the bracelets together and placing them gently under my sobbing wet pillow. I still cannot sleep unless those bracelets are curled together under my head.
The hurricane of grief that battered my family left me standing alone behind an emotional fence. Even after our household repaired itself, my mother and sisters treated me like an object found among the wreckage. Something you take home and care for out of proprietary obligation. This did not quell my yearning to weave myself into their inner circle. I laughed and cried with them but the subtle glances without words they exchanged did not include me. I quickly learned lions cannot swim with fish. I wanted to hike the outdoors and swim in the lake. My mother and sisters wanted to hike the malls and suntan on the sand with their makeup on.
My memories were interrupted by Sarah’s sarcastic greeting of “Hi twerp.” I shot a half scowl towards her. “Why are you so late?” Kyla added
“I’m not, I was told 6 pm.”
“Oops, my fault,” my mother piped in. “I called Sarah and Kyla yesterday to come at 5;00 instead. I meant to call you too, but it must have slipped my mind. You know how that happens sometimes.”
“Sure,” I said, half-heartedly.
The doorbell rang for the Chinese food delivery. After eating spring rolls, ginger beef and Shanghai noodles we cleared off the coffee table for gifts. I added my store wrapped boxes to the pile. The three of them opened their presents simultaneously, like a well-executed theatrical performance, everyone connected and in sync. I eagerly awaited the praise for my thoughtfulness.
Sarah, as usual, spoke first, “Thanks Annie, very sweet,” she said and quickly set the necklace back inside its box, instinctively closed the lid and stacked it upon the same boxes opened by my mother and Kyla. My mother gave me an air hug with a “thank-you,” and Kyla just smiled at me, exclaiming “how quaint.” They began to chatter hurriedly and excitedly about the pink angora sweaters and miniature diamond bracelets they got each other.
We ate thick pieces of birthday cake while my mother giggled, clinking her glass with Sarah’s and Kyla’s, “To February Birthdays!”
“Annie, since it’s our special day, can you grab more wine from the basement?” Kyla asked somewhat slurring her words. I reluctantly left the coziness of the recliner and retrieved two bottles of white wine. I had always preferred red, but decided to opt for a ginger ale.
I left the three of them to their merriment shortly after, when Sarah yelled from the kitchen, “Come play cards, Annie, I need someone to beat!”
That was the night I decided not to buy presents for my family anymore. I instead started to give them standard gift cards.
Since then, those necklaces have found their way back to me. Kyla died ten years ago in a car accident. Her husband, disheveled with tears running down his lined face, showed up at my apartment after going through her closet and graciously laid the sealed box with the necklace in my hand.
“Please have it,” he said, “in her memory. I don’t think she ever wore it.”
Soon after, Sarah got divorced and moved to Calgary. She sent me her necklace in the mail along with a note, “Hoping you can use it since I’m downsizing and only keeping what’s important.”
My mother now has Alzheimer’s and when I went to see her at the extended care home last week, she wagged her finger playfully at me to come closer. She lifted the blanket on her lap and pulled out a box with the necklace. “Happy Birthday, Annie!” she exclaimed, even though it was not my birthday.
It was only February.
About the Author
Christine Deynaka lives and writes in Nelson, B.C. She takes creative writing courses at Selkirk College.