I don’t remember a lot about our family traditions. I think that’s because we didn’t have a lot of them. But there is one that I remember with love and excitement and a feeling that it was done just right — birthdays.
The night before my brother’s or my birthday, we’d go to sleep as usual. When we woke up the next morning there would be a card table set up next to our bed, piled with colorful wrapped presents and a birthday cake. And it had all happened when we were sleeping. When I was little, I suppose I must have thought that gnomes or elves or birthday fairies had crept in and done it. But when I was older, I’d lie awake in bed waiting till my parents came in, willing myself not to fall asleep. Usually that didn’t work. But there was one time that it did.
It was late when my door opened quietly and a sliver of light from the hall shone in my room. I shut my eyes tightly as I heard my parents comes in, heard the creak of the metal legs of the card table as they unfolded it and the rustle of paper as they covered it with a paper tablecloth. I heard the sound of their tiptoed footsteps as they crept back out. Then nothing.
Through my eyelids I could feel the slant of light in my room. That meant they hadn’t closed my door yet. Did I dare open my eyes? Good thing I decided to keep them tightly closed, because in a minute they were back.
More rustling of paper as they put things on the table. Not “things,” I thought. Presents. My presents. I was tingling with excitement and dying to open my eyes. But hard as it was, I kept my eyes shut until I heard a strange noise. I could have sworn I heard giggling. I listened carefully. This wasn’t a sound I’d heard a lot from my parents. They were not gigglers. But there it was again, definitely giggling.
I wanted to open my eyes but I kept them closed, scrunching them up tightly as a rich smell began to waft my way. I knew what that meant and fought the tug of the smile at my lips.
There were some whispered words in German and more rustling of paper. WHAT were they doing? Finally, when I couldn’t stand it for one more minute, I had to open my eyes, the door closed behind them and they were gone. Silence. Behind my eyelids I felt the darkness settle back into my room. I waited a minute then opened my eyes.
In the darkness, I saw colorful wrapped presents of different shapes on the card table covered with a pink paper tablecloth; cards in white envelopes shone in the darkness; there was a vase of flowers that I couldn’t quite see, (often tulips because it was April) and, best of all, a chocolate Sacher Torte, decorated with pink roses and unlit birthday candles.
I sat up and peered at them all in the darkness as I fought with myself, wanting to unwrap the presents, read the envelopes and see who they were from, taste the cake. But I really didn’t want to spoil my surprise. So I forced myself to close my eyes again and fell asleep to the warm, rich smell of chocolate.
When I woke up the next morning, my parents and my brother came in, said Happy Birthday, watched me open presents and lit the birthday cake candles. Then, as always, we all had Sacher Torte for breakfast.