In the months leading up to my ninth birthday, I relished every shopping trip to the downtown Sears store in Miami because that was where I could stand in the bicycle department and covet the most beautiful bike I'd ever seen. It was a top of the line J.C. Higgins; blue and white, with red detailing. I knew my parents weren't able to afford it for me, but I could still imagine myself riding it in my dreams. I never shared this dream with them - or so I thought.
On my big day, my mother and dad explained that we had to go to Sears to get some tools my dad needed for his job. Once there, however, they walked me straight to the bike area where my secret desire on wheels stood. A salesperson approached us and, in shock - but grinning the entire time - I realized my parents were buying the bike for my birthday present! The only time I spoke was when my dad asked, "the man says they can deliver it tomorrow; is that okay with you?" I grabbed the handlebars and shyly asked, "Can't we take it home now?" I still hear my parents' laughter and my dad's words, "Well, sir, I guess we're taking it now!" Even more vivid in my brain is the image of me, walking my impossible dream come true across busy Biscayne Boulevard; my mom on one side, my dad on the other, traversing the crosswalk at a traffic light. In that moment, I was certain everyone viewing us thought I was the luckiest girl in the world! When I was older, my mother explained that my father had taken on extra jobs to get the money for that gift. It is a joyous birthday memory that needs no further explanation.
My twenty-first birthday holds an indelible memory, too, but one that was bittersweet. I was a newlywed of less than four months and had just spent Christmas in San Diego with my groom, who was stationed there with the Navy, soon to deploy for the second time to Vietnam. Only a few days before my birthday, we shared a tearful goodbye, him begging me to stay for my birthday and me, explaining that my parents had special plans for my twenty-first celebration and I couldn't let them down. I still remember looking out the plane window before the stairs were pulled away (this was before the days of enclosed loading ramps), seeing my husband's sad face as he waved to me, and feeling a strong desire to bolt down those steps and risk incurring my parent's disappointment. But the dutiful daughter in me prevailed and I felt the tears roll down my face as the plane taxied away from the terminal.
The welcome home, the gifts, the luxurious dinner at a skytop restaurant and all the happy tidings from family and friends were appreciated, but my longing to be back with my husband cast a cloud over it all. I was never able to hide my true feelings from my mother for long and she confronted me before bedtime. I surprised myself with my candor, having struggled for two days to keep my emotions inside. After she left me and I lay in bed crying, I could hear my dad from their bedroom, loudly asking, "Why didn't she stay there then? Why did she think she had to come home?" His tone was one of confusion, not condemnation. It was then that I realized I had mistakenly been thinking as a daughter first when I should have been thinking as a wife first and foremost. Within the week, my parents had given me the best birthday gift of all; a ticket back to California. Their understanding and forgiveness remain so strong for me. Decades later, I still recall their final hugs, smiles and words of support before I boarded that plane.
Today, I mark a milestone birthday and I feel extremely lucky to be celebrating with my family. Although my parents are no longer here to share with me, I know they are here in spirit. I still feel their love, laughter and good wishes because of the memories they created for me so long ago.