In our family birthdays have always been red-letter days. We don't celebrate with big parties, and gifts have never included automobiles or heirloom jewelry, but the birthday child has always had special status, consulted about the menu for the birthday dinner and excused from kitchen duties, from table-setting to drying the dishes afterward. The day was always crowned with the cutting of the birthday cake.

I remember one birthday when I was a very young teenager. I had asked for roast pork with sweet potato and applesauce on the side. The dinner was delicious, served on Mother's special-occasion hand-painted china, with tall white candles flanking the flower centerpiece.

And then came the birthday cake. While the family joined in "Happy Birthday,'' my sister carried in the cake ..... and I almost burst into tears. Instead of the round, white-frosted angel cake that I expected, I was faced with a dark, one-candled atrocity. To add insult to injury, it was not only chocolate - but square!

But before I could rush from the table in dudgeon, or even reach for a hanky to catch my tears, Mother entered the room; the family sang "Happy Birthday'' all over again - and Mother put the other cake - the white, candle-decked one with a hole in the middle - in front of me. The chocolate cake was a joke that almost misfired.

I was responsible for another birthday cake that misfired some years later. I don't remember whether my husband had turned 35 or 50, but I bought extra birthday candles and carefully counted out the right number. I even managed to light the last of them before the first ones sputtered out. But years afterward Bill still talked of aging 10 years when that conflagration was carried to the table in front of him.

We celebrated a memorable birthday in Frostburg in May 1951, when Dick turned 1-year-old. He had no circle of playmates to invite to a party, but he had had a long string of baby-sitters during that first year.

They were college students, bright and resourceful, and when one found herself with a last-minute date of an overdue paper, she sent her roommate or the freshman who lived down the hall. I invited them all to share Dick's ice cream and cake.

But when I picked up the youngster out of his crib that morning I found him covered with spots! I consulted our doctor immediately - found that Dick was neither fussy nor feverish, and then phoned the residence hall to say that anyone who had had chicken pox was welcome, but those who had not might better stay away.

When I carried Dick down the stairs after his nap, there were a dozen girls seated in our living room. They helped Dick blow out his single candle, and they watched him savor his first taste of ice cream; we have a family tradition of postponing that delight until the child's first birthday. Dick ate his serving promptly, and then walked around the room, spoon in hand, to cadge another bite from any girl who still had a spoonful on her plate.

A few happy birthday memories stand out, but none of them exceeds my 90th birthday celebration, which lasted for a whole year.

Since it is difficult to bring a scattered family together when school is in session, my children arranged for a week in July at Lake Lure, in North Carolina.

Was it only 16 - or 20-plus? Who got together to swim and canoe, to play real or miniature golf, to walk through the woods and travel to the Biltmore estate. On the last evening, we shared a festive dinner in a fine restaurant - with a birthday cake!

Then, in September, my children gathered around me again for dinner on the proper date. And at Christmas time the clan assembled once more, here in Frostburg. I felt that the entire year had been given over to my birthday celebration.

Birthdays, for me, have never been occasions for expensive gifts or elaborate parties. They have been times when the family gets together around the table with the birthday cake. And each time that the candles are extinguished with a single puff, the wish that goes with them is for another family gathering, next year.

Betty VanNewkirk is the historian for the Frostburg Museum.

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