Community & Current Events

Excerpt: Birthday

By: Canadian Living

Author: Canadian Living

Community & Current Events

Excerpt: Birthday

By: Canadian Living

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Learn more about the Canadian Living Book Club.


Mid-November: Peter's birthday falls on a Sunday, and friends are coming for supper. We sleep late. For once I drift towards wakefulness like a child, aware of sleep's buoyant warmth and of waking's clarity; the two blend, gently. Peter's arm lies over my waist, his body cups mine. It's a windy, overcast day; branches of the birch tree scratch against the porch roof. I listen to the quiet of Jake's room. I wonder where he'll be at this time next year.

We linger over a birthday breakfast. I make scrambled eggs, set bread to toast on crumpled tinfoil laid on the wood stove. Jake goes out and feeds the flock of black silkies -- small hens with sweeping tails -- and throws hay onto the frozen soil for the horse and pony. He returns smelling of frost and manure. I pour the eggs into a frying pan. Peter's sitting at the table, examining his pile of gifts, eyebrows raised. We know he'll tease us by taking an intolerably long time to open each thing. Jake sits across from him.

"Open that one, Dad." He pokes a present with one finger, sending it over the edge of the table so Peter has to catch it.

Last year on Peter's birthday, Jake had to be prodded awake and was annoyed with us. This year he and his friend Corey found the perfect gift. Peter makes an elaborate show of opening it, commenting on the wrinkled used paper, trying to remember other presents it was used for, picking at the knot -- and I see how someday, before too long, he and Jake will be friends. I long for it. I'm tired of mediating, brokering disputes.

"Nice, Jake," Peter says.

"What?" I move forward to see. In the paper are enormous dried pig's ears. Dog chews. These are entirely appropriate gifts for Peter, who loves costumes, has a set of horns made of moose-antler tips, and embarrasses Jake with outrageous hats. He holds the ears to his head.

"Oh, nice, Dad."

Peter goes to the dining room where there's a mirror.


Peter and Jake are happy with each other all day. They ride their mountain bikes around the block, fifteen kilometres of dirt road through the industrial forest that spreads from our farm south and west: the woods have been recently clear-cut, or are halfway grown back, or are still dark and dense, ear-marked for harvest. I spend the morning making a birthday cake and setting the table. Then I work outside in the cold air, covering the flower gardens with hay, stacking kitchen wood in the back shed. At 3:30, when light is already draining from the sky, our friends arrive: Pete W, Judith, and their daughter, Maya. We've been family friends for years. Their son is already away at university, and Maya will leave soon. We stand in the driveway, preparing to set out for a quick walk before supper. Peter and Pete W exchange rude guy comments pertaining to age and physical capabilities. Judith is tiny, tough, sparrow-boned: she wears a black ankle-length wool coat, mittens, and a long scarf wound around her neck, covering her mouth and nose.

"Oh, Mum. You're such a baby," Maya says. She and Jake are hatless, bare-handed. They stride fast, side by side.

When they were little, Judith and I remind each other, we'd take long family hikes at Fundy Park and sometimes, by the end of the day, they'd lag behind, whining.

We go up across the fields and through the woods, circling round behind the ravine and stopping at the edge of its eighty-foot cliff to look back at our farm, toy-sized. Dusk falls as we descend through the leafless hardwoods, and we're pink-cheeked when we arrive back at the house. In the hall we unwind scarves, unlace boots. Peter carries in stove wood, and Pete W heads for the pantry, where he takes beer bottles from the refrigerator. I cook rice and, at the last minute, sear scallops in garlic butter.

At the dining-room table we banter in the way of old friends, yet even as I tease, question, exclaim, I'm wondering if everyone else feels as I do: that the largest part of myself remains hidden behind my smiling face; that my public self is an integument, wearing thin. Words I'd like to say press, quiver, and remain unspoken. I flick the ash from the wick of a guttering candle flame. We're reminding Maya of the time she mooned us, in a ski condominium in Maine.

"I never did."

"And we" -- I grin at Judith -- "changed in the parking lot."

Forty-six candles on the cake: one to grow on. The year before my grandfather died, my grandmother wished, as she blew out the candles on her birthday cake, that we would all still be together on the next birthday. Afterwards, she told this story whenever someone was presented with a birthday cake, until my mother found ways to forestall her.

Peter blows the candles. Jake and Maya are watching. They're like cats, present but poised, as if ready to spring away. We grown-ups are jolly -- joyful, silly, a merriment slightly forced-as if we're all aware of our fraying connection.

Page 1 of 2

Excerpted from Edge Seasons: A Midlife Year by Beth Powning. Copyright 2005 by Beth Powning. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


After they leave, Jake yawns, feeling the effect of so much fresh air, and goes up to his room early. Peter is absorbed with a birthday book. I sit in the kitchen, where the stove fire is making feeble snaps, slowly dying. I can see my reflection in the window as I phone my brother in Rhode Island. He's a professional guitarist. He and his wife, a mandolinist, have produced many CDs. Like Peter with his exhibitions, they make me feel inadequate. I'm the one member of the family who has produced nothing. Nothing to show, thus a failure.

"Hi, Mark."


I tell him about the good day we've just had. He responds, a yearning note in his voice. He loves our northern farm. We perceive each other's lives with a degree of romance.

"I feel..." It's hard. We don't talk about feelings. We've been taught to keep them to ourselves.

Lately childhood memories spin in my mind. I want to make them come alive, like objects stored in boxes: take them out, dust them off, put them to use. Who were they, really, those remote, remembered people: grandparents, great-aunts, teachers? The gigantic parents of infancy? I pull memories towards me, dim as faded sketches.

"Do you remember the time Mum told us that Dad had been in a car accident? It was a freezing cold night in winter. You and I were in the living room. I can see the black, frosted windowpanes. She was terrified."

"No," he says. He's a kind person and doesn't like to disagree. But that is not how it was. "He wasn't in an accident. He was just late."

"But I was terrified. I cried and cried. I had a recurrent dream, for years, that he was killed."


We exchange other stories. He explores his memories hesitantly, like a person speaking in a foreign language.

Can he explain a memory of fire sirens in the night? The tattooed man in the guest-room bed? He's surprised by my questions. Memory has not yet haunted him, even though he's older than I am. He's so busy, engaged in life. Their children are younger than Jake. He doesn't seem to know what it's like to be approaching change, to feel stopped or paused.

"This is what I really want to know."

"Okay, what."

"Why do you play the guitar?"

He's silent. He is not self-analytical.

"Is it because you need to practise for performances?"

"No," he says instantly. He sounds shocked. "Not at all. I hear music in my head, constantly. I go around all day with music in my head. I play because I have to. I have to. If I can't sleep, I get up and go down to the living room. I put on that lamp with the pink shade. It makes a low, soft light. I make tea. Sometimes I sit for hours playing quietly. So I won't wake the family."

"What do you play?"

"Anything. Something we're working on. Something I'm making up."

When he plays, his face is remote with concentration. His mouth is taut, stern, but his eyes are compassionate.

After we say goodbye, I sit in the chair by the stove. His guitar is his voice. Music is not what he does: it is who he is.


November 16, 1994: P's birthday yesterday. A good day. I need to find clarity inside myself. I need to stop allowing other people, or circumstances, to set my agenda. I must not care about what people think -- either of me or of what I do. I need to find the strength to do what I want to do. I am in the habit of smothering myself, hiding, as if who I am is somehow shameful. I thought, after talking to my brother last night: I don't have to write. No one is making me. No one cares. And this was an enormous relief to me. Then, this morning, when I came to my desk I felt open, receptive, as if life, words, could pour through me. I wrote because I had to -- because I wanted to.

From the hardcover edition.

Page 2 of 2

Excerpted from Edge Seasons: A Midlife Year by Beth Powning. Copyright 2005 by Beth Powning. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Excerpt: Birthday