By Nancy Camden
I was born on the eighth day of the eighth month on my mother’s birthday—or so I believed. From my first memories seventy years ago through my mother’s old age, she would introduce me by saying, “This is my daughter, Nancy. She was born on my birthday.” People could tell that this was a marvelous thing for my mother and so, they marveled. She put the icing on the cake by adding, “It was August eight. She weighed eight pounds and eight ounces and her lucky number is eight.”
It was a major part of my identity growing up. I hated it. I wanted my own birthday cake and special day. My mother set about blending our identities from the day I was born. I blamed much of it on that shared birthday.
My mother was competitive. In high school, she had won shorthand-writing competitions against girls from other small towns. Because she was good at this form of notating conversation with a technique that looked like squiggles, she was chosen to be student secretary to the principal. She might have been seeking her harsh father’s approval by competing and winning. She worshipped the man as evidenced in the glowing descriptions of him in a memoir she wrote that left her siblings wondering about who was she was writing.
During the 1950s, my mother perpetually entered the contests of the era. She won a camera for guessing the average temperature of one winter in our area of Indiana. She won and gave me a Peter Pan doll collection that included Wendy and Tinkerbell. She won $5 in 1953 from a Fort Wayne newspaper homemaker’s page for a recipe, Goldilocks Ham Pie. It was a big leap to her next prize. With a recipe submitted to a local grocery store competition, she won a year’s free groceries with Hoosier Meatloaf. She was not interested in cooking but, she was excellent at winning contests and happiest in the limelight.
My mother was much of the time unhappy. I did funny skits with characters to entertain her. This gave her an idea for the little girl who shared her birthday. When I was in the fifth grade, she coached me for a 4-H talent competition in rural Indiana. It was my mother’s idea to put an open suitcase on a chair and have me pull out different hats to act as female characters in one of my skits, “The Poet’s Appreciation Club.” Each character read a silly poem. I placed third in the district-wide competition behind a tap dance routine by a girl and a trumpet solo by a boy from the Husky Hoosier’s club.
My mom found hope that the child born on her birthday could rise out of the cornfields that surrounded our house and get her somewhere. She didn’t sense cooperation from my older brother and my sister was just a baby. I was born on her birthday. I was the chosen one.
Every summer, I competed for blue ribbons at the county fair with homemaking projects and art. I was good at art, so, in high school, she drove me three hours to Chicago to compete in a life-drawing competition of what turned out to shockingly be of an almost nude male model. In my senior year, the high school speech teacher and I took a train to New Mexico after I won the state of Indiana speech competition in Dramatic Interpretation. At the nationals, I didn’t believe I could win on that level and forgot my lines in the first round after acting the piece for a year.
In the fall, I entered college to major in theater and art, still pursuing the spotlight for my mother and now, for myself, too. By this time, all of life had become a competition to get noticed, to be a winner, and to be loved by my mother. She bragged about my talent constantly to others. Privately and sometimes publicly, I was abused by her, degraded, and physically hurt.
When home from college on a break, I found a box with my name on it in the hall closet. It was full of childhood drawings, papers, and my baby book. I discovered something in the baby book about my birthdate. I asked my mother about it. The reaction was swift anger for snooping and the door was slammed shut. Years later, after my father had died, she was selling the house to move into independent living. She gave me the box.
In the box was a clipping from the local newspaper of my birth with August nine, not August eight, as my birth date. In my baby book, a birth announcement card was pasted on a page. Anyone could see that the hand-written date on it had been messily changed to transform a nine into an eight and although there wasn’t a line for filling in the time of birth, my mother had written 12:15 am. The hospital record listed August nine as the birthdate of a baby girl. The weight of 8 pounds and 8 ounces had been filled in by another pen that looks like my mother’s writing. All three documented my birth date as August nine. The boasting had begun with bragging rights of our shared birthday. She had left evidence of the truth. I didn’t mention it. She was old.
After my mother died, I asked my aunt what she knew about it. She said my mother was disappointed that I was born fifteen minutes after midnight in the one year that our county in Indiana went on daylight saving time. My aunt said that my mother had my birth certificate officially changed by going all the way to the state level in Indianapolis. There must have been sympathy for her plight because, in 1949, there was mayhem on the Indiana House floor over a daylight saving bill that resulted in a legislator leaning over a railing to break the official clock. In 2006, with two legislators switching during the vote, Indiana barely became the forty-eighth state to observe Daylight Saving Time. Change is not easy at any point but it’s never impossible or too late.
In 1948 on August eight, of the 365 days in a year, my mother was laboring on her thirty-first birthday to push me through the birth canal before midnight in a rogue county observing daylight saving for that one year. And, there I was entering the world fifteen minutes late to ruin her bragging material. I question if I even weighed eight pounds and eight ounces.
For my mother, a daughter born on her birthday was the ultimate prize to be molded into a winner. As her daughter, I was born seventy-three years ago into a shared identity and a belief that despite my utmost effort, I was never good enough. If I’d chosen to be a mother, I would have, unaware, passed this lack of perspective to the next generation. After behavioral therapy, I still struggle with the insidious way competition creeps into everyday life. My time may run out before I can gift myself unconditional love. But, I’m still working on it. Happy Birthday to me.
Nancy Camden lives in Wisconsin where she enjoys playing Scrabble for laughs with made-up words and definitions. She’s been an artist, a producer for public radio and is currently writing a novel with real words.
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