Many Happy Returns


I first heard this British expression for “Happy Birthday” in 1960, upon turning 12, in London’s answer to FAO Schwartz, Hamley’s, while being bought a life-sized [plush-toy] parrot, who is still with me. Two months into our English sojourn, I was stuck in my homesick-for-the-States phase; and my two associations to the shop assistant’s remark were: “Yankee, go home,” and “Keep your receipt, in case you want to bring the toy back.”

This Sunday was both Lili’s and my husband Chris’ birthday. [I am authorized to say that Lili turned 6.] It was, indeed, a happy day, except for my having so recently returned from a California visit to the “other daughters” [and therefore missing them all the more], and our having lost both phone & Internet connectivity, so the birthday boy & girl could not receive “Many happy returns of the day” messages from their Loved Ones. Normal service returned by the evening, though; and greetings were duly exchanged.

How sentimental we humans are about observing the anniversary of our birth! A young & trendy BBC 1 presenter was offering to send [by ground post] Birthday cards, on behalf of stranded Brits in the States [whom she dubbed VAVs: Volcanic Ash Victims] to their sweethearts back in Blighty. Not enough, apparently, just to pass on a “shout out” over the airwaves. A timely, mailed & received, piece of festive stationery was required. We’re just as soppy over here. No less than 5 times during one fair-to-middling meal at a “family-style” Italian restaurant in oh-so-cool LA, my girls & I were “strongly encouraged” by the management to sing a song of Birthday greetings to total strangers at other tables. In the spirit of Casablanca, we stalwartly demurred [although we didn’t bust loose with The Marseillaise in counterpoint, either].

Here’s my point. Lili the dog [who is blissfully unaware of the AKC registration of her date of birth] probably had a happier day [sans cards, calls & cake], than her human owners, because all she expected [and received] was her food, her walk-in-the-woods and our love. She avoided all the potential for humiliation that custom & Hallmark imposes on the rest of us: “You’re nobody til somebody fetes you…in a timely manner, on the very date of your birth.” That was the entire plot of Sixteen Candles, remember?

My own birthday often falls on Labor Day weekend, which is Highly Inconvenient, if one has just had one’s purse snatched and all one’s friends who could have lent one money are out-of-town [which happened twice in NYC in the 70s]. So, I have a lower bar than many for what I consider a Good Enough Birthday: something to eat, the liberty to walk about outside, and the knowledge that my Loved Ones wish me well, wherever they might be.

Although, I must say, that 40th in Vienna was pretty swell…

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Filed under attribution theory, semiotics

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