All-out birthday parties are the assumed college go-to. You are on your own, free to party the literal night away, sleep as little as you want and see who you want. However, the immediate change from the usually intimate birthdays at home can be a shocker.
Unproportioned and blue, the crayon drawing of the donkey I had created in preparation for my seventh birthday party patiently waited, hanging on the wall adjacent to the couch in my living room. Earlier that day, my mom and I had sketched the outlines of fifteen tails, colored them the same light blue as the donkey itself and had gingerly cut them out. Baking in the oven were twenty-four vanilla flavored cupcakes to be frosted with cream cheese frosting. Mom even bought rainbow sprinkles; it was a very special occasion to have a birthday. Seven-year-old me was convinced everything was perfect.
Undoubtedly, birthdays at a younger age held greater importance to me because of the rarity that surrounded them. My mom made birthdays even more significant. She emphasized their importance as special days to spend with those you love most: family and best friends, cousins and grandparents. This sacred time with those I considered closest to my heart became what defined a birthday to me. Because of this, celebrating my first birthday away from home – without my two younger sisters, my mom, my dad or any of my close high school friends – felt lonelier than expected.
My birthday is in November, so it is not as if I hadn’t made some new friends at Boston College. In fact, the group of girls I had been hanging out with had celebrated so many birthdays in September and October that we had a ritual of going to the North End to indulge in some delicious Italian food. Naturally, this was what we did on my birthday. Four of us dressed up and headed out on our way to the city. Taking the train was necessary, but we played games such as Would You Rather and Never Have I Ever. Really, we were still getting to know each other.
Friday night, and the energy of the North End could be felt in the air. End-of-Autumn tourists wandered the streets with eyes glistening under the streetlights, their feet tripping over the centuries-old uneven cobblestones below. The four of us strutted past them, as if we knew those side streets like the back of our hands. This was only our third adventure there. Stumbling upon a small place, not yet packed, we sat and had a delicious dinner, conversing about things inconsequential. Following dinner, we continued down the main strip a little way to the classic cannoli place, Mike’s Pastry. Powdered sugar stained my lips and fingers. It wasn’t cake, but it was a Boston substitute.
Heading to bed later that night, I wasn’t unhappy. I had embarked upon a wonderful adventure. It had been a lovely night. However, I missed the crux of what birthday celebrations had always been to me: family and friends from home.
The smiles that surrounded me on my birthday freshman year of college were all new. I had no one around me that I had previously known, and until that night, I thought that wasn’t really going to bother me. The next day, however, I checked the mailbox and found a birthday card from my mom, dad and sisters. Even just the familiar swirl of their handwriting freed the emotional build-up that had been within me in the form of wet tears. They tasted like home. In that moment, alone in my room, I didn’t want to grow up if it meant the celebration of birthdays would become so impersonal.
Of course, I got over it and came to the acceptance that I was nineteen and that it is what it is. More importantly, this experience shaped my expectations for future birthdays in college. Next year, I wasn’t expecting anything special. Not even a dinner – I didn’t really want to make a big deal out of it.
Yet my friends were no longer strangers.
I come home to them at the end of each day. They are my pajama buddies, my conversation partners and those people who I have found a new sense of home in. I was more than pleasantly surprised when they decorated my room with glitter and streamers, all of them gathering there for the strike of midnight to reign in the day I turned twenty. They asked if I wanted to do anything. We ended up not going to the North End but to Cambridge to thrift shop. It was a crisp, sunny day, the best kind in New England during November. We walked in the sunlight. It made me realize that these people had become the close friends that I treasured the company of on my birthday.
Perhaps it took a year of getting to know them because such bonds cannot be made so quickly. However, celebrating a birthday doesn’t have to be a big deal. It just has to satisfy your heart.