For the Week of June 12, 2016: When You Hear the Song, “Happy Birthday…”

Happy Birthday to you.

Happy birthday to you.

Happy Birthday dear Gramma.

Happy Birthday to you.


I awakened to that familiar song early this morning.  An enthusiastic duet by telephone from two of my grandchildren.  Today is my birthday, like it or not, and the mirror has already confirmed what my brain refuses to accept.  I’m  getting older, despite that in my head, my mid-forties are where I prefer to hang my age for the rest of my life.  But that’s a grand self-deception, because my body announces itself a little more definitely each year, confirming my forties are long gone.  Drat!  Yet I will tell you that I wouldn’t trade a birthday cake with 45 candles on it for this morning’s long distance serenade and followed by a lecture on Florida marine life from my seven-year old grandson!  What greater gift could I possibly receive?

Today’s post  is borrowed, in part, from previously published posts over the last several years.  It’s inspired by little more than the relentless march of age, the retrospective look at life that  birthdays often trigger.  I love birthdays, but lately, it’s  my grandchildren’s birthdays I celebrate with the enthusiasm of a wildly in-love, grandmother, remembering when I felt as much excitement over a birthday as they do now.  I remember the little girl I was so long ago, the one in an old, faded photograph, blonde hair curled for the occasion and topped with a giant hair ribbon.  The picnic table nearby is piled with gaily wrapped gifts and a chocolate cake sits in the center, six candles aflame.  I sport an ear-to-ear grin on my face.  Those were the long ago years I eagerly counted the days until my next birthday, becoming a “big” girl with each year promising many more possibilities than the one before.  I was ready then, even impatient, to claim older age.
Are we ever ready for the changes life presents to us?  It’s never either/or.  Each stage of life has challenges, but there are rewards too.  I’m quite content to embrace the title, “Gramma,” but on the other hand, I am less enthusiastic about some of my physical changes—the relentless pull of gravity, loss of muscle tone, and the silvering of my hair.  I balk at regular visits to my cardiologist, reminding me of a condition I thought belonged only others, elder others like my grandparents.  Ready or not, you can’t escape aging.

“Ready,” the title of a poem by Irene MacKinney, begins with a memory:

I remember a Sunday with the smell of food drifting
out the door of the cavernous kitchen and my serious
teenage sister and her girlfriends Jean and Marybelle
standing on the bank above the dirt road in their
white sandals ready to walk to the country church
a mile away, and ready to return to the fried
chicken, green beans and ham, and fresh bread
spread on the table…

Every birthday reminds me of ones past.  Memories come alive:  the scent of chocolate as my mother baked my birthday cake, the candle flames dancing as everyone sang to me, eyes shut, wishing as hard as I could for something I wanted to happen.  That “Happy Birthday “sung enthusiastically over the telephone by my grandchildren sent my mind racing back to not just those joyful celebrations of a grade school girl, but some that were less celebratory, marred by difficult events in my life at the time.  Birthdays are full of story…ones that are, as mine have been, triggered by that simple song, “Happy Birthday to you…”

I’ve used an exercise in my writing groups borrowed from Roger Rosenblatt’s wise little book, Unless It Moves the Human Heart (Harper Collins, 2011).  Rosenblatt would ask if anyone in his class had recently celebrated—or was about to–a birthday.  Then he surprised the class:

I…then burst into song:  “Happy Birthday to You.”  They [his students] give me the he’s-gone-nuts look I’ve come to cherish over the years.  I sing it again.  “Happy Birthday to You.  Anyone had a birthday recently?  Anyone about to have one?” …just sit back and see what comes of listening to this irritating, celebratory song you’ve heard all your lives” (pp.39-40).

When I tried the exercise, my students looked at me with curiosity as I began singing before laughing a little and joining in.  “Now let’s write,” I said as our singing ended.  “What memories does “Happy Birthday to you” inspire?”  I wrote too, memories of the highlights of birthdays past: a blue bicycle waiting for me the morning of my seventh birthday, a surprise party my husband and daughters managed to pull off few years ago, the long-ago headline in my small town newspaper’s society page:  “Sharon Ann Bray turns six today,” (my aunt Verna was the society editor), one memory spilling out after another.

Everyone in the group had the same reaction, so many memories and stories were shared that morning.  As inspirational as his exercise was, Rosenblatt isn’t the only writer who used birthdays as inspiration.  Go to and you’ll discover William Blake, Sylvia Plath, Christina Rossetti and many others inspired by a birthday as a time for retrospection.  I’m especially fond of Ted Kooser’s “A Happy Birthday,” a short poem that captures how a birthday triggers retrospection.

This evening, I sat by an open window

and read till the light was gone and the book

was no more than a part of the darkness.

I could easily have switched on a lamp,

but I wanted to ride this day down into night,

to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page

with the pale gray ghost of my hand.


Poems about birthdays reflect the passage of time, aging, even the opportunity for change, for example, Joyce Sutphen’s “Crossroads:”

The second half of my life will be black
to the white rind of the old and fading moon.
The second half of my life will be water
over the cracked floor of these desert years.

Writing Suggestion:

This week, let birthdays be the trigger that gets you writing.  Hum the birthday tune, or if you’re feeling brave, sing it:  “Happy Birthday to you…”  Or begin with a sentence such as “On the day I turned ___, and keep writing.  Take of the memories, good or bad, a birthday ditty evokes.  Whether you’ll soon have a birthday, recently celebrated one, or joined in the birthday celebrations of family and friends, explore your memories of past birthday, remembering that within each memory lurks a story or a poem…   Write one.

(As for me, my husband promises a carrot cake (and candles) will be part of my day and shared with a few neighborhood friends.  I don’t mind candlelight—it will soften the physical evidence of growing older.  I might wait a little longer before I try to blow them all out!)

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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