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Happy Birthday to You: How a 6-Note Melody Connects a Family

01/23/2013 12:58 pm ET | Updated Mar 25, 2013

Without fail, my parents always picked up the phone at 7 a.m. on my birthday: "Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday, dear Mallory! Happy birthday to you!" In harmony, they sang the six-note melody with gusto, as if they just discovered the lyrics that very morning and were auditioning for a show choir.

"We're glad you were born," they proclaimed at the end of the call.

In college, I dreaded the call, which always woke my sleeping housemates. In my 20s, as a Peace Corps volunteer, I yearned for the call. I didn't have a phone, and no one in my village in the Central African Republic knew the song. Predictably, in my 30s, I began to indoctrinate my own children into the tradition of calling family members and singing happy birthday.

Now in my 40s, after the deaths of both parents, I cling to the tradition, insisting on its sanctity with my children, as if a phone call on a birthday represents a direct line to their grandparents, whom they will not know. Somehow, that simple melody, written in 1893 by two sisters and educators from Kentucky, now represents a lifeline to something larger than myself.

Yet, without the anchor of my parents, the birthday tradition feels slightly diluted. This year, on Jan. 10, my sister Margaret called me in the morning to remind me of her son's 4-year-old birthday: "It's Charlie's birthday!" she whispered. "He's downstairs, so call back in one minute!" On cue, I called and sang.

"Are we pathetic?" she laughed, after she called her son upstairs to listen to the song on speakerphone. Yet, six days later, on Margaret's birthday, my children woke up eager to call her before heading to the bus stop in the early dawn. My sister later reported that all three of our siblings called her and sang. We gave each other verbal high-fives through the phone line, as if we had crossed some finish line in a marathon of maintaining family traditions.

On Jan. 19, the morning of my 47th birthday, I glanced at the phone in the morning and suddenly missed my parents, in those unanticipated pockets of grief that arrive without invitation, even years after a death. After a run with friends, I returned home and saw the blinking red light on our old-fashioned answering machine, one that allows you to hear the messages in real time.

On the message, I heard my uncle Rob singing happy birthday and coaxing his almost 2-year-old daughter Lilah to share a birthday greeting. "Say happy birthday," he cajoled. There was a pause, followed by an exclamation: "She said it!" he announced. Then he closed by saying, "I'm glad you were born."

Some might protest that there is no place for a birthday song over the phone, when you can send birthday greetings on Facebook or though an e-card that will sing to your inbox.

But those online messages cannot replace the feeling of connection and vulnerability that comes from hearing and singing a song, in harmony or even off-key. This year, those songs made me feel a part of a world outside myself, even as the voices celebrated my tiny place on this earth.

And for my daughters, I hope that giving and receiving that simple song -- arguably the most recognized song in the English language -- might become an act of grace. I pray that such moments remind them that a celebration of one life actually reflects a communion of people with power and love much larger than themselves.

So each year, I will sing happy birthday and tell them both: I am glad that you were born.