06/01/2012 06:46 pm ET Updated Aug 01, 2012

A Way to Remember: Celebrating My Late Mom's Birthday With My Sons

This year would have been my mom's 56th birthday.

Every year on her birthday, for the last six years, I've tried to figure out how best to remember her. The first year after she died, I placed a picture of her in the breast pocket of my shirt before I went off to work. Another year my brother, sister, stepfather and I each went out and bought yellow flowers. Three years ago I made zucchini bread, my favorite of all the things she liked to bake.

None of these gestures ever felt right to me. I think the problem was less in the pictures, the flowers or the bread than in the nature of the day itself. Anything I could do in honor of her birthday felt insignificant compared with how much I missed her. That insignificance had the effect of accentuating her absence, and I worried that I was failing to commemorate her in the right way. As a result, I always felt a small sense of relief when my mom's birthday had passed.

But this year, for the first time since her death, I woke up eager to celebrate her birthday. In fact, for more than a week, I'd been talking with my almost three-year-old son Jay about how Grandma Jane's Birthday was coming up soon.

A little before 8 am, I propped Jay on his changing pad and tried to tell him a few things about his grandma. It was hard to know what to say, so instead I demonstrated how hard Grandma Jane would have hugged him and I told him that she would have given him so many kisses he would have never been able to wipe all of them off. (Jay relishes wiping off the kisses that Caroline and I give him.) Then I tried to explain just how much Grandma Jane would have loved him if she were still alive.

After dinner we sang "Happy Birthday" and Jay got a cup of ice cream. While he was eating it my wife Caroline brought over a photo that we keep on the fridge, taken just before my sister's rehearsal dinner in 2006. Caroline asked Jay to point out Grandma Jane, which he did. Then a few minutes later, as he was scraping up the last of his ice cream with his spoon, he picked up the picture again.

Jay doesn't understand, I don't think, what death means, but he does know it's something serious and outside the realm of his experience. I've thought hard about how to describe the look on his face whenever he brings up the fact that my mom isn't alive anymore. It's seems to me like a combination of bravery and an intent desire to understand.

After ice cream we opened presents. A few years ago, my sister initiated the tradition of exchanging gifts on our mom's birthday by sending Jay an illustrated version of Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, a lullaby our mom sang to us when we were young. This year, we sent her 1-year-old son Peter his first Grandma Jane's Birthday present: A paper punch that makes cutouts in the shape of a butterfly.

Caroline, Jay, Wally and I sat on the floor in the living room. We opened Wally's present first. It was a book about animals that has textured pages, so you can feel the deer's rubbery nose and the baby bunny's soft fur.

Then we opened the box containing Jay's gift. It was a kid-sized chef's toque. I thought it was cute and appropriate, given how much my mom liked to bake, but Jay, after a week of eyeballing the sealed box, was underwhelmed. He discarded the toque and grabbed at Wally's book. Several times during the rest of the evening I heard him say to himself, "Why did I get a chef's hat?" When I called my sister tonight to tell her about his reaction we laughed so hard we cried.

I know there's only so much I can do to make my mom a part of Jay and Wally's lives. If it's hard as a kid to comprehend how much your parents love you, it's close to impossible to appreciate how much someone you never met would have. To a large extent Grandma Jane will always be an abstraction to Jay and Wally, someone they see in photographs and hear their dad talk about, but not more than that.

Jay and Wally may never know how much their grandma would have loved them, but that doesn't mean she has to be completely absent from their lives. Joining her memory to the giving of presents and the eating of ice cream seems like a good start. I hope her birthday will become a family holiday and that the force of tradition will help Jay and Wally keep in their lives a person who by every measure but physical proximity is an essential part of who they are.

For me, celebrating my mom's birthday with Jay and Wally has meant something else: A chance to think about her in joyful terms that let me feel closer to her than I can when I try to approach her memory directly.

As the sun went down and bedtime approached in Ann Arbor, I found myself not wanting to turn out the lights quite yet. It felt good to be able to say that I wasn't quite ready to see my mom's birthday go.

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