When my first child was born, I found a short birthday poem in a magazine that I read to her and subsequently to her brother and sister on the nights before their birthdays. That became our family’s birthday tradition throughout their childhoods. I have sweet memories of cuddling up with them, reading the poem, and feeling their excitement about going to sleep and waking up a brand new age. It’s a magical transformation felt not only by the children but also by parents and loving adults.
As time went by, the readings came with other feelings. I remember the first time, after my divorce, I read the poem to my youngest daughter. Her birthday eve fell on a night she had visitation with her father. I read it by phone. Luckily, this was way before cell phones and FaceTime so she couldn’t see my tears. I kept a high spirit until we hung up and then I burst into tears. Even when my children all moved on to college, I continued the tradition. There were times when I read it to their voicemails, or quickly before they were going out to celebrate. This is proof that traditions can be adjusted to suit life changes and times.
When my oldest daughter’s best friend had her first baby thirteen years ago — he calls me “Grandma Joni” — she asked me to send her the poem. So I made a pretty document and emailed it to her. As I sent it, I had an epiphany. I could write a new poem long enough for a book and create a new tradition to share with other families. So I did.
I wrote the longer new poem and as it came to me, I had images in my head for the illustrations. Next, I looked for an illustrator and found Juana Martinez-Neal who made the pictures in my head more than I ever could have imagined. Juana is now a well-known illustrator and a Caldecott honor award winner. It was a labor of love and after two years, I had a book beyond my dreams — The Night Before My Birthday Book — and a business to launch.
This birthday tradition is deeply part of our family and extended family. My husband and I read it to each other and we still read it to our adult children. We read it to my parents when they were still alive. The most memorable and sweetest reading was five years ago on the night before my father’s 90th birthday. All of his grandchildren and their spouses took turns reading a page to him. My daughter’s friend with the 13-year-old, who calls me “Grandma Joni,” and his brother started phoning me as soon as they could read. Every year we read it together on the night before their birthdays. We take turns reading the pages since they both have their own books. All of these readings have filled my heart for many years, but last year was a peak experience.
On November 27, 2019, I witnessed my daughter and her partner reading my book to our first granddaughter on the eve of her first birthday. I’ve anticipated this night since I witnessed her birth. Watching my daughter, who was the inspiration for this tradition, holding her daughter while they read the book brought back precious memories of this tradition from the past 39 years. I was mesmerized by it and full of gratitude for the multi-generational tradition that has bonded us together for all these years. The book celebrates the transformations, transitions and new roles that come with each birth and birthday. I thought of my parents who died in the past three years turning me into an orphan. I thought of my mother-in-law and aunts who were next, turning me into a matriarch. Then I looked at this baby whose birth gave me a new role. Because of her, I now join you in the GaGa Sisterhood and will carry on this tradition with this new generation.
Sharing this tradition with families across the U.S. and abroad has been such a joy. I receive photos of families reading the book on birthday eves, some for 7 years in a row. I feel like I know these children and parents who share this part of their lives with me — it’s an honor and a gift. Having a new generation in our family, including 3 great-nephews, one great-niece, and 4 of my cousin’s grandsons along with our granddaughter has brought new life to the family and to our tradition.
Note: One of my favorite pages of the book is called “Birthday Chronicles.” On this page, you write down the name of the person celebrating a birthday, the date and the reader’s name. There are also several lines to fill in “Dreams that came true this year.” It truly is a chronicle of every year’s birthday celebration.
To enter the giveaway for an autographed copy of The Night Before My Birthday Book, share one of your birthday traditions in the comment box. We’ll draw the winner’s name on March 31, 2020.