What Should You Be Doing While Others Sing you the Birthday Song? And, the Queen's Cousin.
I turned 55 two weeks ago, and received a precious compliment.
I worked the 6-2 shift at Trader Joe’s on my birthday, and during my final hour on the floor, was called into the back room. Two dozen of my fellow crew sang and presented me with a very fine chocolate sheet cake. (If you work at TJ’s on your actual birthday, you are guaranteed cake.)
It was a few minutes later, as I headed back for a final few minutes on register, that a friend on crew stopped me. “I hate it when people sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me, but you handled it so well. I want to do it your way.”
I don’t suppose most families give children lessons on what to do when other people sing to them the birthday song. There’s no reason for a child to do anything other than squeal and demand the first piece of cake. In my childhood, however, we got lessons about what we ought to do during the birthday song, just as we were taught how to shake hands, make conversation with adults, and stand for photographs. (“Hands resting at your sides, boys, never clasped in front of your private parts.”)
When the song begins, look at the cake. Beam. Then “clock” the room, which means to start with the person directly in front of you and sweep the room with your eyes in a clockwise direction, making eye contact with everyone and giving them each a nod or a silently-mouthed “thank you” while they sing. It is not a long song, though it can seem interminable if you do not wish to be the object of attention, so you need a plan — and a clockwise visual circumlocution of the room, complete with grin and nod, will almost always carry you through.
One is not to sing along. One is not to play Bernstein, and flail about in a sad imitation of a conductor, because that will evince the discomfort you wish to disguise. Lots of smiles, lots of nods, lots of mouthed thank yous, and if you must do something with your hands, you may clasp them together in front of your chest, not in prayer but as an outward and visible sign of gratitude.
Again: beam, make eye contact with each guest in turn, and mouth two words. If you want to be wild, feel free to move counterclockwise, but otherwise, stand there and take it with a big and sincere grin. Good manners is as much about knowing how to be gracious when receiving as it about being generous in giving. While a gentleman often expects defeat, and is spectacular when it happens, he needs to be prepared for the chance he might win, and ought to be ready to handle even the most surprising victories with modesty and small expressions of pleasure. Learning how to deal with having the birthday song sung to you is one of the most basic ways to learn how to receive things in public with grace and style.
The great expert at all this is of course Her Majesty the Queen, who not only is sung the birthday song by countless throngs and her few intimates on both natal and official birthdays, but must — at least weekly — stand or sit in public and listen to the anthem that declares her gracious and glorious.
Perhaps you’ve followed the Platinum Jubilee celebrations as much as I have, perhaps not. I’ve written elsewhere of my love for the Queen, and my affection for the Royal Family. (Short three-sentence version: my father, his sister, and their parents were Austrian Jewish refugees. In 1938, fleeing the Nazis who would kill the rest of the family, they were turned down for asylum by every country to which they applied, including the USA, with one exception: Great Britain. The Windsors were not solely responsible for my family’s survival, but the paperwork that guaranteed my father would live was emblazoned with royal insignia, and the good that was done was done by His Majesty’s Government. We have not forgotten.)
Queen Elizabeth is 96. She has reigned for 70 extraordinary years, and even my oldest readers were teens when she ascended the throne. Her father has been gone since the day she became queen, of course; her mother, who lived to be 100, has been gone 20 years, as has her glamorous and often frail little sister, Margaret. Her beloved husband — her “strength and stay” slipped away on an April morning 14 months ago.
Almost all the corgis she loved now wander the fields in an even greener and still more pleasant land. Her first eight prime ministers, from Churchill to Thatcher; her advisors and countless trusted courtiers; all gone. The queen has 24 living descendants — a fine result. Even if millions don’t care a fig for her or her family, she is the most recognized — and arguably, the most loved and admired — woman in the world.
It is hard to grow old, though, and watch everyone who knew you when you were young leave the party first. The Queen is said to be extremely fond of spending time, when she can, with the last surviving World War Two veterans. When you are a child, when you go to a party, you ask hopefully if there will be other children. When you are very old, when you go out to meet new people, it might be a happiness to have a moment with someone who remembers your world when it was young.
On Thursday, the Queen, despite her much-noted mobility problems, made her way out on to the balcony at Buckingham Palace twice. You’ve seen lots of photos of the second time Her Majesty came out; this was when her great-grandson Louis stole the show in the way that four year-olds are wont to do.
You might have missed the first appearance, half an hour earlier. While the rest of the family was in carriages or on horseback for the Trooping of the Colour, the Queen watched from the balcony, the Duke of Kent the only person beside her.
Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent, is the Queen’s first cousin; his father was her father’s younger brother. Nine years Elizabeth’s junior, he is nearly 87. The duke was six when his own father perished in a plane crash; he was 16 when his uncle died and his cousin Elizabeth became England’s young queen. The Duke of Kent was there when Elizabeth married Philip; he remembers their courtship, and played with Prince Charles when that now-73-year-old-heir was an infant.
That’s the thing about cousins, for those of us lucky enough to have them. More distant than a brother or sister, and thus less likely to be caught up in our petty but bitter sibling rivalries, cousins are witnesses, walking and breathing repositories of shared memories, storehouses of recollections of our best — and worst — selves. My cousins know me, and can catch me out with a glance; I have lied to my parents, and to all my ex-wives, but I have rarely been able to deceive a cousin. They see things others don’t. They often have just the right mix of distance and closeness to analyze family dynamics perfectly.
The Duke of Kent — whom many Americans know best as the longtime presenter of Wimbledon trophies — was there when the Queen was still a girl. He remembers an Empire. He remembers the grandmother he shares with the Queen — the formidable Mary of Teck, who was born in 1867 and was engaged to one prince, married another, and became the mother of two kings (Edward VIII and the Queen’s own papa, George VI.) Mary of Teck lived long enough to see Elizabeth on the throne, becoming one of the very few women in history to live to see three of her descendants serve as monarchs of the same country.
One likes to imagine the duke joking with his cousin, taking liberties that he alone could. “Here we go again, old girl; mind the step” as he walked just behind her out into the spring London sunlight, serving Elizabeth with the same humor and loyalty he has since they were just two young people seven decades ago, grieving their daddies gone too soon.
Perhaps he said nothing. Too old to sit astride horseback for the trooping like the younger royals, but not too young to stand near his friend and cousin, perhaps without uttering a word, his determined if just slightly stooped posture saying somehow, “Look at all this. How lovely the children, how joyful the crowd, how bright the sky, how fine a party — how happy the ancestors. I remember them, too.”
God Save the Queen, and thank God for cousins.