When I was growing up, family birthdays were always special occasions. This normally took the form of a set-piece evening meal. In the 1970s, this meant a steak fondu. I can’t remember when we acquired a fondu set, though something deep in my memory suggests it was a raffle prize or something similar. Anyway, fondu birthdays were the height of sophistication for a boy who’d grown up in the Black Country. Mum made her own sauces for the fondu and my sister and I competed to see who would be the first person to lose a morsel of weak in the boiling oil. I’m not sure when Dad introduced wine for all of us, rather than just him and Mum, but the odd sip of liebfraumilch made these family occasions exotic almost beyond words.
So why has this come to my mind? Yesterday was Mum’s birthday, her 75th to be precise. To mark the occasion, my sister took Mum out for lunch. I skipped out of work to join them along with assorted in-laws. Mum seemed a little overawed but there was a very friendly welcome in the village tea-rooms/restaurant. A table of six proved quite a challenge and the proprietor, an old friend, had to scour neighbouring shops for a spare chair to accommodate all of us. I scoured the menu for fondu but it was nowhere to be seen but sausage and mash was a more than adequate substitute. Presents and cards seemed to confuse Mum a little and I became aware that, while she recognised everyone round the table, she didn’t seem to associate names with faces. She opened a card handed to her by my sister’s in-laws and held it up saying “look who it’s from” as if it had been sent from overseas.
The noise in the restaurant seemed to unnerve Mum but she ate well and although it was diet coke not liebfraumilch, a considerable improvement as far as I was concerned, it was still a special occasion. It felt right to mark Mum’s birthday even though birthdays mean little to her these days. What I would have given, though, to have shared a steak fondu with her. That would have been a very special occasion indeed.