Sharing a birthday with a legend

Sherri Gardner HowellFarragut, Kitchen Table Talk

I hope George Strait, Tina Fey and Reggie Jackson enjoyed their birthdays on Monday.


I certainly loved mine.

Mamaw, Hallie Ward, surrounded by flowers

George, Tina and Reggie share my birthday – May 18 – along with the late Pope John Paul II, Frank Capra, Perry Como and Russian Tsar Nicholas II.

My birthday was slated to be fun on the low-key side. My best friend, Michelle, and my husband, Neville, and I had decided that my birthday was a good day to venture out. We made plans to eat in an actual restaurant dining room for the first time in 60 days.

Amazing what a difference a year makes! While we normally will go out to eat on my birthday, it’s usually a matter of picking somewhere we haven’t been in a while because we cover a lot of restaurants during a year. This year, the excitement of actually sitting down in a restaurant dining room and seeing my friend from a distance of less than six feet was high.

I picked Bistro by the Tracks for two reasons: First, it’s one of my very favorites. Second, I have complete confidence in owner Randy Burleson’s dedication to following the new rules.

Before noon, however, the birthday went from low-key fun to all-out thrills. A soft knock at the back deck door came as I was in the kitchen, fixing some lunch. Our deck is two levels up and no one comes to that door except Neville. I figured it was him and took my time (sorry sweetheart) getting to the door to unlock it.

Standing there was King, my 5-year-old grandson. My scream brought in King through the back door and his parents – carrying with flowers, balloons and presents – through the front door. Son Trey and Kinsey had decided to drive up from Franklin and surprise me for my birthday. Michelle was in on it, too, and we had a glorious day and incredible dinner at Bistro.

It was probably the most exciting birthday since my mom – with Michelle’s help even back then – pulled off a surprise birthday party for me on my 16th birthday.

My birthday claim to fame as I was growing up wasn’t sharing a birthday with any of the famous people you find in the This Day in History lists. It was that I was born on my grandmother’s birthday. Hallie Victoria Byrd Ward, my mom’s mother, was born on May 18, 1906.

As my Mamaw was a daily presence and influence in my life and the lives of all her children and grandchildren, I wore my special connection to her as a badge of honor.

It was the one argument I always made on being her “favorite” for which none of the cousins had a good comeback!

Regardless of what we cousins might proclaim to each other, Mamaw didn’t play favorites. She did, however, tell me often that we were “alike, because we shared the same birthday.”

We weren’t, really, to the casual observer. Mamaw had a green thumb while mine is black. Mamaw was an incredible baker, while that is the part of cooking I struggle with the most. Mamaw loved to fish and could catch them, gut them, clean them and fry them up into a dish that melted in your mouth. I don’t even like to bait the hook and find the whole activity rather boring. Mamaw didn’t learn to drive until my grandfather died in 1970. I was tooling around the block illegally at age 15.

I would like to think, however, that we share some of her intrinsic traits. She was a strong woman who worked hard to keep her family in food and shelter. She did the farm work side-by-side with my Papaw, and then took care of their five children. She took no prisoners if you got between her and her children. She tolerated very little nonsense.

Most importantly, people remember Momma Ward for her generosity and love for making other people happy. If you were her friend, her doctor, dentist, favorite grocer, hairstylist, neighbor or simply the man who came to read the meter, there’s a good chance you were gifted with something from her kitchen. She never made one pie, one batch of cookies or one cake. There were always two – one for the family and one to give away. She didn’t have much, but she could stretch the flour, sugar, butter and eggs into something that made people smile.

That was important to her and a lesson she taught her birthday-sharing granddaughter by example.

My Mamaw died in 1979, a few months before Trey, her second great-grandson, was born. In a basket by her favorite chair were balls of yarn, needles and a three-quarters finished afghan that she called her “heirloom afghan.” She was knitting it as a gift for me to give to her great-grandchild.

A dear friend finished it for me, and we cherish it.

George, Tina, Reggie and I have big shoes to fill.

Sherri Gardner Howell has been writing about family life for newspapers and magazines since 1987. She lives in West Knoxville, is married to Neville Howell and has two sons and three grandsons.

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