Let's just say my birthday didn't start out happy this year. As the clock struck midnight on Dec. 13, the start of my 41st year, I was digging through banana peels and coffee grounds and crumpled Kleenex looking for my wallet in the kitchen trash.

Twenty minutes earlier, I was driving around the parking lot of the Northshore Mall, where I had gone earlier for a haircut, and using my headlights as a flashlight, thinking maybe, just maybe, my wallet had slipped under a parked car.

Since the credit card companies reported that no one had tried to make a purchase, I felt hopeful. So I searched under car seats and bushes, and beds and couches, too. I called the salon — twice, mall security — three times, and the Peabody police, hoping a good Samaritan had turned it in.

Everyone was very nice; no one had the answer I wanted to hear.

Most people know the panicked feeling that comes from losing something. We retrace our steps. We empty vacuum cleaner bags. We pray to saints of lost causes. Some people even take out ads in the newspaper.

Skim the lost-and-found section of The Salem News' classifieds over the last month and you can almost hear the desperation. Someone's searching for a heart-shaped gold locket with the initials L.D. There's a missing Irish walking stick, a digital camera, a wedding band, a wristwatch and a gold necklace with five religious medals of "great sentimental value."

One woman from Danvers lost a blue sapphire and diamond ring at the Northshore Mall last month. A very special aunt left it to her because they both shared September birthdays. She checked the garbage disposal and pawn shops and tore her house apart with no success.

"It's a horrible feeling," she says.

I told her the story of a friend from Beverly who lost her diamond engagement ring two years ago. She was heartbroken, too. Then, when taking out the Christmas decorations this month, she found the ring at the bottom of a box, hidden under a string of white lights.

That's a good Christmas present.

I will say my birthday started to improve a bit. I woke up to breakfast in bed — a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, coffee and homemade cards from my daughters. Sweet, and one of those moments that mothers should treasure forever. But I couldn't stop thinking about my stupid wallet. I felt a little like George Bailey when he yells at his daughter Zuzu to stop playing the piano, a desperate (or at least grouchy) soul.

Around 2 p.m., I decided to check my work voice mail, thinking maybe someone had found my wallet and spotted my business card.

I had one message.

It was from Beeline Cleaners in Wakefield. "You're probably freaking out right now," the manager began. She wanted to let me know a customer had dropped off my wallet.

They didn't know the person's name, but inside my wallet was everything just as I had left it, except for one item. There was a card for an appointment with Fred on Jan. 16 at 12:30 p.m.

I don't see Fred. I see Alberto.

I quickly called the salon and learned the name of the woman booked at that time. I reached Linda and got the rest of the story.

Last Friday afternoon, she went to pick up her son's pressed shirts and was horrified to discover she had the wrong wallet. She figured she'd picked it up off the counter at the dry cleaner. She didn't realize she had grabbed my wallet by accident at the hair salon.

"I tend to spread out," she explained.

She apologized over and over. And I thanked her over and over. She gave me a birthday I will always remember.

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Staff writer Susan Flynn can be reached at sflynn@salemnews.com or at 978-338-2658.

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