I suppose that turning twenty one is supposed to be some kind of right of passage, a milestone worthy of a bit more celebration than usual. In truth I can’t even remember my twenty first birthday. I may have done something special but if I did, I have no memory of it. I had been hurdled into adulthood the previous summer when it fell on my shoulders to get help for my mom when she first presented symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. Without warning I was tasked with finding a doctor for her and making sure that my younger brothers were okay while she was in the hospital. I said goodbye to my youthful naïveté and shouldered responsibilities that threatened to overwhelm me. Somehow I found the courage and strength to rise to the occasion so well that when my twenty first birthday came several months later it was an underwhelming moment.
I have no idea what I might have wanted to do had I been able to enjoy a normal celebration of being officially a legal adult with all of the privileges of purchasing and enjoying a glass of wine. I’ve never been drawn to social drinking because it takes very little to get me so lightheaded that I almost fall asleep. The one and only time that I did drink too much I hated how I felt the next morning and resolved to never dishonor my body in that way again. While I enjoy an occasional glass of wine or a really good margarita I have never felt really compelled to imbibe. I’m one of those people who can honestly say that I would be willing to live without alcohol for the rest of my life if someone offered me ten million dollars to do so.
I must have had some kind of party because until the day she died my mother never let my day of birth go by without showering me with gifts, a cake and some ice cream. No doubt she had some kind of surprise for me on that special occasion because she was feeling quite being treated for her illness. I know that she was busy looking for a job and would soon land the one that she would keep until retirement at the University of Texas Health Science Center. She had been so discouraged in her hunt for work but I think the good Lord was just waiting to help her find employment with people who would be incredibly understanding of her mental illness.
I had just learned that I was pregnant only a few weeks before and I suspect that knowing that my first child was on the way was much more important than turning twenty one. Back then nobody seemed to know not to drink while pregnant so it’s a good think thing that I had no inclination to do so. I just know that I felt emotionally much older than the age indicated by my year of birth. My baby face not withstanding, I had become very mature rather quickly as had many of my friends from that era. Those were the Vietnam War years and the nightly news programs reminded us daily how many of our peers were dying in that strange war in a faraway land. Somehow the silliness of a twenty first birthday party did not seem that important.
I suppose that if I had been in a position to do anything I wished I might have traveled to some exciting place like New York City, or even London or Paris. The only time I’d been on a plane was for my honeymoon and then we had gone to New Orleans. When I think of how I married before reaching the age of twenty one I am stunned that I did so well because as a bride I was still such a child. It took the events of my mother’s illness the following summer to shock me into becoming an adult.
I may not have had the experience of living on my own at college but I became strong and independent just from living in the school of hard knocks. I learned that I was a much more capable person than I ever thought I was and I set aside my shyness so that I might become an advocate for my mom. Later I would be a protector of my daughter and students as well. I was unafraid to do whatever I needed to do to make the world a little bit better place. I am still amazed at myself because not even I knew I had it in me.
In all honesty I never thought about my twenty first birthday until a group was reliving their youthfulness with stories of that auspicious occasion. They were stunned to learn that I have no memory of that day whatsoever. I think they may even have felt sorry for me but I was being totally honest when I told them that it did not matter at all to me that such a day was so lacking that I cannot remember it.
People often laugh at the way I seem to have vivid recollections of virtually every aspect of my life. As my cousin often says everything with me is a story. Turning twenty one was not one of those times. I was far too busy adulting to think about celebrating a moment that had already come for me. I suppose that in many ways I became an old soul early on but I’ve never allowed myself to act or feel old. Becoming an adult for me was always about accepting challenges and responsibilities and in truth I don’t think I missed a thing by jumping ahead in my development. All I really remember is how good I felt about helping my mom and my brothers. No adult beverage has ever been capable of bringing so much joy.