Happy Birthday To Me

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By the end of this weekend I will have turned seventy years old. It’s a bit of a milestone. Most of the classmates with whom I attended school have already crossed that bridge. It’s far older than the average lifespan of people determined by actuarial science in the year that I was born. It’s a rather sobering sounding number by anyone’s standards, and for the first time in my life it actually seems to indicate that I am growing old.

I suppose that it would be best to accept my fate since it is the most natural of events. In fact, being able to add another year, another decade to my history is cause for celebration. In a time not that far past being seventy was not that common. It would have landed me among a blessed few. Still, I have to admit that reaching that age is a bit unnerving, not so much for superficial reasons, but because the unknown becomes a bit more murky after the age of seventy. It is indeed a very good idea for me to hold tight to every single day that remains in the rest of my life, for it is uncertain how many they will be, and certain that they are growing fewer with each passing year.

Save for accidents, wars, or natural disasters I have two possible scenarios for living out my days. One side of my family tends to enjoy good health until about the age of eighty when things fall apart. Most of the people in that group either suffered from heart disease, which I do not have, or they became afflicted with cancer like my mother, and both of my grandmothers. The other branch of my family lives very long lives, well into their nineties and beyond, and mostly in relatively good health with the ability to read and think and discuss clearly. My grandfather was literally in almost perfect condition until he celebrated his one hundred eighth birthday. I now have three aunts, siblings of my mother, who are living well past their mid nineties and slowly but surely approaching the one hundred mark. It remains to be seen which group I am most like, but given my present condition it appears that I more closely resemble the latter.

That realization gets me to a point of concern, for I vividly recall my grandfather quietly noting that growing as old as he did has the capacity of bringing sadness into an otherwise optimistic life. By the time of his death all of my grandfather’s children save one had died. His beloved spouse had been gone for thirty years. He had depleted his savings and lived from one month to the next on a ridiculously low government check. While he admitted to being fortunate because he was able to live independently until the final few months of his life, he still felt more and more alone as each passing year brought a new one. He missed the friends and family members who had one by one gone before him. In particular the death of his children was a sobering blow. He was blessed to be able to rent a room from a dear woman who became such a friend that he called her daughter, and rightly so. Still, he admitted that he had grown weary and was ready to get to heaven.

Long life is surely a blessing and I intend to enjoy mine and pray for good health in the coming years, but I’ve actually reached an age at which I am beginning to comprehend my grandfather more and more. He was a joyfully optimistic man, but I understood the worries that he hid so gallantly behind a curtain of courage. His conversations in the later years centered on nostalgia, and a kind of folksy wisdom that he wished to impart to us. As he continued to be with us year after year he became almost immortal and saintly in our minds. It was just as shocking when he died as it might have been at a far earlier age. We mourned the loss of a truly great man, but also understood how selfish it would have been to keep him with us any longer.

I suppose that these are somewhat dreary thoughts on a birthday weekend, and this is truly the first time that a new year of life has brought me such musings. There is something about the number seventy that tells me that I must enjoy each day with far more gusto than ever before. I must embrace my friends and my family and somehow let them know how much they mean to me with every single encounter.

Today the world is brilliantly beautiful to me with its vibrance and possibilities. There has never been a time in my life when technology, medicine, science and creative arts promised so much to even the most common human. Like my grandfather before me I see the past, present and future with new eyes. I understand that even as we quibble with one another and face problems that never seem to end, these truly are “the good old days.”

Mankind is without question a magnificent piece of work. I can see clearly beyond the ugliness and my view from this point in my life is glorious. I suppose that I realize that life itself is my most precious gift, and though my joints ache on most days, I am still filled with an inner energy that takes me to glorious places in my mind. I have learned like my grandfather that the world has a way of righting itself in spite of the quarrels that we create. The young take our places and lead us into a future that will no doubt only get better, without walls or artificial divisions. That sounds very nice, and I intend to go joyfully forward and push my concerns aside for another day. Happy Birthday to me!

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Good Fortune

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From September until the end of December I have always been deliriously happy. It somehow seems to be the best time of year for me. Six of my seven grandchildren were born in those months. My own birthday is in November and I was married in October. Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas are all celebratory times for me when I have the pleasure of being with family and friends. It’s difficult to dull my joy at this time of year, and yet I have also lost some of the most significant people in my life in the midst of all of my merrymaking. Those moments have been brutally difficult, causing me to just go through the motions of events that normally would have made me ecstatic.

Back in 2001, not long after the collapse of the Twin Towers I was already feeling quite distraught when my husband’s best friend, Egon, died suddenly from a heart attack. He had come into our lives when we were all quite young, and over time he was more like a brother than a friend. He had come from Germany to study at the University of Houston  where he eventually met the woman who would become his wife. His journeys back to his homeland would be only to visit his parents. Houston would become his new home, and he enjoyed bragging that he was not born in Texas, but had come as soon as it was possible.

Egon was a brilliant man with an astounding memory and an uncanny  ability to spin a story with vivid detail. His conversations were filled with information and insights. We often listened to him for hours on end, marveling at his ability to recall facts and describe ideas with such clarity. He would have been a remarkable college professor, but went into a career in sales instead where his skills in noting small details made him a super star. His death hit us quite hard and created a kind of emptiness in our lives that still lingers even seventeen years later.

Around the same time only a few years later my mother-in-law had a stroke that left her in a coma from which she never emerged. It was a major blow to all of us, and for me it represented losing perhaps the major source of wisdom upon which I had relied as an adult. I still long for the chats that she and I had on Sunday afternoons over a warm pot of tea. Perhaps that is why to this day drinking a cup of the brew brings me such comfort.

My mother-in-law was the kind of intellectual and confident woman who might have held court with the cafe society of Paris that included some of the world’s greatest thinkers, writers and artists. She was not just well read, but someone who was analytical and able to advance her opinions and thoughts with a persuasiveness and encyclopedic knowledge that few possess. She was the person who was able to provide me with solutions and serenity whenever I faced problems. She left a huge hole in our family that has never been properly filled.

A few years back my cousin, Jack, died from heart failure. He was a year younger than I am and it seemed rather unfair to lose him so soon. He and I were quite close when we were growing up. So many of my fondest memories of childhood were spent at his side. When I think of fun, his image almost always comes to my mind. He loved a good joke and always had the most delightfully impish smile, even in his final days when his health was failing him.

Jack was such a good man that my cousins and I joke that he is surely a saint, someone to whom we might send our prayers and petitions. He was kind and generous and loved. He was most certainly the best of us with his faithfulness and quiet ways of making us all laugh even when we were feeling down.

Last year, again at around this time, our dear friend, Bill, died. I had always said that Bill should have had his own talk show. He was incredibly entertaining as he spoke of books that he had read, trips that he had taken, or just expounded his political views. He had led a quite interesting life that took him from Detroit, Michigan all the way to NASA in Houston, Texas. He was a pioneer in the computer industry, and one of the bright young men chosen to help send humans into space.

After his wife died Bill liked to come by our house unannounced. He’d ring the doorbell in the middle of the day and then regale us for hours  with tales of his current adventures. I liked nothing better than to set aside my routines and just enjoy his visits. He is yet another person who was not just quite interesting, but also terrifically wise. There was something about him that made the world seem a bit more steady than it otherwise might have been.

I think of these remarkable people with a bit of sorrow, but I also celebrate the memories that I made with them. Those will never go away. They are tucked away so close to my heart that I am able to retrieve them anytime that I need a smile. I choose to celebrate my good fortune in having known them rather than focusing on the sadness of no longer expecting to spend a glorious afternoon or evening with them. I am one of the lucky ones who was close to them. I rejoice in my good fortune, even as I celebrate the season.

It Is Holy

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“Tis a Fearful Thing

‘Tis a fearful thing

to love what death can touch.

A fearful thing

to love, to hope, to dream, to be –

to be,

And oh, to lose.

A thing for fools, this,

And a holy thing,

a holy thing

to love.

For your life has lived in me,

your laugh once lifted me,

your word was gift to me.

To remember this brings painful joy.

‘Tis a human thing, love,

a holy thing, to love

what death has touched.” 

― Judah Halevi

I’ve found myself thinking of my dad, dreaming about him in the last few days. I wasn’t quite sure why, and then I remembered that his birthday would have been this week. He would have turned ninety five had he not died at the age of thirty three. Given that his father lived to one hundred eight, and he shared those genes, he might have had thirteen more years ahead of him. Of course that was not meant to be. Instead he was outlived by his mother and his father. He was mourned by his wife and children, children who are now older than he would ever be. Still we think of him, love him, and wonder what life might have been like if he had hung around just a bit more.

Some might consider it impossible to long for someone for sixty two years. It might appear to be neurotic, unhealthy, but it is a human thing to love what death has touched. My father lives on in me and in my brothers, in our children and grandchildren, We see snatches of him and the power of DNA in all of us. Thinking of him does indeed bring painful joy. We cling to the things that we know about him, even though we still have so many questions about who he really was. We see him through the eyes of the children that we were, idealized in many ways because of our innocence. We have learned about him from secondary sources, people who walked and talked with him. They have forgotten his flaws and now only choose to speak of him with a kind of reverence. It is a human thing to be that way. We all do it.

I try to tell my daughters and my grandchildren about him. I don’t seem to have adequate words to reveal his essence, his flesh and blood. They stare at me with blank looks when I attempt to regale them with stories about a man whom they never met. They do not comprehend because they never heard him telling a joke or smiled at the sound of his laughter. They can’t even imagine how much he loved sports, especially his beloved Texas A&M Aggies. They never sat with him on a fishing pier and literally felt his entire spirit soaring with the peace that being near the ocean brought him. They were not lucky enough to accompany him to a bookstore, any bookstore, and to witness his love, his passion, for the written word. They did not see him devouring print while classical music played softly in the background. They never got to watch him smile at his wife with a love and pride that stirred the heart. He is for them only a story, one that is difficult to fully grasp.

Even my brothers are only vaguely able to create a complete picture of him in their minds. A five year old and two year old are only capable of remembering so much. They often come to me for confirmation of the images of him that pop into their minds. They want to know if they are only dreaming or if they have been lucky enough to actually have a small part of him stored away.

Loving is a fearful thing, because sometimes it is punctuated with loss. Loss hurts. It scars. It shatters a part of the soul. Still loving is something that we never regret. We are always better for it. It is human. It is holy.

Happy Birthday!

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My mother loved birthdays with the enthusiasm of a child. She was the youngest in a family of eight, growing up during the Great Depression. There wasn’t enough extra income for gifts or even special meals or desserts, so she and her siblings always received a nickel from their father on the occasion of becoming one year older. Mama always said that she like to take her new found wealth to a bakery nearby where she was able to purchase a big bag of broken cookie pieces that she swore were just as good as the ones that remained intact. As the years passed by she and her brothers and sisters would faithfully send a birthday card to one another that always contained a nickel taped inside. I sometimes sensed that she enjoyed that tradition even more than the more expensive gifts that she received.

Today would have been Mama’s ninety second birthday. She often bragged that she and Queen Elizabeth were born in the same year, and somehow that fact made her feel a kind of kinship with the monarch of England. She noted that they shared a kind of resemblance as well, along with the fact of having their first born children in the same year as well. My mother always alerted us to the Queen’s birthday as a kind of hint that hers was on the way.

She was a stickler for celebrating her natal day at the time of its actual place on the calendar. She didn’t like the idea of waiting until the weekend, so even if we planned a party for her when everyone would be able to attend, my brothers and I still had to make a big deal on the correct date. I suppose that’s why I still think about her on June 27, even though it has now been seven years since she died. I think it would please her to know that we have not forgotten how special this day always was for her. In fact, we decided after she was gone that we would gather at her favorite restaurant each year to raise a toast in her honor. As it happens the place we chose is the Cracker Barrel in League City where she spent many a happy time enjoying the homey atmosphere and the kind of cooking that she might have prepared herself.

In an effort to look after our mother while she was still alive my brothers and I agreed to visit her at least once a week on different days. She usually wanted to go out to eat when we arrived, and sometimes she was even waiting eagerly on a bench that stood on her front porch whenever we drove up. That’s how excited she was about getting out of the house, but that was not the case on her birthday. On that day she wanted all of us to come to see her at one time so that it was like a party. She put me in charge of providing the cake, ice cream and candles. She preferred German chocolate or devils food cake, but she was always okay with a change of flavor. God forbid, however, that I would forget to bring the ice cream or the candles. Those things had to be done just right.

She was exceptional at providing us with festive birthdays even when her income was sorely stretched. She made a habit of shopping all year long and setting aside things that she had found on sale. Her gifts were always quite practical and long lasting, but most of all thoughtful. She was sure to come knocking at the door bearing all of the trappings of a big to do, even as we grew older. I never knew how she managed to be so generous, but I always understood that for her a birthday was supposed to be special no matter the circumstances.

When Mama turned eighty we decide to give her a surprise party. We had little idea at the time that she would die less than five years later. We only knew that we wanted to make her day bigger and better than ever. We sent out invitations to everyone in her stable of friends and family, and they all came. My home was crowded with people who loved her and were excited by the idea of letting her know how they felt about her. They had written letters to her that we placed in an album. We huddled anxiously as she walked up to the door and shouted with delight upon her entrance. She cried tears of unmitigated joy and bore the expression of a delighted child as she opened each gift and read each card.

We all miss my mom. She was the heart of the family and a continual source of fun and laughter. She suffered more than most with the loss of her husband at the age of thirty. Her loneliness, lack of income, and mental illness pushed hard to defeat her spirit, but she battled long and courageously to avoid defeat. Somehow no matter what else was happening in her life, she always rallied on her birthday. It was as though that occasion gave her new energy, new joy, a new beginning again and again.

We’ll be going to Cracker Barrel tonight. Not everyone comes each year, but I do my best to keep my calendar clear so that I will be able to make it. I know that the eldest of her grandchildren will be there along with some of their own kids. The people at Cracker Barrel seem to get a bit flustered when we arrive with such a large group. They don’t seem to understand the importance of the occasion, but we believe that Mama is smiling down on us from heaven. The party is for her after all and we intend to celebrate just the way she would want us to do.

Until We Meet Again

pexels-photo-424517.jpegDear Lynda,

I remember the first time I met you as clearly as if it was just yesterday. I should have been excited about moving to a new house, but I wasn’t. I liked my neighborhood, my friends and my school, and I could not imagine being as happy in a new place. I rather grudgingly traveled with my parents to our home, and was quite pleasantly surprised when your family came across the street to welcome us as soon as we arrived. When your mom found out that I was in the same grade as you she immediately introduced us and the rest was so glorious! It almost seemed as though we had been destined to meet and become friends. To this very day I still tell people that you were my first best friend, and probably the most wonderful of the lot.

I was six going on seven and could not imagine anything more wonderful than those happy days that we shared riding our bicycles all over the neighborhood while singing “Jesus Loves Me” at the top of our lungs. We’d hang out in the woods across from the school and squeal with delight on the big tree swing that went over the bayou. Each afternoon we paused to watch The Mickey Mouse Club together and discussed the Mouseketeers and the stories of Spin and Marty as though they were our real friends. I so loved being with your big family and eating at the picnic table in your kitchen. I felt as though I was your sister and sometimes even wished that I actually was.

We told each other our secrets and shared both our fears and our dreams. I don’t believe that I have ever again felt so completely close to anyone as I did with you back then. I loved your grandmother as much as my own and I still laugh with amazement as I remember her bending over to place her palms flat on the floor. That was a wonderful trick in my mind that made her even more lovable than she already was.

We joined the Brownie scouts together and I recall a sad time when Mrs. Guidry, one of our leaders, died. Our mothers took us to the funeral home to pay our respects and there she was lying in the casket in a blue negligee. You and I thought that it was hilarious to see her that way, and we began giggling so much that we were unable to stop. I think that our mom’s were horrified by our behavior, but we were just two silly girls who had never seen someone reposed in death before. I suspect that our laughing was more of a nervous reaction than a sign of disrespect, and  were such pals that our brains seemed to be melded together. We thought alike on so many things.

When my family moved once again, this time to California, I was bereft. I could not even imagine being without you. My time so far away was truly terrible and I suppose that I pouted and carried on a bit too much, but it was so painful to leave the one person with whom I felt so happy and free. Those months away were some of the worst of my lifetime and I often prayed that we would somehow be united. Of course we did come back, but our situation became so very different. My father died and I was so confused. My mother thought it best that my brothers and I not have to endure his funeral and it was you who understood how much I needed to know how the ceremony had been. You went with your family and then so honestly gave me all of the details. I always felt that our bond was even more special after that because I knew how much you understood me.

Life has a way of bringing people together and then pulling them apart, and so it was with the two of us. Even though we moved back to the old neighborhood after Daddy’s death we were many blocks away from you and so our meetings became a bit rarer, but we still stayed in touch and I so enjoyed every single time that we were able to talk and just be together. We were always able to pick up as though it had only been five minutes since we parted.

We went to different high schools and became involved in our teenage worlds and saw less and less of each other, but our special bond never grew weak. We married and started families and spent wonderful times visiting and watching our children play together. You had become so incredibly beautiful and I often laughed inside when I remembered how you had once wondered if you would ever be as lovely as your mom. Our worlds seem to be so perfect, but then life took over and jerked us into reality. I became a caretaker for my mother as she struggled with mental illness and you assumed the role of single mother, caring for your three boys and working full time. The years raced by and it seemed as though perhaps our friendship would be just a very lovely memory, but somehow we managed to speak again and found that we still had that magical feeling of comfort when we are together.

We’ve seen and done so much since those carefree days when we were little girls. Both of us will be seventy by the end of this year. I can’t even imagine where the years have gone, but my childish belief that we would somehow stay close through the years wasn’t so silly after all. The months may stretch out between our meetings, and we may be in different cities, but we somehow find our way back to each other time and again. With each meeting we realize that there is something rather special about our relationship that will never change.

I will love you and cherish our remarkable friendship for all of the rest of my days. You are a part of my heart, of my life, and I am so thankful that I met you. So much of who I am today was born on those bicycle rides and in our oh so serious conversations. You are an angel who is always on my mind. In fact, yours is one of the few birthdays that I always remember. Each April 19, for more than sixty decades I have thought of you and hoped that you are doing well. Thank you for being the remarkably loving and inspiring person that you are. May we both look forward to many more opportunities to see each other and to enjoying so much more laughter. God bless and keep you until we meet again. Happy Birthday!