As my 68th birthday approaches this summer, my thoughts collide like bumper cars in an amusement park.
“Mazel tov! You made it to 68. You’re so lucky!” says the optimistic voice. “Remember the Book of Genesis? Sarah gave birth to Isaac at 90 and died at 127 years old. Abraham died ‘full of years’ – 175 to be exact. You have plenty of time. Relax. Enjoy yourself!”
But then the sinister voice reminds me, “You don’t exactly live in biblical times. Mom died at 69. Hurry, hurry! There’s no time to waste. Finish that children’s book you’ve been writing for two years. Look for a publisher. Get that darned hearing aid already. Learn Italian so you’ll be ready for that villa in Tuscany you dream about.”
I’ll go crazy if I allow the bumper cars to have their way with me, so I decide to take charge. When I can’t sleep, I close my eyes and see a birthday montage. There’s no order to how the birthdays appear; they are just a mishmash of memories. I let the joy sweep over me like a tidal wave. I want to transfer this same excitement to my upcoming birthday.
Suddenly, I am at my 5-year-old son’s “Backwards” birthday party, where everything and everyone was, well, backwards. We wore clothes inside out, the slowest person won races, and the message on the cake was written from right to left. Was that the same party that a little boy playfully handcuffed himself to the swing set in the backyard, only to discover his grandma had forgotten the key?
I’m at my (step) father-in-law’s 90th birthday in our sukkah. He was the center of attention at this small family party. We were aghast to learn that it was the first birthday party he had ever had. We presented him with a book of original poems and stories about his life, and perhaps more importantly, his influence on our lives. Together with photo highlights, we honored him as the patriarch of the family. It might have taken him 90 years to make a wish and blow out the candles, but he assured us it was worth the wait.
I picture my mother’s 60th birthday party in my sister’s backyard in Connecticut. It had been a rough year for Mom, who had survived multiple surgeries and 12 months of chemotherapy fighting ovarian cancer. She was never one for speeches or for being in the limelight. With a mixture of tears and smiles, she expressed her gratitude to everyone who had called, sent cards, and visited her at home and in the hospital. She never could have gotten through the year without that support.
It seems that backyards are a recurring setting for our birthday parties, but sometimes it’s a big backyard, like the lawn at Tanglewood. How many birthdays have I shared with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a full moon, and surprise guests on the blanket, with barbequed chicken, bottles of wine, birthday cake, and bug spray? Of course, there was the time I almost missed my own party because of a severe bug bite reaction. I remember flashing my Medicare card for the first time at Urgent Care — on my actual 65th birthday! But happily, an hour later, I was on a blanket, holding my husband’s hand as we listened to the BSO under the stars.
Not all of our family birthday parties were in the backyard. First of all, some of us don’t have the luxury of a spring or summer birthday. Secondly, sometimes we replaced a sedentary lawn party with something more active. What about bicycles or good walking shoes? My husband and I walked along the winding cobblestoned streets of Prague and biked in the Blue Ridge Mountains and in Nova Scotia to celebrate our special days.
My birthday trip to Paris was a dream come true. However, a subsequent trip to the Loire Valley was a nightmare. Plagued by food poisoning or a stomach virus on my birthday, I thought if I spoke French (my high school version) I wouldn’t feel so terrible. I quickly learned, though, that stomach problems are the same in any language.
As I start to feel better about birthday traditions, I remember another family custom that makes me smile from ear to ear. Someone (usually me, but my children have begun taking up the mantle) writes a poem, a song, or a skit for the honoree, and then reads or performs it. The most fun is when we have a cast of characters aiding and abetting. Admittedly all this attention can be a tad embarrassing, but everyone knows this creative expression also is the ultimate expression of our love.
My husband was a good sport at his 60th birthday party. The skit we performed about him, full of truth and hyperbole, was a showstopper. My daughter, who lived in Philadelphia, turned an interesting shade of red on her 35th birthday, when I pretended her living room was the WHYY-FM studio and she was the subject of an interview by Terry Gross. Really, doesn’t everyone’s mom think she can pull off a “Fresh Air” interview?
Of course, the pandemic put a new twist on birthdays. We drove our decorated car and honked the horn in a birthday parade. We baked cakes but couldn’t share them, so we ate them all ourselves. We prepared video testimonials but never hugged anyone. One grandson celebrated his first birthday on Zoom, while the other had a very small, masked, in-person/outdoor party. Considering the covid statistics, we knew we were lucky to celebrate at all.
As I replay these birthday memories like a broken record, I begin to understand why I am grappling with my 68th birthday. Something’s amiss; all our family roles have shifted, and I don’t know how and when this happened. Carl Sandburg writes “The fog comes on little cat feet.” Never mind the fog. It’s growing old that sneaks up on you.
Of course, what I am saying is as old as Methuselah. No one can understand how we become our parents, and how our kids become us. How does a miraculous new generation suddenly appear, one that makes us laugh and speak an octave higher than normal? The best we can do is make peace with it.
For me, the only way to keep the bumper cars in my mind at bay is to look back with nostalgia and look forward with gratitude. I’ll appreciate our original family tree while embracing its ever-changing branches. After all, I have more songs and skits to write, and more alphabet books planned for my grandsons’ future birthdays. And that villa in Tuscany that’s waiting for me? I hope it comes with an e-bike.
“Buon compleanno” to me!
Merrill Silver of Montclair is a freelance writer. Find her at merrillsilver.wordpress.com