Another birthday, the eightieth since my actual day of birth, is looming.
If I have my way, there will be no party celebrations to mark the occasion—no gathering of friends, no gifts, and most mercifully, no public rendition of that ubiquitous birthday song by a bored, yet dutiful, cadre of restaurant servers. Rather, the occasion will be marked by a fond embrace from the one who has been alongside for all but the first twenty of those eighty anniversaries.
For me, the party tradition has gone on too long. It’s not only over now, it’s overrated.
The last big celebration I remember was on my twenty-first birthday, when my parents planned a party to honour the passage of their firstborn from boyhood to manhood—as if it had happened all at once on that given day.
In 1802, Wordsworth memorably observed, The child is father of the man…, and so it has always seemed to me. But truth be told, in all the years spent being a man since then, I don’t believe I ever left the boy behind. He lurks behind the adult mask, only rarely emerging, as though fearing he’s no longer welcome. But I still search him out sometimes, if only to reassure him.
I don’t really remember that twenty-first birthday party, of course, it having occurred almost sixty years ago. But I do have photographs to remind me of the momentous occasion—washed-out Kodachromes of people who meant the most to me back then—some gone now to their spiritual reward, others, like me, to lingering adulthood.
My mother and dad grace several of the photos, beaming with parental pride (I’ve always chosen to assume), both of them decades younger than I am now. How can that be, I wonder, and where did those years go?
My siblings—a brother and three sisters—all stand with me in other pictures, our arms around each other, full of that relentless, youthful optimism that has not yet encountered the eroding onslaught of time. It did assail us eventually, of course, but so far, all but my brother have survived.
A couple of close friends were present at that party, too, both mere weeks older than I, and eminently wiser (or so I imagined, given their earlier entry into manhood). Both remain fast and true friends to this day—and they, too, like me now, have reached the end of their eighth decade. Imagine!
Most dear of all in those faded photos is my high school sweetheart, smiling happily, if a tad uncertainly, still getting to know the large, somewhat strange family whose son she was keeping company with.
On that day, we were still two years removed from the moment when she would accept my offer of marriage, and she, I’m sure, had no idea right then that such a fate awaited her. Even I, it must be said, had only begun to suspect she might be the one. That longed-for wisdom prevailed, I suppose.
Anyway, that’s the last big celebration I recall. There have been many so-called milestone birthdays along the way—the thirtieth (Never trust anyone over thirty!), the fortieth (Forty is the new thirty!), the fiftieth and sixtieth (the golden years, so dubbed by those who couldn’t avoid them), and even the seventieth (entry point to the last of the three stages of life: youth, adulthood, and You’re Lookin’ Good!).
But the milestone birthdays never impacted momentously on me. Each was just one more marker in a so-far-endless progression of years, gratefully attained, yet no more important than any of the others.
Among the most special greetings I receive on every birthday are those from my two daughters, both of whom endearingly insist that I’m not old, I look terrific, and I’m every bit as good as I once was.
“Hmm,” I tell them, “maybe I’m as good once as I ever was!”
For the past twenty-one years, I’ve been further blessed to hear from a younger set, my grandchildren, five in number now, who cannot for the life of them understand why there won’t be a big party on my special day, with balloons, and cake, and lots of presents. Not to mention the goodie-bags they used to get at their friends’ birthday parties when they were younger.
“Don’t you like parties, Gramps?” one of my granddaughters once asked.
“Don’t you have any friends, Grandpa?” my grandson chimed in.
But I always told them I’ve had more birthdays than I have friends and family combined, and that on my birthday, I’m more than content just to have my grandchildren loving me.
“Oh, we love you, Gramps,” they affirm. “But grown-up goodie-bags might still be a good idea, y’know.”
I do know. My goodie-bag has been overflowing for eighty years.