A Party? No Thanks!

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.

Toot Your Roots

I was told once upon a time by a spinster great-aunt who disapproved of my adolescent exuberance (and, perhaps, my apparent irreverence for traditions she held close) that in our vast family-tree, with its roots stretching back to highland-hills across the sea, I was surely the sap running through the branches.  The sap!

I probably smiled gamely, unsure about the implications of the comparison, although doubtless certain I’d been disparaged.  But, interestingly enough, her comment did prompt me to find out more about my family-tree.

roots 3

That lady and her sister, my grandmother, were first-generation Scots-Presbyterian, born into a family of nine to an austere, eastern-Ontario farmer and his wife—my maternal great-grandparents, dead long before I appeared as a bud on the tree.

Sometime in the early 1900’s, my grandmother married a Catholic suitor with a French name, whose family had emigrated to Canada from Ireland.  From the time I first learned to speak, I was told not to address him as Grandpa or Grandfather, not Poppa or Gramps (my preferred sobriquet now with my own grandchildren), but instead by his first name.  So, I did.

This worthy couple had five children, my mother being second in line.  She—in concert with my father, of course—eventually had five children of her own.  One of her siblings had one child only, the others none at all, so I and my sibs grew up with one first-cousin on the maternal side of the family-tree.

My paternal grandparents—he born in Canada to English émigrés, she born in Canada to parents of Irish descent—had three children, only one of whom, my father, had children.  Thus, I had no first-cousins on that branch of the tree.

family 1

Interesting, at least to me, was the discovery that, after my grandfather had married my grandmother, his brother had wed her sister.  They also gave birth to three children, so my father and his two sisters grew up with three double-double-first-cousins—a somewhat unusual occurrence on a family-tree.

Long after my disapproving great-aunt had passed to greater glory, I married a young woman whose family had similar roots to mine—Irish, Scottish, and English.  My wife has three siblings, and two first-cousins.  Her sibs have produced five children who are first-cousins to our own two daughters.  Our girls also have ten first-cousins on my side of the family, the children of my sisters,  for a total of fifteen!

As I delved into the history of our family-tree, I learned about the nomenclature and relationship of cousins—considered complex by some, incomprehensible by others.  I think it’s straightforward, however, so let’s see if I can explain it simply.

cousinsThe children of my first-cousin are my first-cousins-once-removed, as are my children to her.  Her children are second-cousins to mine.  That pattern is repeated unto the third, fourth, and all subsequent generations of cousins.  Easy, no?

We are now at the stage in our extended family where second-cousins (great-nieces or -nephews to me) are just beginning to have children.  Eventually, I expect this will lead to multiple sets of third-cousins, most of whom (due to constraints of time and location) will probably never even meet one another.

Two generations on from me, two of my five grandchildren—each with her own maternal and paternal branches of a family-tree—have a total of five first-cousins from both sides of their family.  The other three of my grandchildren, likewise growing from two branches of a family-tree, have two first-cousins.  None of those cousins has, as yet, had children.

Years ago, a good friend of mine, an artist and out-of-the-box thinker, developed a prototype for what would today be marketed as a family-tree app, which he called Toot Your Roots.  It didn’t catch on, although the digitized world we live in now might make it a feasible product.  As I recall, it had spaces in which to enter surnames in flowing script as each new family-tree melded with the others.

roots 1

If I were to attempt entering those names today—back to the time of my great-grandparents, forward to my great-nieces and -nephews, including both my and my wife’s branches, and those of our daughters’ families, and the families of their cousins, and so forth—I confess I could not do it.  Not without a lot more research.

Even now, having benefited from the endeavours of like-minded extended-family members, I can list only twenty-five surnames.  Descending across the years, they are:  Burt, Thompson, Smythe, Duck, McKinnon, Roche, Colquhoun, Fife, Dunleavy, Eaton, Eckert, Cherry, Rowsell, Whittington, Wigglesworth, Lansi, Moss, Curtis, Sweezey, Tiller, Tucker, Dunn, Fiorino, Guthrie, and Grant.

Given this partial list, and aware there are many more surnames I do not know, I envisage my family-tree looking like one of these—this dragon-blood tree on the island of Socotra (left), or this large banyan tree in Florida (right), one tree at root, despite its many appendages.

 

The thing is, I’m not sure where to look for myself on either of them.  My family-tree is just too vast, its roots and canopy too extended.

But I do know one thing for sure.  I am not the sap!