By Harriet P. Gross
July is my birthday month, filled with memories and stories. I believe everyone’s life is an unfolding series of stories that, by the time we reach a certain level of maturity, contributes in major measure to the makeup of our current lives. If our stories had been different, surely we would all be different people.
For me, BIG birthdays are the ones ending in zero, because as we mark them, they are marking off our lives into neat, manageable decades — fragments of a whole, each with its own story to tell and retell. I’m blessed (but sometimes cursed!) with a photographic memory that lets me put myself right back into the middle of each of those time-stopping moments, to relive them again …
Age 10: the usual little girl’s party. Back when I was one decade old, parents celebrated their offsprings’ birthdays at home, simple affairs with games (Did you ever Pin the Tail on the Donkey? Get frustrated by missing out on a Musical Chair?) and a simple cake baked by Mom, every slice topped with a scoop of ice cream. (One of my best friends cried every year because her birthday always fell in the middle of Pesach, so her cake always had to be naked sponge in that era before Manischewitz mixes.) And then, the obligatory giving of little gifts that provided momentary fun, more in the opening than in themselves.
Age 20: I had gotten my bachelor’s degree the month before at only 19 — much too young! I turned the decade clock as a summer camp unit head — also much too young for that! — then started graduate school, where I met the man (six years older! Wow!) who would become my husband. I thought 20 was so grown up, old enough for major life decisions. But, much too young! In those “olden days,” I couldn’t even vote yet, and I had to bring my mother along to sign the marriage license application — parental permission required under age 21!
Age 30: Two children, and moves from city to suburb, from apartment to house, from carefree youth to adult responsibility. For sure! I was writing for the local newspaper in an office within walking distance of my home, lucky to have abbreviated workdays that ended at the same time the kids’ schools let out. That day, friends were waiting on my patio to hand me a glass of wine and the popular sterling silver Parker pen of the time. It remains my favorite today.
Age 40: Divorced. Still in the same town, same house, same job, but very different children. (How could they be the same, now that they were rebellious teens rather than compliant youngsters?) So I “ran away” to a hoped-for quiet, relaxing week with dear relatives in North Carolina, and spent the whole time glued to the TV, watching the Watergate fiasco unfold. My mother sent me a gold disc for my charm bracelet (all young women of that time seemed to have charm bracelets) engraved “Mazel.” “That’s what you need most at 40,” she said. She was 70 then and knew lots that I still didn’t …
Age 50: The BIG scary one. Usually. But I had had that Mazel, happily remarrying and moving to Dallas four years before. The two kids, now responsible adults, had also married, one in each of the following two years. Fifty was the relaxing time I had wrongly anticipated a decade earlier.
Age 60: Family and friends remembered my birthday, but totally forgot that it was a BIG one. Very depressing! I told everyone then that, when the next 10 years had gone by, I wanted a roomful of black balloons! This is the saddest of all my birthday decade stories.
Age 70: Husband and I sat in the rain on the mountain grass of Vail, Colo., eating soggy sandwiches while listening to the glorious music of the Dallas Symphony in a setting so different from the Meyerson. On our arrival back home, two huge but strangely lightweight boxes were waiting for me, from Pennsylvania and Illinois. When I opened them, many, many black balloons floated out and up to the ceiling, filling the room. My children had remembered!
And so do I remember every one of those birthdays as I mark this year’s, which is not a BIG one, but has its own little story. We all have our stories. When your next BIG birthday arrives, think of your stories, and tell them again. At least to yourself …