In My Mind's Eye

I love birthdays! Especially big ones, which I define as any with numbers that end in zero or five. And I marked one of these yesterday.
Notice, I don’t say “celebrate.” When one reaches a certain age, it seems to me that every birthday is actually a big one. Especially when, as a cousin who is a couple of years older likes to remind me, we’ve stepped right up to the head of the family line.
So I “celebrate” with an evening of theater and an ice cream cake treat, but “mark” the occasion with looks backward to memorable birthdays of the past.
I start with my first zero — birthday number 10. All my friends were gathered around the table. Mother cut the cake and dished out the ice cream, and I opened the presents. I almost cried when the book I’d hoped to get — “Anne of Green Gables” — turned out to be “The House of the Seven Gables.” It took me a few years to realize that the second would serve me much better in the future than the first.
At 20 — “only 20,” everyone kept remarking — I was a bride. They were right; that was far too young. At 30, my mother presented me with a gold charm, its raised Hebrew letters reading “mazel” — what a woman needs after three decades of living, she remarked. It is still hanging on my favorite bracelet (along with the miniature mah jongg tile she sent me five years later. Only the Joker and Seven Crack tiles came as charms; she declined the first, saying that being 35 was nothing to joke about.).
At 40, I was single again, having a modest amount of mazel at work and with my children. My best friends tossed a little party for me on my own patio, with wine and wise words, and one of them gave me a silver Parker pen trimmed in gold. I still have that, too, but I use it only at home; I’m too afraid that I’ll lose it if I take it outside anywhere.
Before I turned 50, I started hinting that what I really wanted for that occasion was black balloons! They seemed funny to me at the time, because 50 somehow seemed “young” at the time — as of course it does now, when it seems even younger. (But I have always considered “old” to be five years older than I am, at whatever age I happen to be.) However, it turned out that I reached 50 in the hospital, recuperating from my first breast cancer surgery. So much for black balloons, which had suddenly taken on a new meaning, much more ominous than humorous.
I wanted the black balloons again at 60, but a funny thing happened on my way to that milestone — and when I arrived at it. Everyone but me forgot! Oh, my husband and children and friends remembered that it was my birthday, but not that it was a BIG birthday. So I didn’t get the balloons, or anything else out of the ordinary, to mark the day. (A few weeks later, I was visiting with a treasured old friend who lived a thousand miles away, when I felt moved to mention my disappointment to her. And much to my own surprise, I found myself crying.
I had fought back the tears at 10, but somehow couldn’t do so a half-century later. How embarrassing, to weep where we were at the time, in the fine gifts department of Marshall Field’s flagship Chicago store. The dear woman promptly bought me a beautiful Belleek butter dish, to “grease” my road to happiness, she said. I have never used it, but it’s in a special place in my living room where I can see it all the time, and remember.)
And then, when I was 70, the little miracle happened. The mailman rang my doorbell and asked me what in the world could be in the two huge but incredibly lightweight boxes he’d just unloaded from his truck. I invited him in to help me find out. One box from my daughter, far away; the second from my son, even farther away. We opened them together, and out of both flew — black balloons, helium-filled, still able to fly high after their long, confined journey! A 20-year delayed treat, something to enjoy then and to savor forever after as I mark new birthdays — including yesterday’s — by looking backward on fond, fond memories.

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