Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Personal History: On Turning 50

I found this in my old folders from April, 2002. It has no current significance except for the fact that I happened to find it this week. At the time, I was an editor for Manning publications, my first editing job after fifteen years as an author and journalist. Two jobs and some years later, I'm an editor again, which is a satisfying thing to be, but I think about writing, especially now that all offspring are either in or finished with college. What will I think upon turning 60? Stay tuned…

April 30, 1952

The burden of turning 50, a remarkable if not unprecedented event. It is as remarkable and ordinary as the day of my birth, April 30th, 1952. The young mother, Amelia, aged 27, experiencing her second birth in less than two years. “Twilight sleep” was the common practise for hospital deliveries then, thus saving the mother from at least a portion of her own experience. The young father, Reubin, almost 29, having attended numerous, though not many, births as a medical intern and resident, had a doctor’s authority to attend his own son’s birth at the old Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

The parents’ experience of my birth date me as assuredly as the political events of the day. Truman, a baby of the 19th century, was still president. Can my own children believe that I have lived through 11 presidents and the entire cold war? This should qualify me as something of a veteran, but it in no way defines me; no more than my age.

I do not remember my other remarkable birthdays. The turning of 10, 20, 30, and 40 bring back no special memories of grand celebrations or events of note. I remember a birthday party when I turned seven. We had recently moved to the house where my parents still live. I remember a sunny, mid-spring day and an underfurnished house. My friends, Jan Frisky, Jay Gouline, Hugh Hayes, Stevie Wexler, and Bruce Daniel (who alone remains a friend), joined the celebration of Russian tea, carrot sticks, and strawberry shortcake. Did we have hamburgers and hot dogs? I don’t remember.

It’s not possible that this was my only childhood birthday party, but none of the others left any sort of impression on my memory. There are movies of my older sister Julie wearing a tutu for her sixth birthday at the old house on St. Dunstan’s road. There was pin the tail on the donkey and musical chairs, my father had a brand new, pre-stereo, hi-fi, and he controlled the lowering and lifting of the tone arm on the turntable. It might have been a recording of Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra on a 78 RPM, long-playing record.

If my two younger brothers had birthday parties, I have only the vaguest memories of them. Laurie, one year younger, favored chocolate ice cream and managed get it on his person in the most unlikely places, behind the ear being one that lives on in the family lore. I remember baby Tommy, only three years younger, but the baby much past his infancy, experiencing cake and ice cream for his first birthday. He had a low baby table with a seat practically in the middle of it. There was plenty of room to spread birthday dessert all around in typical one-year-old fashion.

Age 13 was surely important for most of my friends, who celebrated with Bar and Bat Mitzvahs followed by luncheons and dinner dances. I remember many of the individual parties of that year, but not my own. I shall never understand the significance of “sweet 16.” I suppose it is a debutante thing, because only girls had a fuss made over their sixteenth birthdays. I assuredly made none made over my own.

When I turned 19 and was freshman at college in St. Louis, I remember my mother sternly reprimanding me over the phone for a lack of achievement and a complacent manner. I don’t know why she felt called upon to rebuke me on my birthday. I’m sure it is not something she would like to be reminded of. I was in architecture school, a place I had wanted to be for many years, but a place that brought me no pleasure or satisfaction. In my memory, it stands as my worst birthday. Could any others have been so disastisfyingly gloomy? I don’t think I wept, but there was no sense of pleasant satisfaction on that day.

18 was a more momentous anniversary. For the first time, one could both vote and drink at age 18, and there was the sense of insobrietous power. That was 1970, my senior year of high school, and the headlines for my birthday were punctuated by President Johnson’s bombing of Cambodia, which brought about the subsequent shooting of students by the National Guard at Kent State, a fateful turn in the ill-fated war in Vietnam and anti-war protests. My first presidential vote was cast for Hubert Humphrey, a personal acquaintance of my parents who had been friends with his sister, whom I remember as a large, brassy, smoker married to another Hopkins doctor.

I have no recollection of my second birthday in St. Louis, number 20, and nothing significant remains with me from my 21st birthday celebrated in Bennington, Vermont. However, among my few memorable birthdays, the 22nd, still in Bennington, is perhaps the best remembered. A few of us went to a Japanese restaurant outside of town. There were five of us: my brother Tom, then in his first year at Bennington; David Shorey, who became a dealer in antique flutes and is now a fugitive living in Amsterdam having been convicted of felony possession of Marijuana charges in Maine; Raymond Gargan, who has remained a friend and has also become a professional colleague, and Katharine Claman. David, as organizer of the event, brought two wild flowers of Bennington’s late spring that he had dug up and potted, a marsh marigold for me and blood root for Katharine, who nearly shared my birthday, hers being on the 28th. We have shared all our birthdays since and though we were just friends and not yet intimates for that first mutual celebration, every birthday since has reminded me of marsh marigold and blood root.

Why can I remember no other birthdays beyond the names of a few restaurants? They did not go uncelebrated. Another Japanese meal in Ithaca, New York with Katie Kazin, whose rare correspondences, including one for Katherine’s birthday this year, arrive by email from Jerusalem. Lunch at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, which was our regular Saturday indulgence at the time. I know that there have been many strawberry shortcakes and many friends to share them all. There were no children when I turned 30 in Palo Alto, California, and three sons by the time I turned 40 in Litchfield, CT.

I think I will remember the tiny wine room at Picholine, an elegant New York restaurant where my parents hosted this year’s personal silver anniversary. It is not so many months since Bush the younger became a war-time President, but the Twin Towerless city is filling its restaurants again. There is still a table of pictorial hero and disaster books at Barnes and Noble near Lincoln Center, but the table is less prominent and the books are fewer.

I have never felt the need nor had the desire to mark birthdays in a major way, but I do enjoy a dinner with family a friends. If birthday’s provide an excuse for such gatherings, then they are occasions worth celebrating. But no birthday seems more important or “bigger” than another. I have pointed out to my children that if we had eight fingers instead of ten, the eights would be an excuse for more marked celebration. And if we lived on Mars, there would be a longer time between annual events. The progress of time may be inexorable, but the counting of it is a man-made convenience. For me, personal memories are fixed in time as much by events as by any sense of age. 20 years of school, marriage, births, and the different places I’ve lived hold greater importance than the mere achievement of a half-century of enduring.

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