As many of you know this past week was my birthday. I mean the whole week. My actual birthday is July 2, but my mother died suddenly on my twentieth birthday. I woke up that morning and heard the voices of my aunts in the kitchen downstairs and assumed they were there to surprise me. They were in a way; they were there to tell me that my mother had died that morning. She had been in the hospital but as we were a family of secrets like most alcoholic families, we didn’t know that she had cancer and was dying. Because of that horrible surprise, I celebrate with the rest of the country on July 4.
My family, of course knows the story, so I start hearing from my sister and children before the second to ease me into birthday week. Quiet dinners to mark the birthday follow on the second when I think a lot about my mother, who died at forty-four before she had had much time to do anything she desperately wanted to do. She had married my father who had proven to be a poor provider as well as a dreamer and a con artist. My mother was raised in comfortable circumstances and wasn’t brought up to live the measly life we lived as my dad dreamed up ways to get rich quick. She had aspirations for furs and diamonds, and we would go to Saks in a limousine owned by one of my father’s sketchy friends, buy loads of clothing, but would send it all back when it came because we couldn’t really afford it.
On the fourth I love to get lost in the red, white, and blue hysteria of the holiday, and I adore the fireworks which I pretend are in my honor. This year my dear friend Julie invited us over for a wonderful cookout to celebrate my birthday, and afterward Ron and I joined our friends in the valley watching the amazing display put on by a family with a large field in front of their house near ours. Our neighbors were all there with folding chairs and blankets spread on the grass. The night was cool and damp, and Ron and I sank down on a blanket and watched the show with them. It reminded me of Fourth of July fireworks when I was a child in Englewood. We would watch from blankets spread on the grass and hold “punks” which were like incense sticks we held to repel mosquitoes. When the fireworks show was over we meandered home without having to deal with crowds or traffic.
Post 4th, my children got together and created a feast at my house and cleaned up before they left. Natty is an amazing chef and created some of my favorite Italian foods: spaghetti, Eggplant Parmigiana, and Chicken Parmigiana. Then after dinner Abby asked everyone present to say what they loved about me. I died of embarrassment, but also loved so much what they said to me.
My birthday is always a time for me to beat myself up for everything I have failed to do. I haven’t completed or published a book, I haven’t gotten a doctorate, and I haven’t hiked even a small section of the AT. It’s always easier for me to point to my failures than successes, but this year I felt that hearing from friends and former students on Facebook eased the pain. I have made some impact after all.