As I write this, my birthday is fast approaching. As you read it, it’s already come and gone. This is one of those birthdays they call a “milestone,” whoever “they” are. And what the heck is a milestone, anyway? I’m picturing a big rock with a number on it, something that guided medieval travelers on their long, pointless journeys. Spotting the next milestone, I’m sure they perked up and congratulated their traveling companions with exclamations of, “Look! We’ve come so far! Now where was it we were going?”
So, yeah. I’ve come so far. I remember so many things, I hardly have room to remember anything new. I remember Sputnik, and getting our first color TV, and the Cold War, and the Vietnam “police action,” and protesting so girls could wear pants to school. I’m so old, I was around before “old school” was a term. I had an autograph book, on the off chance I would meet John Lennon walking around downtown Davenport, and special cases to hold my record albums.
For my last milestone birthday, my husband threw an open house for our friends, with a big chocolate cake from Eagle on Locust (remember Eagle on Locust?) and a strict notice that presents were not necessary. Some of my friends, bless their hearts, blithely ignored him. So what if I didn’t need any more bubble bath? Everyone should get prizes – I mean presents – on their birthdays. It makes them feel special when they are young, and it girds them up for the trials of aging as they grow old.
Growing up, I had some wonderful birthdays, and I have the pictures to prove it. In one, my friends and I are all wearing party hats, even the boys. My mom made the hats. She made the cake, too, always the same because it was my favorite – boxed confetti angel food cake, with white seven-minute frosting concocted in her double boiler. I doubt I could choke a piece of that down today, but back then it was manna.
Later on, I got to have slumber parties, where very little slumbering took place. My folks had a bar in the basement, so of course we had to play drinking games with Pepsi. One year, for my 16th birthday, my dad made me an honest-to-goodness go-go cage, in which pairs of girls took turns pretending to play guitars and lip-syncing to the Beatles and the Byrds with an amazing lack of self-consciousness. Needless to say, there were no boys at these parties, though I believe Cindy Williams may have snuck out of the house to meet up with her boyfriend. Me, I preferred the company of my girlfriends. Sweet Sixteen and never been kissed? Well, no, but that’s not what I wanted on a birthday.
Some people are uncomfortable celebrating birthdays. My husband, for one, but I think he grew so used to sharing his party – he’s a twin – it just never seemed right to him to be the sole center of attention. I didn’t have that problem. My only sibling was eight years my senior, so there was no competition there.
We had our birthday traditions. Every December 3rd, I would wake up, walk down the hall to the kitchen, and find a present from my parents. As I grew older, the present morphed into a note from my mom. One year it said, “Your gift is a new bookcase, which your father will bring home tonight.” Another year Mom joked, “Here we go again. A subscription to Glamour and Mademoiselle. Happy birthday, doll.” She really called me that. Or sometimes “doll baby.” Her mom must have called her that. I miss it.
I miss all my extended family, most of whom are gone now. (I lost my last uncle in November.) When we were young, my cousins and I had family birthday parties, not instead of friend parties, but in addition to. Boy, were we lucky. We just took it for granted. Aunts and uncles, not to mention grandparents, gave different kinds of presents than friends did – a new pair of white gloves for church, maybe, rather than 45-rpm singles from the Top 40 – but they were special for just that reason. The cake was always good, and my cousins and I loved running around Grandma’s house while the grownups talked.
Now it’s just another year come and gone. Another decade, I mean. I remember turning 35 shortly after my kids and I moved to Dubuque, and thinking that was both old, really old, and cool. In fact I had met someone in grad school who, upon turning 35, announced that this was the age she had always wanted to be.
I remember turning 40, too, and proudly sporting a button announcing that fact to everyone who came into the Loras library. I was astounded when I tried to give it to a colleague who was turning 40 the same week as me and she refused it. She was embarrassed! She didn’t want anyone to know!
Silly her. I guess I can understand, although if I could be 40 again, I’d sure feel young. But hey, isn’t 50 the new 30? And 80 the new, I don’t know, 72? And why am I not telling you my age? After all, my best friend will turn the same age six months from now, and she’s still vital and beautiful. I’ve always told her I’m checking things out, if not blazing the trail, for her. So I’ve promised to let her know what 60 is like, until she joins me here. Not over the hill, but right on top of it. The grass is green, and there’s quite a view – both forward and back – from way up here.