When his birthday came around every year, my father would say, “It’s just another day,” and it would pass quietly with no seeming distinction. I wondered about that, as for us kids, our birthdays were marked with a special cake and song at least, and maybe a small gift or two. My mother obviously did not entirely subscribe to my fathers’ Yankee stoicism, and did her part to make our lives welcome in this world.
I have often wondered about what it was like for my father to grow up one of twelve in a itty bitty house on the North Danville Road. As another child came along, the oldest needed to leave to make room for them. My father was a middle child, yet at 14 it was time to go, and he was sent down the road to milk the cows and do the chores for another family in exchange for his room and board. His childhood was behind him, and now it was time to assume the responsibilities of adulthood: “take care of yourself”, to put it bluntly. What were birthdays then? Just another day. The cows needed milking, the manure needed shoveling, and who remembered that today marked the day of his entrance into the world? Whose eyes rested on him with affection and pride? Who was there to bake a special cake? The fields needed haying in July, and who had time to pause for that?
Under the influence of my fathers’ patient acceptance of life, I grew up wondering about birthdays. If my father didn’t celebrate his, why should I mine? I looked around and found that “my day” was just another day. The day after my 10th or 11th or 12th birthday was roughly the same as the day before it. The leaves continued to drop from the trees and the morning was about as crisp and cool. I came to accept my father’s truth, and settled into the view of life that day follows day, and there is work to do in order to live. I forsook my childhood wish to be in the center of the universe and to be special, even if for but one day, and to only a couple people.
And then my daughter was born. I will never forget that day as long as I live, nor the day my son was born, nor the day my third child was born. That day and the hours that surround it are written into my body. I am not just talking about the pain of childbirth, I am talking about love. She was not the most beautiful perhaps, all red and wrinkly and misshapen, but she was ours, and I could not stop myself from looking at her and touching her. I was not prepared for the strength of the attachment that came wrapped up in her. She was special, by God, and it was not just another day.
Who would she become? What would she grow up to be like? It was a wonderful mystery to be unfolded as faithfully as the mornings and evenings. She was the center of our universe for a time, and it was natural to mark the day each year and look back in amazement at how much had happened in just one year. We loved her.
The example set by my father for himself was not lost on me however, and though I felt my children deserved to be remembered on their birthdays, there was awkwardness about my own. Awkwardness turned into uncomfortable ness and outright pain somewhere along the way as I rebelled against the unrelenting work that seemed to be all there was of life. The nice way to say it is that I lacked my father’s grace. The truth was that I was miserable, and spread misery about me around the time of my birthday for years, not being able to accept the expressions of love that were offered. Not loving myself and having poor manners combined for a devastating effect. After a while, those that loved me were uncertain and perplexed. I developed a reputation as being difficult and touchy around October 18. I now realize that the modeling my father had given me, flawed to begin with, was taken a step or two lower in front of the eyes of my family, and many things precious were spoiled. I had reached the bottom of my pit, and there would be steady work for years to find the handholds and footholds to climb up out.
Who am I? and why am I here? were the first questions I needed to answer. I watched my mother carefully for clues and examined the pathway of her life subconsciously. Was she anything but a work horse? After all she had done, where was the reward? Where was the respect and deference and honor due her? I didn’t see much more than a yellow corsage on mother’s day. Where was her husband? He paid her no mind, which is the worst insult of all. Where were her friends? She served them. Where was her family? They did not seem to care about her. What about us, her children? We owed her everyhing, but we often ignored her or laughed at her behind her back. And then she became the object of someone or other’s control needs, as we grew “smarter” than she was. That was all I could see. Was that where my life was leading?
I am filled with grief for my mother, and long to make it up to her somehow. She who loved and worked for us against insurmountable difficulties, we treated despitefully. It took it’s toll on her I know, and she began to face more inwardly, and closed some doors on us. We had proved unreliable. This year she turns 80. Is her birthday just another day? Well, yes. May’s days will unwrap flower blossoms before the 3rd and after it too. The robins will begin building nests and the phoebe will sing their saucy song each day of May. The world will not stop for her. She is not at the center of the universe. But no, it is not just another day. My mother is one unique individual in the swarming sea of humanity. She is someone. She is my mother, I have no other. Her life cannot be duplicated or erased. She is a creation of the God of the universe and He has spoken. The word is, “She will live. She is mine.” And she has done her work, which is almost completed. Her one last job is to come and live with me, and teach me how to live the last days of life in contentedness and peace. Then maybe she will be done and God will let her rest.
I have come to believe in the sanctity of all life. Mine and yours and hers and everyone else’s. Each life is special to someone. Let’s tell each other. The coldness creeps in without any effort. It takes the warmth of love to keep it away. Do not tell me that your birthday or mine is just another day. We are here. We belong to each other. I hope I can remember that and not forget.