Posts Tagged 'Birthdays'

Only 81

It’s my birthday. The 81st in a long line of memories.

Jackie woke me this morning with a new Patagonia backpack that replaces the one that mysteriously disappeared when we moved to our new house. A big birthday balloon that she somehow sneaked past me yesterday is now prominently displayed over my head. And other more personal gifts were bestowed on me before the day was but an hour long.

It was chilly and too early to jump out of bed and leap onto the treadmill. So we stayed and remembered. Remembered our first birthday together when Jackie organized a star-studded bash at the house on the mountain in celebration of my 79th. Never one to let grass grow under her feet, she would not wait for my 80th.

I recalled my 80th when we spent the weekend at the Beverly Wilshire where I walked into the hotel room and found myself swamped by eighty mylar balloons, a very large bottle of champagne, and reservations at some upscale eateries.

Pausing in our morning reverie, Jackie asked “How old do you feel?”

I took a nanosecond to mentally compile my physical short-comings and my state of mind. I calculated the total miles hiked during the past week, the number of Zoom yoga sessions, the resulting improvement in flexibility, my iffy eyesight, ever-changing blood pressure and the results of my recent annual visit with Dr. Halverson. Without further hesitation I said “Sixty-eight.” In retrospect I have no idea where that came from.

I guess that when you are 81, 68 seems young. Thirteen years of birthdays, good times, and bad ones. Joy and heartbreak. Highs and lows. The loss of my sweet Ila, the passing of my staunchly independent son Steven, and the death of my big brother Irv all weigh heavily on the downside. Starting a new life with Jackie has added sparkle, unexpected opportunities, and much love. On balance, thirteen years brought significant challenges, some growth, and a boatload of smiles.

Still too early to leave the warmth of the bed and Jackie’s body, I chronicled my early years. Grandparents took center stage. Jackie’s were gone before she was born. Luckier than she, I remembered my father’s mother; a frail woman who wore a sheitel, the wig that observant Jewish married women wore to conform to religious law. Grandma Hinda was one of a long line of vision impaired ancestors who unknowingly passed the malady to my father and then to my brother. A floating specter, I never heard her speak; she was gone before I was old enough to remember who she was.

My paternal grandfather never left the Ukrainian shtetl where he was born. All I have of him is a family photo that includes my five-year-old father and his four siblings…Rifka, Bella, Nate and Lou. His history is gone but he surely was of meager means who lived nervously through the pogroms thrust upon the Jews of that region by the all-powerful Czar who was intent upon blaming my innocent zaide for bad harvests, icy winters and defeats at the hands of other imagined infidels.

My maternal grandfather died in Chicago when I was too young to remember. My only image of him is the one found in an oval shaped photo affixed to his grave site marker in a cemetery vandalized many times, and what is now all but forgotten.

In contrast to the others, I vividly remember bubbe Cipa, my maternal grandmother who came to live with us when her husband died. Speaking broken English tinged with Ashkenazic Yiddish, she was my playmate and confidante. We shared a small, one window bedroom in Chicago’s West Rogers Park, where she rubbed my back, helped me get to sleep on humid nights and hummed a tune to soothe my senses. I often regret cheating her at gin rummy, even though she probably knew and chose to let me do it anyway.

Morris and Celia, my parents, never read a Dr. Spock book (to this day I’m not sure that my mother could  read) never attended a holistic seminar and had no knowledge of yoga, tai chi or gluten free. Had they even heard of Vegans they would have thought they were from Mars. Fully devoted to putting food on the table and shelter over our heads, their free time was a special event not often repeated. They loved me unconditionally and I never felt the need to hear it from their lips.

The passage of 80 to 81 seems of little significance. Yet it is when measured by its relationship to my remaining years. I find the thought comforting rather than depressing. It provides an urgency that was all but absent at 25 or even 65. The limitation on remaining life prompts me to enjoy, contribute and live it to the fullest. Whether I take advantage of it is up to me.

Thank you, Jackie, for the three birthdays we have shared. Each was different, but all were memorable. Each reminded me of my past. Each offered a glimpse of a beautiful future. It’s up to us to choose it.

I am my brother

My brother would have been ninety-three today.

Irv was born in 1927, two years before the Great Depression. I waited another twelve years for the economy to improve before emerging from my mother’s womb.

A twelve-year age difference was a bridge too far. We never played baseball together, developed sibling rivalry or did mischief that one would expect of brothers living in a Jewish ghetto on Chicago’s north side. I don’t know what he looked like as a teenager, nor do I remember hearing his voice echoing down the long wallpaper covered hallway in my parent’s second floor, two-bedroom apartment. I might as well have been an only child.

Lying about his age, Irv joined the army in 1944, never saw action but managed to develop a life-long relationship with tinnitus, one of several genetic dysfunctions that I shared with him. His army service was brief, some of it spent in Japan and Korea. He learned photography, took those skills home after the war and relied on them for years by chronicling life cycle events for others. I remember a picture of him in his army uniform and jauntily positioned cap. He was this handsome, bright-eyed guy who wore a natural smile as though it was ingrained in his DNA. He was better looking than me. People constantly mistook me for the older brother. He never corrected them.

He disdained the free college education offered to veterans, instead opting to get married, have children, divorce twice and finally land Jeri, the love of his life. In the early years, my parents were uncomfortable with Irv’s lifestyle, lent him money, but never offered advice that would have been immediately forgotten. Comparing me to him often led them to believe that I must be the older one.

At twelve, I baby sat for his daughter, Sharon. At seventeen, I regularly borrowed Irv’s Studebaker, that quirky looking, bullet nosed, dimly remembered two-door coupe with a stick shift. Four years later, he was in the bridal party that joined me with Ila. I still hardly knew him. Meaningful conversations were non-existent, and togetherness was largely a function left to family events to which he was usually late.

Irv’s second marriage was done on the rebound. Like the Studebaker, Anna-Marie was quirky. If he had asked me, I would have said don’t do it. But he didn’t ask, and life went on until the quirkiness lost its glamour.

Irv was a salesman who was honest and compelling. He sold mirrors, a process that was dependent on being invited into the customer’s home to measure walls and select styles. It was during one such adventure that he met Jeri, promised her unbounded love and did so for the rest of his life.

Ila and I moved to California and visited our Chicago relatives two or three times a year. My father became ill and was hospitalized. Irv was there to help our parents. It was as though he had turned a corner in his life, met his elder brother responsibilities, and took them on without looking back or complaining.

I was in California and of little help. My father died and our mother was alone. Irv visited her daily. He ran errands and delivered groceries for years until dementia took its toll on her. She entered a succession of facilities that included independent living, assisted living and fully assisted housing. Irv continued to watch over her while I made limited appearances. Her death finally freed him from responsibilities that he had willingly endured, while I continued to feel guilty by my self-limited role.

He aged and, like our father, developed macular degeneration. He gave up golf, driving, reading and other daily activities that we take for granted before they are taken from us. He needed assistance walking. His trips with Jeri to visit us in California became more difficult. During those trips he gradually displayed a loss of memory and an inability to perform certain functions. Sitting with him while he tried to add a column of numbers proved too much for him. He cried and I saw my brother in what had once been the role played by our mother.

The years he spent caring for our parents had also developed a closer bond between us. Our age difference now meant nothing. Conversations became more meaningful. Aging and illness were freely discussed. We looked at each other and knew what the other was thinking just by the expressions on our face, the tilt of our heads or the rolling of our eyes. We liked the same foods. We both lost our hair. Our laughs were identical. People still thought he was the younger one.

Luckily, I had chances to pay back the kindnesses that he had heaped on our parents. And I took them. I also aged alongside my brother and caught glimpses of what our parents must have suffered.

I look in the morning mirror and see Irv. I see his handsome, smiling face. But like Dicken’s Scrooge visiting the future, I also see what may yet come. I am concerned about my eyesight and daily test my ability to read road signs. I lay in bed in the early morning and silently count backwards from one hundred by seven; I dread making a mistake. I add columns of numbers without a calculator. I have more difficulty completing the New York Times crossword puzzle and wonder if maybe Will Shortz just made it tougher without telling me. I stupidly transform minor irritations into complicated medical cases that can only be treated at the Mayo Clinic.

I am becoming my brother… and I love him even though he will always look younger than me.

Happy birthday, Irv.

Happy Birthday to me!

I started celebrating about a week ago.  I’m 70 today.

Maybe the early start was just an excuse to abuse my body… more.  Had a cigar and an extra glass of wine last night, maybe two.  Or maybe it’s because I’ve begun to think about the number of birthdays yet ahead.  No sense wasting time.

Harry was 70 in March.  I remember his e-mail on that auspicious day… “I’ve entered my seventh decade.  Who’da thunk it.”  After counting on my fingers, I wrote “Harry, you’ve actually finished your seventh decade and started on your eighth…how does that make you feel?”

I stayed in bed a little bit longer this morning.  Sweetie was there too.  Nice.  I’d be there yet except for the first of a couple of phone calls from friends announcing my advancing age to the tune of Happy Birthday.

My niece, Sharon, sent me a YouTube link to some guy singing a song about getting older.  It’s been viewed nearly 4 million times.  I’m sure she didn’t know it was my birthday but the song sure fit.  I grinned, related to it and felt strangely happy.

As my old Rabbi used to say “Whenever I look in the mirror, I see a young man.”  And, except for the occasional unexplained body aches, and my increasing inability to rise gracefully from a sitting position, I feel pretty good.

It’s a beautiful day in the Upper Ojai.

Happy birthday, me.

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