Reader warning: This post has nothing whatsoever to do with France. Aside from the great Brooklyn fashion you should imagine everyone wearing, this whole birthday story could have unfolded in Peoria or Buffalo or Cleveland. If you find yourself missing France references too much, make a strong cup of espresso, give yourself a nice haughty Gallic glare in the mirror, and wait just a few days; we'll be back (home?) soon. And by then maybe I won't be so darn giddy.
I've never been one to downplay my birthday. I am the sort of person who resorts to pesky tactics like writing my own birthday on other people's calendars. Or writing entire blogs reflecting on/lamenting the fact that I'm turning 40, as though yet another year of life on this planet is not itself the greatest gift imaginable.
Born just a few days after New Year's, I often celebrated my birthday on the first day back to school after a long break -- the biggest bummer Monday of the year. Thus I had to toot my own party horn if I was going to get any birthday wishes at all. And I will readily admit to liking birthday wishes, ideally in multiples, and covered in cream-cheese frosting.
When I was a kid, I would send out party invitations in December, way before vacation started, but the birthday sledding fests I imagined would inevitably be canceled because of some awful Carter-era snowstorm: six foot snowdrifts and winds gusting to 80 miles per hour. My classmates' parents would be (sensibly) scared to drive their cars into our arctic tundra driveway, so I would spend the afternoon pouting before we quietly ate Mom's delicious big yellow cake with chocolate frosting, which would help me get over it.
But this year more than made up for any parties I missed in my youth. For the people I love threw and attended not just one, but two pretty stellar birthday celebrations. After all that top-shelf partying, I should actually now be 80 years old, rather than 40. Which might not be the worst idea: I'm no Jennifer Aniston or Catherine Zeta-Jones, but I sure would be one hot octogenarian.
We scheduled our family's trip to Brooklyn in the middle of our year away in part to have Christmas at home, but also so that I could spend this milestone surrounded by friends and family. We've been celebrating a ton of 40th birthdays these last few years. Fairly good-size birthday parties, complete with toasts and re-written rock song lyrics seem to have taken the place of weddings as the must-attend events of the decade. (Funerals, happily, not so much. Miles to go before we sleep.) While I stopped short of tattooing 1-5-10 backwards on everybody's foreheads, I was not at all shy in asking for help crossing over into the furrowed, forgetful land of Middle Age. I don't care if 40 is the new 30, 25, or even 15 for that matter. It's a big deal.
Not surprisingly, the first friend to come through, bigtime, was Jackie. If you've ever met -- or even heard of -- Jackie, you know that she is a fierce force to be reckoned with in the kitchen. She throws a party with the same enthusiasm and skill with which I can only throw a fit of pique. (Of course, when she's the one throwing, everybody has a great time. I tend just to clear the room.) Back in October, when she was visiting us, she started her planning, and then kept it up even when it turned out that she would be changing jobs the day before the day we had chosen.
And not just changing jobs: changing from one enormous job to another, even bigger one. She's helping to run a whole city right now, and I am so not exaggerating. So she really could have bowed out, and I still would have loved her forever, no questions asked. But Jackie is nothing if not loyal, and she and I have been celebrating our birthdays together for almost 20 years. So thanks to her dedication and friendship, I had that to look forward to, the night before our scheduled return flight.
(We are, as I write this, still in fact here in the states, a full week hence. But more on that later.)
At the same time, Bill had his own (very sweetly crazy) ideas, and once he got Buck and Katie in on the planning, they decided that they would throw a dual-purpose Getting Old party for Sean and me -- complete with appearances from several important local rock, country, surf, and teeny-bopper bands. Unlike Jackie's party, which would be elegant and perfect, this one would be rough-around-the-edges. And also perfect.
Like I said in the earlier post, I was coated in swirling fairy dust of luck, everywhere I turned. As it was in fact impossible to deserve this much attention, I just decided to appreciate it all as deeply as I could. This is not my usual mode -- joyful, unquestioning appreciation of things -- but I've spent big swaths of this year trying to teach my old dog self that new trick. Because damn, if you can't be happy with a whole year off from work, living in a villa in Provence, with healthy kids and a healthy family, you ain't never gonna be happy, sister.
The Sean-and-Rock party would happen first. We drove back to Brooklyn after Christmas with my folks, and immediately started in on rehearsals in Buck and Beth's basement. Once Bill and Katie started the ball rolling, the congenitally enthusiastic Buck had been pulling bands and set lists and plans together for months over email. So there were lots of songs to be learned.
Our old band, "Love Handel," had morphed in our absence into a much more tightly professional-sounding surf-rock group, which seemed to be named both "The Tiki Brothers" and "Scorpion Bowl." Sean would join the re-formed old band lineup, doubling Bill on bass, when Love Handel translated itself to "Les Poigneés d'Amour" and reprised half the set list of our Bastille Day concert, 2009.
The M&M's would harmonize on some beautiful country-themed songs (including a never-before-imagined C&W version of the Jackson 5's "I'll Be There.") The Fifth Street Band, a classy quasi-pro outfit if I have ever had the chance to sing with one, very graciously prepared a bunch of songs on which I could sing lead or harmonize.
Amelia, Grace's best friend and Sean's daughter, pulled together Pigeon Wing. I know for certain that I am exaggerating like a proud mom when I tell you that they are the coolest group of ten-year-olds you can imagine. Backed by their four dads, Janet, Lily, Amelia and Grace would not only sing beautifully, but also get to feel like real rock stars.
Many of my life's best moments are a result of things spinning just the tiniest bit out of control in just the right direction, and I am glad to say that the first birthday party, in the noisy basement of our second-favorite bar, Union Hall, spun in just that way. Toni decorated with Katie, who had found a great caterer, Sean's family came in from out of town, and the room filled up with cheerful, happy people, some of whom were not even in the bands. The staff looked pretty grouchy about having eight excited and therefore unruly children running around and playing with the microphones, (it was, after all, a bar, mostly full of actual grownups, all dressed just as Brooklyn-hip as you might imagine them) but I certainly felt that the kids certainly added nicely to all the happy chaos.
That night I got to celebrate Sean's birthday with his family, but I also got to see a great motley assortment of friends. In no particular order: a number of my kids' friends' parents who I really adore; old friends from work who came from Way Up North in Manhattan and from Jersey, bringing me a (40 oz) jug of Budweiser; the friend from whom I inherited my old job; and also the lucky soul who inherited it in turn from me. Old and new friends from our block. My former high school students, themselves creeping up towards 30.
(If you want to feel suddenly aware of the passage of time, here's a funny little formula: have your daughter perform in a rock band in front of some successful lawyers and bankers and actors who were your Eleventh Grade English students when she was in utero. Weird for them, and worse for you.)
I also liked -- no, make that loved -- all the singing I got to do, ripping into "The Weight," "White Rabbit," and "Brass in Pocket," and singing harmony with the Tiki Brothers on "Don't Pass Me By," the song that had rescued my sanity the day Grace had that awful, scary asthma attack. "Les Poignées" reprised the satirically faux-angry Love Handel anti-Food Co-op anthem, "Keep On Shopping at the Key Food," much to the amusement of members and non-members alike. (Hypocracy alert: that song may someday be my downfall when I need to come back from Brooklyn and can't figure out where else I can buy the quality of food I learned to love overseas.)
But the highlight of the evening, at least for me, had to be the Pigeon Wing set, during which the four ten year old girls sounded indescribably innocent and joyful and sweet. They sang "Unwritten," with Lily driving the beat forward on her drums and Amelia belting out the melody that spiraled up and up and up; it was a perfect song for girls so young and creative and alive. Katie had also picked out a Flight of the Conchords song, "Friends," which despite its off-color references, was the perfect song for them to sing. (You really should listen to it. Right now. Here.) The girls sang a Taylor Swift song, reworking the words so that Amelia could sing to her Dad, and Grace could sing to me. For days and days afterwards, I could hear them singing the chorus so earnestly, in soprano unison: "I know that I had the best day. With you. Today."
As you might be able to imagine, there was significant joyful weeping from me as they sang. Enough that I felt pretty embarrassed. But by and large, birthday parties tend to be pretty friendly and forgiving occasions, at least for the people having the birthday. If anybody found me ridiculous in my pride and joy, they kept it nicely to themselves. You, dear reader, are entitled to snigger behind your hand if you wish; I'm not sitting next to you as you read, so go right ahead.
At the end of the evening, I was exhausted, and just the teeniest bit tipsy, and happy as all heck. I had in fact had the best day. With you. Today.
The rest of the week brought with it a new year, a new decade, a late-night NYE dance party, and a lot of quiet afternoons and evenings soaking up time with the friends we had missed so much while we were away. Living there in Brooklyn, with my newly-developed slow amble and new eyes -- more open to the beauty of light and color, and grateful for all the open American faces -- I experienced the old places as though I hadn't seen them before. We took Samson for long walks. We ordered takeout in every flavor except French. We got together with old friends for long conversations over coffee or tea or a big glass of Malbec, and reminded ourselves of the comfort and intimacy you can only find talking one-on-one with a trusted bosom friend.
And then all the sudden it was time to bookend the week with yet another big chorus of Happy Birthday. I was more than a little embarrassed by all my riches. (But I got over it. Once again, the cake really helped.)
As I mentioned above, Jackie's parties are fairly legendary, so I shouldn't have been so surprised by how many people managed to get themselves to Brooklyn and find willing babysitters on a holiday weekend. There were beach friends, and band friends, Brooklyn friends, a heavy contingent of college friends, and my parallel-life best friend from elementary and high school. Several of my friends' parents (after twenty years now, my friends as well) came. And Mom and Dad, Gaela and Jim came down on the train from Albany, too, even though they had just seen us for the Holiday Olympics of 2009.
Jackie had cooked all week long: homemade Gravlax and handmade sushi. Little light cheesey Gourgettes prepared in advance and then puffed on the spot, two colors of olive tapenade, three kinds of little tarts, and four kinds of my new favorite French cheeses. She had even made peppermint marshmallows -- from scratch: did you know people could even do that? -- in honor of our Guy Savoy lunch back in October. The larger miracle is that she and Loni actually continued smiling while turning out treat after treat after treat for the grateful guests. If this whole running the city business ever gets old, she could go pro.
Jackie delegated to my Dad the important job of photographing me with all of the guests as they arrived. If you know my father, you will realize that he takes any job that he is given very seriously. He kept tabs on the few people who managed to slip past me at the door, tracking them down like a hunter to snap them later on. A skilled marksman never misses. Between Jackie and Loni and Dad, with Jim and Gaela on drinks patrol, this party was really cooking with gas.
Then, as the evening was really getting underway, I noticed a minor commotion over the shoulder of the friend I was talking to. As far as I could tell, everyone who was coming was already there, but there seemed to be a whole bunch of new guests at the door. I assumed that Dad would immediately call me to the door for a few more smiles and hugs.
But then I realized, with an emotion so powerful I am still having trouble finding a noun for it, that these were not more of the guests I had expected, but a past life walking in the door. Fourteen of them, to be exact, all incredibly beautiful. All wearing black.
So you might know that I really, really, really love to sing. In college, most of my singing took the form of the particularly goofy genre of collegiate a cappella singing. If you're not familiar with the form, imagine a small glee club crossed with a cover band crossed with a sorority. Some fellow sophomores and I, having all been rejected from our college's other women's group, started our own group, The Amherst College Bluestockings. We spent hours and hours every week rehearsing, trying to get the sound, the humor, the attitude and even the choreography exactly right. It was one of the most fun things I have ever done.
I had met some of the recent graduates of the group in the last year or so (through the multi-talented Paris Jessica) and so I immediately recognized them as they walked in the door into Jackie's apartment, smiling as though they had all eaten a great big bunch of canaries.
There were current Sox as well, young women much closer in age to Grace than to me. So all the sudden there were a huge big bunch of them in Jackie's dining room, all there to sing. They looked like goddesses, and they sounded absolutely beautiful.
My favorite Bluestockings song is one that we never actually sang when I was in college, but which we sang together on the stage of Buckley at the group's 20th anniversary reunion last year. It's a Sweet Honey in the Rock song, called On Children. When I heard Sweet Honey sing it, back in college, I just thought it was a pretty song. But as a parent, I understand just how true are its admonitions and promises:
Your children are not your children. They are the sons and the daughters of life's longing for itself.
They come through you, but they are not from you, and though they are with you, they belong not to you.
You can give them your love, but not your thoughts. They have their own thoughts.
You can house their bodies, but not their souls, for their souls dwell in a place of tomorrow that you can not visit, not even in your dreams.
You can strive to be like them, but you cannot make them just like you.
I can't even think about the words to that song without getting weepy. So although they didn't sing that particular song that night (instead they actually went to the trouble of unearthing and then learning two of the group's oldest songs -- ones I knew way back when -- and then sang from their most stellar current repertoire) it was the one I kept thinking of as they sang with such enormous joy in the familiar arc of black dresses.
In starting this group back in college, we silly sophomores had given birth to something that would last long beyond ourselves. We had started something rich and wonderful that would take on a life of its own, and which we could not visit, not even in our dreams. And then, here they were, visiting my life, as unbidden as all the other good luck.
I was so aware of being a part of the group in that funny over-time way, (not surprisingly, I was also wearing a black dress) but also aware of the fact that many of the women standing there hadn't even been born when we held our first few hesitant and hopeful rehearsals in one of the small, dark practice rooms of Buckley Hall.
Suddenly, things were once again spinning just that little bit out of control, in the best possible way. So yes, I was surprised. And yes, Bill had arranged the surprise.
But I was not just surprised. I was moved. I was flabbergasted. I was astonished. I was once again in grateful tears, and could have listened to them sing all night. I could have sung In My Life to any number of the people gathered in the room that evening, but now, as way back then, it's really all about Bill:
Although I will not lose affection for people and things that went before, you know I'll stop and think about you.
In my life, I love you more.
The Bluestockings had also learned Amazing Grace, the first arrangement Rebekah and I ever did for the group; for all our years in the group, it was our closing song, and it was why I named my older daughter as I did.
(So here's yet another great little formula for reckoning with the passage of time: perform a twenty-year-old song, in harmony with your twenty-year-old dopplegangers, just once and without rehearsal, for your parents, your friends, and your daughter, whom you named after that very song. Amazing. Grace. Weird, but this time probably weird mostly just for me.)
While 1-5-10 was still a few days off, halfway through that song came the moment I finally decided to be 40. And I ain't looking back. Keep your damn 20's, even your 30's. I like the view from way up here in the big numbers. When Jackie lit the candles on the carrot cake, I was finally ready to be that new great big number. Forty is the new ecstatic.
So how had Bill pulled it all off? As I learned later, he had wisely pitched his idea to the group's business manager as a romantic gift to me, and the ones who would be in New York anyway agreed to come and sing. When some of the New York area alumni got wind of it, they joined in, ready to enjoy the chance to do a little singing as well. (Apparently I'm not the only person I know who likes the chance to stand up in front of a room full of people and belt out old Aretha tunes.)
"You Are What You Love," I read in my horoscope this week. These parties brought together nearly everything I have ever loved, and everything of which I will make the life ahead of me. I love my girls. I love my family. I love my friends, the very best ones the world over. And while we routinely drive one another positively crazy, I love my remarkable, surprising, wonderful husband with his crazy schemes that launch us into the edges of the possible. And I loved, loved, loved that party.
As one of my friends was leaving that night, he leaned in and gave me a big French bisou.
"This was a really great party," he pronounced. I had attended a number of his family's most memorable and important events, which were always pretty swank and memorable affairs. So I recognized this as the opinion of a true party connoisseur.
Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he said, "Don't let anyone tell you that you didn’t deserve this." He was laughing, of course, at the way life's turkeys try to get you down. And also poking gentle, smiling fun at the idea that I -- or anybody for that matter -- could deserve the kind of good feeling and good fortune engendered by a party quite like that one.
But really, he was giving me just the right sort of advice for that moment. Because of all the people I know, I am the big fat turkey most likely to wonder whether I could have deserved it all. It's good to have wise friends who remind you to soak up the great moments, particularly when they are delivered so movingly and dramatically into your lap. With cake, in several flavors.
It's good to be lucky. But it's even better to make yourself a world populated with people you can love, the loving of whom makes you the self you then become.
I love you in my life.