Celebrating A Life
July 24, 2006
Yesterday I went to my step father’s supposed to be a surprise party. Luckily someone showed my mother the error of her ways in thinking a room full of people shouting, “SURPRISE” was a good thing to do to someone who you would like to see turn 86.
His birthdate is actually unclear. He was born at home, the first generation American in an Italian immigrant family. There were eight children in the family, who by my rough estimate had 20 children, a surprising number of whom were named Tony. He didn’t get a birth certificate until years later and by then no one was really sure of exactly the date he was born.
“Why does it really matter? I’m here, aren’t I?” he had said.
His childhood wasn’t an easy one, growing up during the Depression, being poor. There was so much lacking in their lives as children. And yet, when they speak of their time growing up there is great joy and laughter. When I listen to the stories I often wonder if it is because of the harshness of their every day life that the glimmers seemed so particularly sweet.
Can you truly appreciate things if you don’t have that contrast?
Would my children be excited to get an orange for Christmas? Would they hold it in their hand like a treasure, not wanting to eat it because it would then be over? Would they try to hold out for as long as possible before they peeled it and bit into it’s sweet flesh, licking the juice off their hands and forearms. Would they 80 years later still talk about how when they were children the oranges tasted so much better, so much sweeter than they do now?
“Now that you can buy them everywhere, it isn’t the same. I don’t know why, they just don’t taste as good,” he had said.
When my step father was a child they rarely could afford treats, in fact the probably lacked most of the things which we would now consider essentials. Since his birthday was in the summer, his mother would get him a watermelon every year instead of baking a cake. Now that I have seven children, I wonder if she started the tradition because it was just too damn hot to fire up the stove and bake a cake in the middle of summer, even in the summer kitchen, which was in the basement of their house.
But whatever the reason, it became a tradition which he and his siblings anticipated eagerly. I have heard the stories of the watermelon as birthday cake for my entire life. How they would stick a candle on it and sing happy birthday. He said his father and mother would sit back and watch them eat the watermelon. They never ate it themselves. In fact their father never did anything for himself. His children came before him. His wife came before him. He asked for nothing but their happiness.
Such simple pleasure. Such simple joy. Sitting there together, eating watermelon, at a table their father had built himself. They always ate the white part and usually ate the rind. Still do.
“Why do you eat that part?” I once had asked.
“Why not? The bitter balances out the sweet. Also, it seems a shame to just waste it,” he had answered.
His explanations for everything are like that. Simple, logical, the same Depression era mentality that causes my father in law to save and reuse tin foil.
Every day my step father eats a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch. Every single day. And has for the past 30 years that I have known him. It is always the same, without variation. Sitting here typing this I can picture the sandwich, sitting on the white corell dishes with the cornflower blue trim– white bread, ham, American cheese, iceberg lettuce, and Hellman’s mayonaisse with the knife still in the jar– sitting next to his glass of RC cola.
“How can you eat that every day?” I once asked.
He had shrugged. “When I was a kid I wanted ham so badly. But we never got to eat it because it was too expensive. Sometimes my father would come home form work with a ham bone or a scrap someone had given him and my mother would make soup. It was always so exciting when it would happen. But I told myself that one day I would have enough money to eat ham, real ham, every day for the rest of my life. And that’s just what I intend to do.”
I was an adolescent, full of my self and my own import. “I’d never do that. I’d rather starve than eat ham.”
He didn’t get angry, he rarely did. Instead he’d calmly laughed and said, “No you wouldn’t. You only say that because you have never been hungry.”
At the party yesterday, people stood up and told stories about him as their uncle, brother, cousin, friend. They were the kind of stories that made us laugh until tears streamed down our faces and made us cry. Cry for what? I suppose for the fact that once you reach 85 there aren’t too many more of these birthdays left. There isn’t too much more time to build these kind of memories. “One hundred and one” became the toast. I guess it sounds more chipper and party like than 16 more years. Mortality with a face sucks.
Then after the party we went back to my parent’s house for an after party. We carried in presents and cards, mostly filled with well-wishes,love, and lots of xxxxx’s because at this stage of his life he has everything he could want. There was one heavy, rather large present I placed on the center of the kitchen table.
He began opening some of his presents. I heard a loud hoot of laughter.
“What?” I asked, “What is it?”
“My brother. He got the perfect gift.” Out of the pile of boxes and wrappings, ribbons and bows, he picked up a watermelon.
He took his handkerchief out of his pocket and dabbed his eyes. Most of his brothers and sisters are gone now.
We sat at a restaurant seventy people strong to celebrate, but many of the people he started out with in this life are dead. He must think about that too, making birthdays more bittersweet with each passing year. The stories are different now. There are ghosts in them, empty pauses in the stories. Freddie is no longer there to interject his part of the story, or Dominick to tell his part about how Tony would always try to steal a bite of his watermelon. Dominick is gone now. So are Rose and Caroline. And so is Pat, the youngest, the baby who had spent the first month of his life precariously clinging to life in a wooden box next to the stove and later went on to storm the beaches of Normandy. There are only three now.
And yet the stories still beg to be told.
“A watermelon?” my daughter asked, “a watermelon isn’t a present.”
“No, honey, once upon a time it was.” I stroked my daughter’s hair, and put a chunk of it behind her ear. “Go on, Poppi, tell us the story.”
He leans back in his chair and begins.
One Hundred and One, Poppi. We’re counting on One Hundred and One.
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