Thursday, September 6, 2007

So What's a Birthday Anyway?

Last entry I talked about my mother's 101st birthday not met. It was a concept comfortably remote. But today was my 76th birthday, and the whole idea of Birthday changed for me today.

I woke this morning expecting e-cards from two children (both over forty, but always my children), and a phone call from the third child - which is their usual recognition of Mom's B-day. And I'm grateful. But, arriving early at my office, I found colleagues dashing mysteriously in and out of the copy machine area, and acting in a most peculiar way. Of course - suddenly, out from the copy area and from the hall they came with a fantastic breakfast of egg and bacon casserole, freshly baked bread, cheeses and cold cuts, a plethora of German fruit-stuffed pastries, fresh fruits and juices, and a cake, light, chocolate-lathered, with not a single intimidating candle on it. There was a regal potted plant of hundreds of purple buds ready to burst into action, and a magnificent purple and pink bouquet of flowers. Cards and gifts. I was speechless. A state I do not often find myself in.

The bountiful remains of that feastly spread invited others to my office all day. They came and pieced at the cake, the cheeses, the ham slices, the fruit - and they stayed to chat. Perhaps a fourth of the faculty came to nibble, and visit. I got very little course work done. Telephone calls: "Happy Birthday, Gramma. In thirteen days we're going to get two hamsters." Another call: "Happy Birthday, Gramma. Do you have a CD of the Phoenix Harry Potter, please, please?" I loved the whole extraordinary day, cherished my grandchildren's greetings. But my surprise was not over yet.

I slipped away from school just before lunch to visit my German doctor's office to pick up a printout of my routine lab results. The receptionist, looking at the CBC on her screen said, "This is your birthday today?" Yes. She came over and shook my hand, wished me a happy birthday. Everyone in the doctor's office (maybe 14 people) stopped what they were doing and came to shake my hand and heartily give me birthday wishes. The doctor himself, obviously summoned, left his patient, came out of his office to shake my hand and wish me a happy birthday and continuing good health. Extraordinary. But my surprise was not over yet.

At home I opened my personal e-mail and was astonished to see birthday greeting after greeting, over one hundred of them, from members of my Catholic parish, from priests across the US, from the local university faculty and staff, and from poets and writers all over the world. I am overwhelmed. Some Good Soul obviously set this e-mail greeting thing in motion, and I'm sure I know who that is. Bless him, and the other Good Soul who planned my birthday surprise at school; they have made me inexpressibly happy.

What's changed? My concept of Birthday. The ritual of one's birth date celebration is more significant than I ever realized. For the recipient, of course, but also for the greatest to the least of the gift-givers, the hand-shakers, the cake-bakers, the message-senders, the energy and time-spenders, and the ones who call grandmother - it's an important brief counter-balance, weighing against an enormity of guff that happens to us the rest of the time. I shall pay more attention to Birthdays from now on.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Stories We Tell

Mother would have been 101 today. She died a few years ago, falling a little short of her goal to reach one hundred. The youngest girl and second youngest child in a family of three girls and eight boys, she transformed the playful teasing of seven older brothers into family stories she told us. Like all storytellers, she remembered only the funny, the good, the ironic, and skillfully layered the telling with suspense and dialog. Over the years those stories became well-honed instruments of humor, instruction, tradition.

She knew all about characterization, and so we learned the foibles, quirks, and yes, even virtues, of all our uncles, and our two aunts. She knew the importance of setting: farm life with cows, pigs, horses, an outhouse, and shenanigans became the envy of our city-dwelling childhood. She understood plot and climax - indeed - her tales told were better than bedtime stories read and reread because sometimes a familiar ending already anticipated with glee would have an even more delightful twist. Something she had "just remembered." She was a craftsman. I miss her.

As a storyteller, I don't think I've done as well for my children - but my daughter's children (once again small farm dwellers and world travelers) will have many tales to tell their children.

Happy Birthday, Mother!

Monday, July 9, 2007

Parts Imply There's a Whole

Synecdoche is a term describing our poetic tendency to allow a part to stand for the whole: "hands were clapping" we say, and assume bodies were attached. Likewise with "There's a hundred head of cattle down by the river." We all understand, although, if you think about it - it's an amusing image.

Synecdoche - a useful device. We sometimes name people for their body parts, or even an entire group of people by a city, "Washington thinks ...", "Hollywood believes ...", and you can think of many more. Synecdoche can border on generalization, humorous or cruel.

But this blog is not about synecdoche, really. No one would read it. It's just a Blog Name not taken by anyone else which implies I'll be talking about little pieces I see that might make up some sort of whole I assume exists. But, perhaps the small part of the pattern we see is all that exists. No whole!

I could have easily named this blog "Slouching Toward Senility," or "Tottering Toward Totality" or some such - but I figured those titles would be even more off-putting. The point is to be read by someone.