I want to say I’m ten or eleven years old, but, no, it’s 1969 and I’m thirteen years old. I should know better, but I give in to temptation nevertheless. I’ve hopped onto our washing machine, careful not to let my bare toes “clunk” into its frontside. Crouching-standing on top of the washing machine, I reach with my right hand to push aside the line of forward-facing common dwellers, solid-feeling containers of flour and neglected items long past their ”use by” date. They stand sentry on the top shelf, alert now, positioned to conceal the treasure sitting somewhere behind. Unseeing, my expectant fingers caper across one or two unfamiliar shapes before encountering the familiar smooth surface — my brain’s pleasure center lights up. With both hands now cradling my prize, I sit back down on the washing machine and quietly lift the cover on the bakery box. I’m smug in the knowledge that I have found it before anyone else. I’m sure others have already searched.
Aunt Ginny’s wedding was yesterday, thus bringing to conclusion a well-seasoned (decades-long) engagement. Jimmy’s a sweetheart, and we don’t mind adding “Uncle” to his name. My three older brothers and I stood stiff and awkward in our “best attire”, clothing that hung on us as uncomfortably as hair shirts. It wasn’t just the clothing — we don’t do formal very well. Give us rolling fields, ponds to swim in or skate on, sunshine, and fresh air. Especially, give Kevin hard-packed lanes across those fields so he can race a car — better still, if pursued by patrol cars supplied by the nearby prison. Let us brawl. But dressy and solemn are not our jam.
We spectated in silence through the church ceremony, standing when others stood, kneeling, too, genuflecting just a beat late, yet casual enough to suggest we do it all the time. I cried in the church. I was thinking about my younger (and only) sister, Margaret, who should have been there — she had a new dress, too, but she was in a hospital (trying to remember who she was and who she belonged to, after a really bad car accident). We maintained our silent observation throughout the reception, bewildered by the tender father-daughter dance. Our grandfather, whom we all call “Gama” (rhymeswithllama), is still in deep grief, adrift alone. His Anastasia, our Nana, died last year.
We all noticed the white bakery box that came home with us. No discussion. We are all in silent competition. Bakery boxes never come into our house. With no thought to dignify the act with fork or plate, I dip my fingers into the delicious cake. Inches of creamy and smooth white frosting give way to moist cake. My fingers — rapacious little grubbers — clutch mounds of cake and frosting. I shove the sweet, spongy confection in my mouth in helpless desperation. It’s as good as I had hoped. And well worth any punishment by Dad — or expressions of disappointment by Mom — when I’m found out. Wary of being discovered, I replace the cover and return the bakery box to the high shelf, arranging for its concealment once more. I will see you later, I promise, as I leap to the pantry floor.
(In order to protect the privacy of family I’m using initials for siblings and spouses.)
The COVID-inspired group texts began as an affectionate reaching-out among the siblings, a way to acknowledge each other’s birthdays, a way — too — to preserve the threads that bind us together. I don’t remember when it started or who started it (probably it was “PM”; no, surely it was her), but it was a simple happy birthday message and because it included the group of siblings and spouses, it served as a reminder to those of us who might otherwise forget the birthday. As with most things in this family, the thoughtful gesture kindled the competitive spirit that often defines our special relationship. The birthday greeting soon became sport, today’s version of sport. . . which is to say, competition that must also entertain. The back-and-forth volleys continue all day long and sometimes resemble stream of consciousness, entering and exiting topics to the point where the message’s focus and clarity are often temporarily lost. No rules guide the conversation, but it all concludes with an acknowledgement of who the winner is, not that that’s ever in doubt; quite simply, whoever expressed happy birthday first is the winner.
At our age, and as we grapple with all the COVID-generated challenges that carry uncertain implications, the simple gesture of wishing each other a happy birthday takes on added value. It brings a little bit of joy and humor to our day. (I wonder if the others have come to depend on this new ritual as much as I have. I’m retired — I have plenty of time not to forget their birthdays.)
Our family’s interactions — even via text messages — illuminate who we really are and the powerful yet concealed dynamics that shape our hierarchy. It might be obvious who among the thirteen siblings and spouses enjoys great respect by virtue of birth order (the oldest) or who gets teased the most (the youngest), but we rarely dive deep to try and understand, say, why one sibling — always willing to try something new — eagerly (and optimistically) cartwheels right into the middle of things, why another is content to stand apart and simply observe what’s going on, why another converts a thing said or done into a joke, and yet another offers words that always pull us close together when we’ve unwittingly drifted onto potentially dangerous emotional minefields. We fall quickly and easily into our typical roles.
For many of us, deprived of the freedom to move easily among people (haven’t we all become more deliberate in our social contact?), we’ve been compelled to fill the void by instead connecting with each other through words, and this seems like a positive byproduct of social distancing. And words are never just words; they carry overt, as well as subtle and implied meaning. I never have bought into that saying about sticks and stones — it’s just a hollow attempt to excuse meanness. The messages, emails, face-time, and even cards and letters, do much to reduce the space between us; they serve as timely signposts that we’re being thought of, that we’re part of somethingessential.
Now, for your entertainment, I offer you a sample of one of our birthday exchanges; it just happens to be the most recent one.
Key to actors:
KM = brother #1 (oldest)
TM = brother #2
MGM = wife of brother #2
CM = brother #3
PM = wife of brother #3
JTM = middle child of 7 (and author)
MD = sister (5th child)
TD = husband of sister
M-nmn-M = brother #4 (6th child)
JM = wife of brother #4
RM = brother #5 (7th child, youngest)
MM = wife of brother #5
(KM): Let there be no equivocation, JTM is the winner of the birthday greeting sweepstakes. (text is accompanied by photo of opened birthday card.)
(MD): That is cheating! No early entries. But really she is the winner!
(JTM): (laughs at “That is cheating!…winner”)
(KM): I consider a card the highest form of fraternal affection so JTM wins not only relative to the timing of the occasion but also in the form of said expression.
(CM): I’ve been planning next year.
(KM): Clearly a capitulation to the stylistic and expertly conducted campaign by JTM.
(CM): no, this was in my plans all along due to the extensive nature of the preparation as well as the significant capital deployment.
(TD): . . . in other words, no card, no gift?
(CM): and no text
(KM) By your words you have obviously conceded that you could not compete with the emotional commitment and outlay of a simple but meaningful gesture.
(TD): (laughs at “and no text”)
(KM): I offer the old but sage expression, “It’s the thought that counts”
(KM): As I plan my celebration of my entry on this orb, I plan to arise with the sun, walk the beach in deep contemplation of all the gifts and talents I have experienced over the course of a lifetime devoted to the pursuit of communing with my fellow man.
(KM): I then will repair to my humble abode and prepare a sumptuous petite dejeuner of crepes and imported mixed fruit compote with which to share with my devoted wife of 28 years.
(CM): Somebody break KM’s phone.
(TD): (submits an animated GIF of his wife MD looking either bewildered or “out of it”or perhaps long-suffering. It’s hard to tell.)
(KM): Having so sustained myself I will head over to the local St. Vincent DePaul thrift store where I will offer my services for the poor and indigent. Thus having restored both body and soul I will return home for a luxurious nap.
(PM): (laughs at “somebody break KM’s phone.”) Then, (laughs at “having so sustained myself. . . nap”)
(TM): This has been so much fun. Can we do this again tomorrow? Oops, it is tomorrow. So, Happy Birthday, KM.
(JM): Happy Birthday Kev! Enjoy the crepes & compote.