Today is your 90th birthday. Incredible. While those around you will conspire to make a huge deal of it, I can only imagine you treating it like any other day–a day when you wake up before the dawn, moving nimbly around the kitchen with an incomparable motor, putting away the things that others left out the night before and beginning the coffee grounds for the early risers (they’ll be up in an hour or two). I hope that this day is a special one for you, and I know that it will be. You’ll be surrounded by people you love! And so perhaps the best part of being the center of attention on this day–for you–is sharing in stories, smiles, laughter, and love, with so many people, one after another. You might go to bed wondering if we can’t celebrate your 90th birthday plus a day, and then plus two days, and so on and so forth because life is too short, even when you’ve lived 90 years, not to spend time talking, learning, and smiling.
You were born in 1921 (subtracting 90 is simple math), a year that saw the birth of Chanel No. 5 and the Chinese Communist party. The former would never be as sweet as you, the latter is still struggling to touch as many lives as you have. I’ve only ever listened in passing to your stories of the “Joneses,” the “Smiths,” Barbara and William Something-or-other, Joe and Harriet Whats-the-name. I couldn’t even begin to feel the depth of those stories (and your connection to the people in them), but I know that those people are vivid memories for you, and will always hold a special place in your mind and your heart. You’ll remember who they are and what they did and where you had coffee together and what you talked about. And perhaps the only thing more vivid than your memories of the people who you’ve made a part of your life are those people’s memories of you and Grandpa: the terrific, too-cute-to-be-true Bob and Bobbie. A couple with with conviction, kindness, tolerance, openness, intelligence, humor, and grace.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to expect certain things from my Grandma:
- Birthday cards–always on time, never legible. I needed my mom to read them to me until I went off to college and truly needed to fend for myself. I remember those first few letters that I received in my dorm, and my stubborn tenacity in learning to decipher your script. I wasn’t going to let a letter from grandma go unread.
- When I was two years old, we played ball with the big red plastic bat while Orion was being born at the hospital–a story for which I would have no memory except for the fact that you relate it to me each year. I’ve built that memory from your words. Thanks for that.
- A special vocabulary of Grandma’s words: cherish, spirit, peace, friendship. You’ll almost certainly speak those words today, and when you do, others will hang on each syllable because you’ve lived a life that embodies spirituality, peace, and friendship. These are the things you cherish, these are the words that define you. You say them better than anyone, as though you really understand what they ought to mean.
- As I swung into the teenage years, I always knew that a visit from Grandma meant a temporary ban on certain categories of my burgeoning vocabulary. “No swear words, Ian!” I would be warned as mom went out the door to pick you up at the airport. (“But those are my favorite ones!!”) She would implore Orion and me to say “Gosh!” in exasperation rather than take the Lord’s name in vain. I don’t think I ever slipped up. Well, maybe once. I’m hoping you didn’t quite hear it.
- More than anyone else in my life, I’ve learned that I can always expect your focused and undivided attention on the things that matter to me. You’re curious enough to let your grandchildren tell you everything about the things that matter in our lives, patient enough to let us find the words and put them together the way we want to, persistent enough to uncover the things we aren’t saying but really want to say.
The world has become a place of extremes, a place where language is augmented beyond reason to convey a simple point to an excessive degree. (I mean, just look at that last sentence.) We hear people describe ordinary things as “fabulous, fantastic, wonderful, incredible, great, and phenomenal.” When I’ve had the occasion to describe my grandparents to the people around me, I’ve found those words to be unsatisfying. They’re exaggerated terms–extremes that seem hard to reach–words that are tuned out because we hear them so often.
And so I reserve the use of the word “good” for someone who truly embodies the spirit of the word. When I think of you, “good” comes to mind. This is not to say you aren’t great–for you are. It’s not to say that you aren’t fabulous, because I’ve seen you in a big straw hat and fashionable sunglasses, and I know that you’ve aged with beauty and with a style all your own. You’re a phenomenal musician, an incredible mother, a wonderful grandmother. But underneath it all, you’re just… as good as they come.
I’ve never met anyone as good as you, with such a caring and selfless spirit. You are a truly heartwarming person who wants to bring good thoughts, good values, good words, and the good life to each person you meet. For a remarkable ninety years, you’ve succeeded. So good, so good.
Happy Birthday, and lots of good love,