Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Ghost of a Birthday Present


"All ages are the same. It's only love that makes any of them bearable."
- Malcolm Macdowell, as H.G. Wells, in the movie Time After Time


Today's my birthday. While my total recall is working - and before the dimentia kicks in - I may as well record a birthday memory that stands out more for the pain it continues to cause than for the pleasure.

It was my 7th birthday, in 1965. My father was in what turned out to be the last year of his career in the Army, when we were living in Albany, Georgia - which I found out later is the home town of Ray Charles. We lived on Waddell Avenue in a nice neighborhood, my brother, younger sister, and I. It so happens we three are all that's left of my family, though we live thousands of miles apart.

I had an older sister whom we called "Dea", for reasons no one can remember. Her name was Virginia Anne, and my father and mother called her "Ginny". Since she had run away from home to have a baby some years before, I only saw her on holidays. So she was kind of like an aunt to me, but a beloved aunt.

Her visits were special because they managed to persuade my mother to be on her best behavior, which was no mean feat in those days. She arrived the day before the 16th, along with her husband Richard, and she put the birthday present that she'd bought for me in the living room closet. Since I hate surprises, I snuck inside the closet to peek into the wrappings of the little gift. What little I could see through the negligible tear in the wrappings led me to believe that the gift was a toy airplane, which delighted me. So when the time finally came for me to unwrap the present, I was genuinely surprised to discover that it wasn't a model airplane at all but a tube of shampoo with plastic attachments to make it look like a toy airplane for playing in the bath tub.

I immediately hated it. But, alas, instead of wearing a false smile and telling my dear sister how much I loved it, I told her I didn't like it at all and that I didn't want it. I hadn't learned how to be gracious and to lie to spare a person's feelings, and I hadn't heard the saying - even if I didn't understand it for years - to "never look a gift horse in the mouth." I looked in its mouth that day and determined that the horse was a great deal older than I'd been told it was. And I rejected it.

Dea told me in s strained voice, that I can still hear, that it was all she could afford to buy me, the best she could do for a birthday present. This didn't make up for the fact that I hated it and didn't want it. And it was all my fault because I snuck a peek under the wrappings and mistook the shampoo for a toy airplane. Because of my disappointment, I stupidly hurt my sister's feelings in front of my whole family and ruined my own birthday. But that wasn't the end of it. When Dea and her husband left later in the day, my mother came directly over to me, took me into my bedroom and bet the shit out of me.

I deserved it. If I could go back to 1965 right now, I would be helping my mother beat the shit out of me. Somehow I don't remember, I made it up to my sister. Remembering my 7th birthday today, on my 54th birthday, I feel obliged to mention my 31st birthday, the very day my sister Dea died of cancer in 1989.

All these numbers, ages, and calendar dates are only so many arbitrary conceits. Or so I keep telling myself every time my birthday rolls around. I agree with Oscar Wilde, who died at the comparatively tender age of 46, but who had the foresight to discover that "the tragedy of old age is not that one is old but that one is young."

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