Happy Birthday To Me
As Gomer Pyle would say “SurPRIZE, SurPRIZE, Surprize”
I’ve only had a surprise party once. My 21st birthday. I was living in a commune in my hometown, shocking, 1973; moral bankruptcy abounded, drugs were cheap, life was good.
Yet I was having a pity party of one, drinking alone in some dive bar watching a friend’s band practice, bemoaning my miserable, solitary, life.
Two friends intervened, literally abducted me home, put me on a chair (I like to think: Throne), placed a brown bag covered book with the title “This Is Your Life” emblazoned on it in my lap. (Google it, TV show, 1950’s, you’ll see). From behind a curtained screen disembodied voices began to recount tales of my thus-far misspent youth in which they played ancillary parts as well.
It was fabulous.
It was my yearbook under that brown bag.
I still have it, faded brown bag covering in tact.
Time moved on, decades began to pass, life got infinitely more interesting and full of surprises and unexpected delights.
My 40th was not unexpected, I knew how to count. I would not consider it a delight either, not because of the standard age-phobic annoyance attributed to these arbitrary passages but rather to the surprise I was inadvertently “gifted’ with.
A bit of background to assist in the global navigation as this tale covers a multitude of states and a variety of players.
I was living in Atlanta, recently relocated from Southern California because, well, if you’ve ever been to SoCal you’ll understand that even Georgia looked more promising.
The mother, alone and irascibly aging, was ensconced in the family home in Maryland.
The father, grudgingly failing, was imprisoned in a nursing facility somewhere in the Appalachian hellhole of Ohio.
The sister was holding court, high above the Ohio River in the New England Cape Cod Castle of her own, tchotchke-filled creation.
At this point in life, I was miles and millennia away from the stresses of my youth and the dysfunction of my family but, thanks to one A.G. Bell, still filamentally connected to the drama that only they could perpetuate.
And so, on my birthday, did I mention my 40th birthday, the sister, out of a toxic brew of sibling duty and festering guilt, felt compelled to at least call and fulfill her big-sisterly duties. Simmering underneath, like the sub-context in a who-done-it movie, was a tremendous reservoir of anger and resentment which she had been stoking for years; anger at the mother for foisting the failing father on her, resentment at me for escaping the responsibilities and care of these aging anger-phobes we shared DNA with.
In another chapter we will discuss exactly how the father came to be where he was but that is for another day. Medicine, money and mayhem require more than a passing mention.
After the pleasantries were proffered, the sister got down to the real reason behind the call. The teapot of her temper was steaming to the point of boiling over and the whistle coming from her spout was insistently annoying and a lava dome venting was immanent.
It seems that the mother, hundreds of miles away, was still puppeteering the strings of the father’s life and hence, her own. As always, money was the crux of the matter. The father had none, no retirement, no real savings, just his Social Security. The mother on the other hand had a bit more and being a child of the Depression she held tightly to what she had. Doling out the monthly nut to the nursing home was bitter pill enough for her and so the concept of an allowance, spending money for the cumbersome companion that she was now destined to carry, was even harder for her penurious personality to absorb.
The sister had had enough.
I was informed that a cousin of dubious stature (a hillbilly attorney) had been hired to sue the mother for divorce on behalf of the hapless father with papers being readied to be served on the coming Monday. The house would have to be sold, the money divided, and the sister would gain control of the father’s half and become the benevolent dictator to the mother’s miserly potentate.
I was shocked I tell you, shocked and appalled!
Well. Not really.
A tad surprised at the sheer audacity but having lived this long with these players, shocked I was not. I was irritated enough though at the treatment of the mother here (talk about shocked? imagine THAT process server when he delivered those papers!) that I felt somewhat of an obligation to throw up a flare and forewarn the mother that there were “incoming” on the way to the battlefront.
This was before call waiting, caller ID, mobile phones….the dim ages.
I placed a call home and said, gently, we have to talk; “The sister has hired an attorney on the father’s behalf and you are being served with divorce papers on Monday. You will have to sell the house, move into an apartment, liquidate the antiques and….oh…..give half the money to the sister.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, as if she had had this salvo all loaded into the armaments and was just waiting for the white’s of their eyes to fire it, she replied; “There’s a few things you need to know about your father………..”
And then, the great….big…..gift-wrapped…….birthday bash-me-over-the-head bombshell. No preamble. No sugar coating. Not even a cake.
“You inherited your problem from your father.”
There were other raucous ravings in rapid succession but I was stuck back on “your problem”, unable to move fully into the rest of the rant without backtracking and addressing this little blip of information.
“Wait a stunned second here woman, I don’t have a “problem”. If you’re inference is that the father, too, is gay, and that I somehow “inherited” this from him, then where the fuck have you two been all my life with this sparking gem of information?”
I revved up, now.
“Where the hell were you when I was a suicidal teenager, convinced I was going to end my life rather than live in torture with this dreadful secret? Where was this salient factoid when you admonished me to ‘walk like a man and quit swishing your arms’? This must be exactly what you meant all those years when, after a fight with the father, you vehemently demanded that I ‘not grow up to be like your father, real men don’t act that way’”
I calmed down.
To the mother: “Here’s the plan, I am hanging up. You are having a glass of wine, maybe two, and calling me back when you’re regained some equilibrium….and some tact….and we will formulate a plan for you”
I decided to take my own advice and popped a cork.
The phone rings.
“I called your sister and told her few things.”
So much for my attempt at battlefield advantage and double-agent strategy, my cover was blown.
Says the mother: “I told her that if she, indeed, tried to take MY house away, I’d tell everyone in the family, everyone in town AND take out an ad in HER local telling everyone in HER town just what the father was that she was so busy tending to. Let all her religious magpie friends feast on that for a meal or two”
Happy Birthday to Me.
In the end there was no divorce (match point, the mother), no scandal, and barely a whiff of gossip. Pity, I love a good public meltdown.
And in the very end, decades later, I find that I received the greatest gift of all on that, my 40th birthday; a priceless tale of family foible and dynastic dysfunction that I get to savor, along with yet another glass of good wine, while the rest are left with the bitter taste of animus and recrimination.
The only worrisome fact is that the most colorful carriers of carrion are long gone and so what am I to look forward to on my 65th?