Sunday, February 20, 2011

10 Years Ago Today

...I was doing something very special for someone's 40th birthday. She knows who she is. I just won't mention her name not out of any fear of reprisal (Oh please) but because her very name has the effect of sandpaper rubbed on an area that just had a chemical peel done. If you've been following this blog for the last couple of years, it'll be obvious who she is.

Today's her 50th birthday and here in central Massachusetts the sun is out as it always seems to be on February 20th (she'd always claimed that was because she was "a good girl." Knowing her drug-addled, alcohol-soaked, promiscuous past, I laughed every year I heard that. It was almost a running gag).

Back a decade ago today, I was tasked with the responsibility of getting her to her parents' house, which is where she didn't want to be. That much was understandable; I didn't look forward to my 40th birthday, either, two years before that. Most of us don't. But I still had a job to do and I had to think of a plausible way to get her where she didn't want to be because the last thing she wanted was the surprise birthday party that Mom had planned.

I had a website back then on So, making use of my shaky html skills, I created a realistic-looking page announcing a fictional poetry reading by noted poet Timothy Steele. The reading, it said, was going to take place at the local library in her hometown, down the street from her parents' house. When she got home the day before, I showed her the page I'd just created that even featured fake hyperlinks, a picture of Steele and even inserted a fake URL in the text bar.

"Wouldn't it be a cool way to celebrate your birthday?" I asked. "But we may have to drop the kids off at your parents' house first. They won't sit still for a poetry reading."

Of course, all three kids were in on it. In between excited giggles, they managed to keep the surprise intact.

She agreed and when we stepped through the front door, well, you know how it goes. People she hadn't seen in years all yelled, "SURPRISE!!!" in unison. Mission accomplished. Everyone was amazed at my ingenuity. Family, friends, college chums were all counting on me and I came through. For the next several hours, it was "This is Your Life". And she actually had a pretty good time. Her trepidation was all over nothing.

Eight years later, my own 50th birthday had gone completely uncommemorated (save for a lackluster birthday dinner that had to be shared by two of her co-workers) and without knowing it, I was about three weeks away from being told, "I don't love you, anymore" and about five weeks away from being told, "Get the fuck out or I'll call the police."

OK, that's ancient history. I moved on... sort of. I got a fairly decent place and it's obvious I made a better choice in life partners than a lot of people I can think of, present company included (I'm not the only stepdad, it seems, who's laughed at behind his back by his stepkids and their friends).

Now today she's going to be feted as the grande old dame of the family, a budding matriarch and in a few years relatives will be going to her house on the holidays just as we had to with her parents. Hey, good on her. She earned it by surviving a half century in this brutal world and making something of herself at a time when her ex husband wouldn't support her when she was going for her nursing license. It's what I wanted all along when I didn't feel like driving to the Boston suburbs on every holiday. But when you're part of a family, it's what you do. It's what's expected of you.

I just hope that, in her selective misandry, she doesn't forget what I did for her, for her kids in years past. It's about more than hanging crepe paper, buying cakes, lighting candles or shopping for presents at the mall. As I told her one Christmas, when I buy a present for someone, I try to get something that'll reflect the better parts of their nature. That was minutes after I'd bought her mother, the world's #1 dog fan, a large handbag with dogs needlepointed all over it. She loved it and used it for many years.

That was my philosophy. Go above and beyond the call of duty and pay attention to that person's character traits. I could've just bought cheese gift boxes and Old Spice for whoever but I didn't. And I could've just said, "Let's go to your parents' house, anyway". That would've upped the jig and, besides, she was driving.

She may pretend that's all over and even that she doesn't remember. But she does. You cannot possibly occupy someone's life for over 15 years without making some lasting and permanent impact. Memories, like the blood on Lady Macbeth's hands, are stubborn and endure.

And even though I had my own demons and shortcomings to wrestle with, I always did my best to make my family happy. I didn't expect thanks, just recognition and in the end even that was denied me.

And even though we shed a trace or two of the past with every step we uncertainly take into the future, some of it still remains with us.

Just remember that, dear, when you're surrounded by your family as they do something for you they denied me two years ago. And happy birthday. Some of us still stubbornly remember whether we want to or not.


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