Thursday, April 17, 2008

Fifty, Going On…

Last April I sent a 50th birthday greeting to a friend I worked with, Pat. I had remembered her 40th birthday party at the office ten years before (or so I thought), festooned with black crepe paper and black balloons. Imagine my embarrassment when she told me I was one year early with my greeting. Well, like a broken clock I can confidently now say Happy 50th to Pat.

Coincidentally, my friend Martin is turning 80 (pictured here, playing Scrabble with Ann), so I am exactly midway between their ages, a triangulation that tripped a “growing old” electrode in my brain, conjuring those immortal lines on the topic I’ve carried around with me since I read them: Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “I grow old … I grow old …I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” and John Masefield’s poem I inexplicably memorized in its entirety when I was a teenager, perhaps for a moment such as this, On Growing Old: “Man, whose young passion sets the spindrift flying, Is soon too lame to march, too cold for loving.” It is perhaps the most eloquent poem on aging.

When I turned 50, I wrote Martin a letter, part of which covered the way I felt about that birthday at the time. Hopefully, Pat is more sanguine about the occasion than obviously was I:

Yes, I am watching middle age fade in the sunset as I approach my 50th birthday next month. I have never been sensitive to my age, perhaps because I have always been among the youngest of my peers -- in business particularly. Suddenly, as if someone flicked a switch of a grotesque neon light, I am caught in the glare of my own impending senior citizen status. No longer am I among the youngest. Even my boss is younger than I. Everyone calls me "sir" and I do not like it one bit.

I can't imagine how I am going to be able to adjust to this unwelcome shift in status. Originally, I thought it might be fun to gormandize my 50th head-on by giving a funky country music party -- ten-gallon hats and all.

Now, I've convinced Ann that it might be best if I just slip-away into the oblivion of seniority by doing nothing. Even though you are a few steps in front of me, you need not feel honor-bound to point out all of the wonderful reasons it is to be 50. The only one I can think of is not to be 70!
(Post Script: We had that party anyhow. Glad I did. Now, 70 doesn’t seem so onerous.)

But, my favorite 50th was Ann’s (pictured to the right just a "few" years earlier). It was special as it was a surprise party, and it was not the first time I had successfully pulled one off for her. For Ann’s 40th she thought she was going to a wedding. Friends of ours who had been living together had agreed to serve as the bait and we printed one wedding invitation, which was of course sent to us. So Ann was dressed to the nines and we had to drop off our young son at another friend’s house on the way for babysitting, thinking she was going to a big “wedding.” But at our friend’s house everyone from Ann’s past had gathered, including her mother and relatives from California. Her knees buckled when the door was opened.

So it was with much pleasure I was able to engineer another surprise party exactly ten years later. That afternoon we were out on our boat ‘Swept Away’ at our favorite Crow Island anchorage, the tiniest island in the Norwalk chain, where we literally lived during summer weekends, year in and year out. Many of our friends were there too on their boats but gradually they left and I had persuaded Ann to stay to enjoy the waning hours of the languid Sunday late afternoon. That should have been her first hint something was up, as I was the one who usually left first, to clean up the boat, and then return home to get ready for the workweek.

Unknown to her, our friends and many relatives were waiting at a restaurant at our marina where I had reserved a private room. Upon our return to the slip I suggested we go out for dinner, something I knew she would jump at after a weekend on the boat. I said I preferred the restaurant at the marina, that I was too tired to go off someplace else, and so she was ambushed by another surprise birthday celebration, this for her 50th.

Here is my toast to her at the gathering. While some specifics might make sense to those who have been close to Ann over the years, the gestalt paints a picture of a special person, without whom birthdays would be meaningless to me:

Welcome, friends and relatives, to Ann's 50th birthday celebration. Thank you all for helping to make this a special day for a special person and thank you to Patti, who was my co-conspirator in arranging this celebration.

The relationships one forms weave the fabric of one’s life; by this definition, our Annie has a real reason to celebrate on this special day. And those relationships are as much built around many small detailed moments as they are around life's more momentous occasions.

How many languid afternoons have there been -- on the 'Afternoon Delight' -- at our beloved Crow Island, with Annie, Betty, Tony, Cathy and John locked in mortal battle over a scrabble board, Ann suddenly exclaiming, "I can put all seven letters down and my word has a j,x, and z!" Publicly, I have contended that Ann cheats at Scrabble. (After all, she is always clutching that book that lists one million two-letter words and one billion three-letter words.) The truth be told, though, she has always been a fierce competitor and has a real love of reading and words.

Then, there were those times with Sue and Ray, their Donzi skimming over the Long Island Sound at nearly 60 miles an hour, Ray smiling demonically with his hat turned backwards, Sue employing Ray to slow down, and Annie in the rear seat screaming, "Raymond, Raymond, RAYMOND!" Be assured, Ray, she loved every minute of it, but not as much, perhaps, as those quiet, harbor cruises as the sun was setting at the Great Salt Pond, Block Island.

Potluck suppers on the 'Swept Away' and the 'Our Dream' (or, as Richard and I have sometimes referred to our boats as an "Eggaton") also stand out among these special moments. Watching Annie cook -- and as you all know she is a great cook -- is quite an experience. It gives new meaning to the word "hyperactive" and watching Marlene and Annie in tandem entitles us mere mortals to reach for the Valium.

Nancy and Betty-- in the New York arena, and Marge and Peter -- in London territory -- know of Annie's love of the theater, eating, and, let's not beat around the bush, fine, EXPENSIVE, things in general. And, as in other matters, going to a restaurant or the theater with Annie is an experience, ranging from her crying out "BRAVO, BRAVO, BRAVO!" at the end of a performance, to turning to a stranger in a restaurant to ask for a bite of his meal, or, even, his life history. Annie has no shame in a restaurant and even has been known to ask for large take out portions of the Fried Calamari from La Bernadine.

So, it is no wonder that Annie's friendship with Arlene began in a restaurant on 14th Street, La Bilbania, in 1964. Annie's love of travel was fostered by this friendship. Together they braved the vicissitudes of Montezuma's revenge in Mexico and left most of the men in Spain and Italy pining for their early return. Their antics at the Pensione in Spain have been written about in some of the world's most notable tabloids.

But being a friend of Ann's is not always like trying to follow a big brass band. Patti and Ann, while ostensibly taking their dogs for a walk, engage in secret "girl talk." In fact, if there is one single, attribute that makes Ann Ann, it is her capacity for intimacy, for understanding human nature, for giving and helping. She has touched many lives.

But with that great gift is also an innocence, even gullibility. Exactly 10 years ago we orchestrated a surprise 40th birthday party for her. She was easily convinced that our friends, Carole and Terry, were going to be married. One wedding invitation was printed and sent to us, and that is where she thought she was going when she arrived at her own party.

Of course, Annie is no different as a Mother, Aunt, or Cousin. Cousins Mimi and Sherman have watched her grow, since she left Atlanta, Georgia in 1959, for New York City, to find her life. When you think about it that was either an extraordinarily brave act or one borne out of naiveté. Annie was one of the original "women's libber" but did not even know it.

Mimi and Sherman were nurturing to Annie in her early New York years and, in fact, she ultimately inherited their rent-controlled apartment at 33 West 63rd Street. This became our first apartment.

As a young, single woman she made a career for herself, first as a receptionist and ultimately as a Customer Service Manager at the publishing organization where we met in 1965. In between, she dated men with simple names such as Takeshi, Schlomo, and the one I have the most difficult pronouncing, Jack. Favorite activities in New York were bicycling, exploring the Village and dancing the Mambo at the Palladium. Simply put, Annie was a beatnik, a bohemian who chose the path most of her Atlanta high school classmates could hardly imagine.

To her niece, Regina, and her Cousins, Suzanne and Michael, Aunt Ann has been an inspiration -- an accomplished career women, who has traveled around the world and, of course, let's not kid ourselves, she married well.

But that strong nurturing, zest-for-life instinct in Annie is never more evident than in her role as Mother to Chris and Jonathan. She stood by Chris while he went through some difficult transitional years. She was, and is, always there for him.

Her relationship with Jonathan is, as many of you can attest, a very complicated one. Perhaps that is because they are in many ways alike. Jonathan, I can think of no better compliment.

Finally, the most incredulous thing about Annie is that she puts up with me. That qualifies her for Sainthood! So to my best friend, I raise my glass to say, "Happy 50th Birthday, and here is to the next 50!"

Post Script: While posting this, I realized that today would have been my dad’s 92nd birthday. I included a piece about him at the conclusion of one of my first blog entries: