My mother remembers me playing on the floor of our living room and looking up at her: “I’m three!” I wasn’t quite three yet, but she didn’t contradict me. This story is about a little girl who loves her birthday, loves the event of it, the meaning of it, the celebration of it. She takes pleasure in having a day when she can do whatever she wants. She plans it far ahead of time. For weeks, for example, she checks the weather; will this be one of the few years that the sun shines on her day? She thinks about where she wants to go for breakfast, whether she also wants to go out for lunch. She wants a pretty view: sun slanting across a café courtyard or ferries buoyant on the Sound. She wants to take a walk and then a nap. She wants to listen to Sandy Denny sing “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” and write in her journal. Gifts aren’t important, but people are: she wants to spend the evening sharing wine, telling stories, laughing. She doesn’t mind being the center of attention, at least on that day. Okay: She likes being the center of attention, especially on that day.
Two of our grandchildren, Giulianna and Liam, are turning three within a week of my birthday this year, and that’s how far from three I am now. I must have once had their apricot skin, their wispy curls, their unself-conscious consciousness. But soon enough my chin broke out in acne, my hair coarsened, and my anxieties bloomed. Soon I was longing for adulthood, for more and more birthdays. In 1984, I wrote, “Friday is my twenty-first birthday. I’ve waited so long. I think it’s the last birthday I’ll wait for.” Years earlier, eighteen had been the magic destination, while “twenty-one seemed a distant dream, hardly worth hoping for.” But here I was, about to hand over my passport for the true stamp of adulthood.
Although I stopped longing for birthdays, I didn’t stop planning them. For my thirtieth, I wanted to dine in the alley behind the Loring Park Café in Minneapolis while the musician played his saxophone from the rooftop. As our reservation time approached, the sky opened and a thunderstorm drenched the city. My girlfriend and I ran through Loring Park, leaping streams. We were shown a table inside the restaurant, where our clothes moldered in the air conditioning. Nothing in my life was going well: I didn’t want to live in this city, hadn’t made progress in my writing career, and wasn’t thriving (although I couldn’t have articulated so at the time) in my relationship with the woman sitting across the table. There was no gleeful declaration: “I’m thirty!” Rain drowned the park outside the café windows.
Sun is forecast for this year’s birthday – hot, low-eighties, summery sun. For several years now I’ve been fretting about this day, a day marking an age so weighty, so significant, so old, that it seems impossible to get through it without an existential meltdown. I’m standing at that passport counter, not sure whether I want the stamp that will let me into this new country. Turn me back! I want to say. Bar my entry! But ending the journey now would be far more disturbing than continuing on.
And the day is shaping up to be a beautiful one. It’s looking like sun will shine on my coffee and pastry in the morning, and nothing is more gorgeous than Arline’s smile across the breakfast table. I’ll probably get a chance to walk and nap, to play music and write in my journal. The evening will bring wine, close family and friends. I’m not likely to gleefully declare my new age, but maybe I was wrong when I was twenty-one; maybe this was a birthday worth waiting for.