Sunday, July 24, 2016

The summer of 40 and 100.

This was the summer of my 40th birthday and my great-aunt's 100th. Her birthday was July 2, which was a great way to reclaim that date. There was a big family reunion the week before her birthday, so I went down to where she and her children live, and my parents came up. More family met up there, then we all drove out to the middle-of-no-where West Virginia, to a camp resort where even more family people I'd never met before converged. Most were from the side of my great-aunt's late husband's family, and I didn't know them since I am from my great-aunt's side. (My grandfather was her brother.) It was great to meet and get to know the extended family.

While I was down there, before we went to the camp in no-cell-phone-reception-West-Virginia, I introduced them to my boyfriend via the magic of the Internet. We had hoped he would be able to come on the trip, but he had to work, so we did the next best thing. My second cousins were eager to meet him, and I wanted him to meet them all. As I sat down with my great-aunt and was in the process of connecting to my boyfriend using Google Chat video, I glanced over to my right and saw a stereoscope casually sitting on the table beside me. I thought about how much change my almost-centenarian great-aunt has seen in her lifetime as I watched her video chat with my boyfriend.

She saw it all...the crossover from ice boxes to refrigerators, horse-and-carriage travel to cars, letters to email, and radio to television. Her father was an early adopter, and her family was among the first in their area to have a refrigerator and car. I guess he liked novelty, in general; I never knew him. And my great-aunt's mother (my great-grandmother, who I did know as a child) was a strong, independent, resourceful woman who wouldn't take shit. She ran her own dance studio and taught all kinds of social dancing so that she could raise her children on her own after divorcing my great-grandfather, in an era when that just wasn't done.

As a child, I didn't know this, the why behind my great-grandmother's having taught dance as a living and my grandfather's ability to jitterbug, waltz and tango. My favorite photo of me and my grandfather shows us in my great-grandmother's dance studio in her home; I must have been about 3 or 4. I'm wearing a little white dress and shiny black Mary Jane shoes with white lace ankle socks. My grandfather and I are mid-dance, legs kicked up doing what looks like a Lindy Charleston step, and I'm kicking so high I'm showing my little white bloomers.

As an adult, I am awed by my great-grandmother's gumption and resilience. She raised two amazing people, whom I've had the opportunity to know and love. In these last couple years, my parents and I have have gotten closer to my great-aunt's part of the family, and I'm so thankful to know them better. And I'm glad to know more of the history of my family. It's been an encouragement to realize now as an adult how kick-ass my great-grandmother was.

After the family reunion for my great-aunt's 100th birthday celebration, I came home and had my own 40th birthday. Entering this new decade came with a little apprehension (I mean, FORTY years is a really long time!), but not too much, thankfully. Besides, I'm the happiest I've been in three years. I've made a new life for myself. It's solid. I made it to summer, finally. A good reason to celebrate, no? I really enjoyed my 30s (in general), mostly because I felt like I came into my own. And though the end years were difficult, I suspect that that was the most coming-into-my-own part of it all. My plan is to reap the benefits of hard-fought growth in this new decade. My dad told me the other night that your 40s are when you finally know something.

I had a wonderful birthday; my boyfriend planned a special day, including a dinner at a nice rotating restaurant at the top of a tall building with a gorgeous view, which he timed to coincide with sunset. We dressed up; I wore my long black gala dress with the slit and my amazing high heels. We had been talking about planning a party with my friends too, but with my travelling right before my birthday, it ended up not happening the week of or after my birthday either. I thought about just not bothering because, after all, now my birthday was over, so it seemed a little indulgent to still want to celebrate it. But I felt a little grumpy about that and sad.

I had wanted a chance to gather friends around me, and there are just not that many times to do that in life. Weddings. And funerals. But I already had a wedding and my own funeral will be too late for me to enjoy it. And celebrating 45 or 50 is a good ways down the road, and life is short. So I took matters into my own hands. It turns out two close girlfriends were trying to plan a dinner party to celebrate my birthday, but they had been having trouble finding a date that worked. So we found an evening that worked, and I planned a potluck party for then at my house and invited a group of friends. To hell with etiquette rules (once again). But if you can't be indulgent and ask people to celebrate your 40th, when can you? I decided I would rather breach etiquette than regret having missed an opportunity to surround myself with friends and people I love and then be sad or bitter about it.

Last night, after the party, when I found my phone, I saw that my dad had called twice, texted and emailed. When I called back, late, he told me that my great-aunt is in hospice care right now. Her health took a sudden turn for the worse a few days ago, and now these are heavy-hearted waiting moments. I think we are all taking comfort in our recent time together celebrating my great-aunt. I'm told she has enjoyed looking at the birthday cards again and again every day since the birthday-celebration week.

At my own party, I was trying to finish cooking my dishes and also spend time visiting with my friends. I made Southern-style food: macaroni and cheese and sweet potatoes. And my wonderful now-family-by-choice friend had volunteered to make a dish for me that I had planned to make myself, to help lighten the load, so I gave her my cornbread recipe, which she endearingly called a gateau (cake). I corrected her, telling her that though it is indeed sweet, in the South, we call that delicious creation a bread. We also had an actual cake that my friends brought with candles and everything. Somebody turned out the lights and everyone came into the room to sing "Happy Birthday" in French and English and the "C'est à ton tour" song.

Ma chère Jenny
C'est à ton tour de te laisser parler d'amour
Ma chère Jenny
C'est à ton tour de te laisser parler d'amour

My dear Jenny
It's your turn to let yourself talk about love
My dear Jenny
It's your turn to let yourself talk about love

I didn't really know much about the "C'est à ton tour" song, other than it was a regular song that got adapted into a song sung at birthdays. Looking at all the lyrics now, though, I see that it talks about how at the end of our days, all we have left is the love we expressed and the vows we made, like seeds we've planted and harvested in ourselves over the years. It talks about celebrating joy and laughter because life is fleeting.

I wish I had written my great-aunt another long, newsy email during these last weeks, and I wished I had called instead of emailing that last time I emailed her, on her actual birthday. I had wanted to try to video call or at least call on the phone, but then I decided they were probably busy with the family who was there then and I would call a little later when it was less hectic.

Regrets. I organized my own birthday party because I suspected I would regret missing an opportunity to gather friends together around me if I didn't. I guess we can't avoid all regrets. But I'm so thankful I went to my great-aunt's 100th birthday celebration and extremely grateful for all the time I've had to get to know my great-aunt as an adult and the unexpected gift of closeness with that part of the family these last years.

About six years ago my great-aunt gave me a beautiful lace tablecloth that my great-grandmother had bought in Switzerland (or was it Austria?) a long time ago. It's really old and beautiful, and I have been afraid to use it up until now because I don't want to ruin it. I've spent some time Googling "How to wash an antique tablecloth" and decided that red wine and tomato sauce will be banned from meals on this table cloth. Over the last few of years, I have been trying to decide when the right time to use it would be, waiting for a special moment that called for such indulgent beauty amid the hazards of the chaos of life and spills and stains. But now I know when I will use it. I will iron it and use it to remember my wonderful great-aunt whom I love and through whom I've discovered the strength of the women in my family.


  1. This was a beautiful post, Jenny. I'm so glad you were able to go to your great aunt's 100th birthday celebration, and it's fantastic that you've been able to connect with that part of your family! And a very happy belated birthday to you! So glad you were able to celebrate with your friends. :)

    1. Thanks, Alia! :) I hope you're having a wonderful summer!