Happy Birthday, Mom!

My mom is 80 today!

* * * *
My mother gave me many gifts in the day-to-day life of raising my younger sister and me, and for me most of them involve the things that I still consider important: literature, comedy, performance. I’m grateful that I get to share with my mom our appreciation of various comedians and shows; she remains someone about whom I think if she laughs at a joke it is a funny joke.

By age ten, I knew Freddie Prinze (every kid in that era did) and Saturday Night Live, but also the complete recorded works of Mickey Katz and Allen Sherman. It was a good range of comedians that she exposed me to.

The stories that I learned about her childhood I learned from others, not from her, which came from an innate humility on her part (one does not talk about oneself, as that shows an unbecoming pride … man, have I failed that standard!) and the fact that it seems to have been a uniquely painful childhood. Her aunt Rose told me long ago that before she was ten years of age my mom used to translate the day’s newspaper into Yiddish for her own grandmother, who did not read English. Whenever I’ve asked my mom about this, she demurs with a laugh and the statement, “I guess it’s true if she said so.”

She wanted to become an educator, and because she did not, I guess anecdotes like that represent an unfulfilled promise in her mind. However, for my sister and me, my mom was an educator.
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A Year in the Rearview Mirror

They say eyes clear with age,
As dew clarifies air
To sharpen evenings,
As if time put an edge
Round the last shape of things
To show them there;
The many-levelled trees,
The long soft tides of grass
Wincing away, the gold
Wind-ridden waves – all these,
They say, come back to focus
As we grow old.
—Philip Larkin, “Long Sight in Age,”
The Complete Poems

* * * *
For me, the year that is about to end started inauspiciously. Two friends verbally included me in plans to attend a New Year’s Eve sober party that night, and each one forgot me, their promise, or the party. Perhaps each one forgot those things in that order, but by midnight the details were superfluous as were any apologies.

At a brunch the next day, all three of us were there, but no apologies were offered anyway. Perhaps that sums up everyone’s 2020 as we ring it out in gatherings smaller than last year’s parties or even alone (tonight makes a few consecutive years alone for your correspondent): “No apologies were offered anyway.”

The year that is about to open for business will not immediately offer new emotions or news that will change one’s day-to-day life, of course. The collective desire for tomorrow morning to bring something that we can only give ourselves—peace and togetherness—dominates the online conversations that I witness. The year we just experienced together in our collective aloneness, well, many people want to feel what it feels like to let something go; they want January 1 and the promise that that date represents to carry us away from this painful season.

We say that we are ready for something new, but it is likely that some of us said that very same thing last January 1, and something new is indeed what I experienced in 2020, again and again. This is true for many of us.
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The View From Fifty-Two

Because the past has a script, we think it is easier there.

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In an informal survey that I have conducted my entire life, there are no popular songs about the experience of life at fifty-two years of age, which is too bad because today I am fifty-two.

Fifty-two is of course the same number as a full deck of cards, which is something that I had not noticed until it was pointed out to me, I am ashamed to tell you. Thus: not a full deck here.

I relate to certain lines in some songs a bit more closely than I may want to admit (Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” has the pithy, “I ache in the places I used to play,” for instance), but what is fifty-two? There is no answer to that any more than there is to the same question about the round-number ages, about which society deems it okay to be dramatic and sing songs about the significance of one’s body and the number of revolutions around our star it has made.
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Pandemic Diary: #NamingTheLost

Two days after my father, William Robert (Bob) Aldrich died of COVID-19 (May 10) in Hyannis, Massachusetts, I was a participant in an online video meeting. Just before it was my turn to speak, something caught my eye: a cardinal, small but rich red in color, alighted on the Rose of Sharon bush beside my window.

Not many birds choose to visit this bush; it is crowded with thin branches and it is smack against the side of the house here. Also, the flowers are not in bloom yet; when they are, the bees will comprise approximately ninety-eight percent of the bush’s visitors rather than birds: through the day, the sound of bumblebee collisions with the window next to the Rose of Sharon punctuates my day.

The red of the cardinal caught my eye, because red always does, and birds are somewhat rare on that exact spot and cardinals rarer still (this was the first time). I mentioned it as I spoke, mostly to make a joke about the fact that the previous speaker’s cat had leapt into her camera frame. (Her cat had chased this bird to me, was the quip. I’m a dad joke waiting to become a father.) Someone all but said that the cardinal was my dad; I do not remember if the thought was that a bird’s visit is spiritual or a cardinal’s visit is.

Red cardinals are the males of the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis); my dad was male, of course, but his hair was red when his hair had color. Red so noteworthy that his nickname in his hometown was “Red.” My friend had no way to know this.

I do not believe in a spiritual world, but sometimes it can almost seem (even to me) that the spirit world wants my attention. I do believe in a spiritual life in that I believe the only point to life is love; perhaps that is not “spiritual,” perhaps it is.
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A Christmas Tree

How (not) to cut down your own Christmas tree.

* * * *
Tree trimming was my least favorite type of trimming when I was young. I still lack the eye-hand coordination required to decorate a tree correctly; in fact, I believe that almost every tree I have attempted to decorate was quietly fixed upon my departure.

A beloved girlfriend one Christmas credited me with the expansion of her notions of tree decoration—she said, “You’re the first person I’ve known who does not put all the decorations on the ends of the branches,” which is true, I sometimes place them on the middle or sometimes closer to the trunk; and 2. We found that I had overloaded one section of the Christmas tree with the same color ornament (albeit on different sections of the branches!) and this needed to be quietly fixed.

Christmas can be a challenge for someone so rarely festive, like me.

One winter’s day long ago, a dear friend enlisted me in a project to cut down a real live Christmas tree from a local Christmas tree farm so that her son could experience a Christmas just like the one she and I had never, ever had.
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The Tin Man: A View from 50

Let us gaze in the mirror alongside the subject as he assesses life on the morning he crosses the half-century point. He needs a helpful, objective view. Thank you for helping.

From the top, the hair. He has a full head of hair, and the ratio of follicles that still produce dark-brown versus white interlopers remains 80-to-20 in favor of dark brown. He has a single white hair visible on his right hand, which he has nicknamed “Memento Mori.” There is white in his beard, so he shaves, but white hairs have not yet appeared on his legs.

The ratio of brown to white is such that a friend asked him several years ago which brand and color dye he uses, which shocked and pleased him at the same time because he does not dye his hair. This is because he is proud of his full head of dark hair as if it is a comment on his positive qualities as an individual rather than an accident of genetic inheritance.
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Infinite Love

“The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men. As far as he is concerned he wipes out the world.”—G.K. Chesterton, “The Flag of the World,” Orthodoxy

The suicide is committing, from his or her terrible and terrifying and terrified point of view, genocide. Humanity-cide.
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Who Do I Trust?

My first instinct, which is that my first instinct can not be trusted, is usually wrong. This often puts me in any number of conundra.

The paragraph immediately above gives a clear example: My typing fingers wanted to write “conundrum,” then wanted the plural form. But what is the plural of conundrum? My all-too clever brain thought: “conundra. That’s funny. It’ll get a smile from someone.” The someone who smiled was me, which was enough to make it so, and I typed “conundra” for “conundrums.” But I go look it up and learn—thanks, World of Information!—that since conundrum does not come from a Latin root, but sounds like it might have, the proper plural is “conundrums.” Further, the word “conundra” has existed for a long, long while as a humorous, mock-educated plural form for plural problems. “Mock-educated.” That’s me, so it remains “conundra.”
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