The Rebirth of Birthdays
(Reprinted from The Art Academy of Cincinnati Literary Journal, Volume 1, Spring, 2020).
When I turned 54, my birthday passed with little of the hoopla typical in my younger years.
Friends asked how I marked the day. I used the phrases, “low-key,” “acid reflux,” and “Schitt’s Creek on Netflix.” To the outsider, I hadn’t appeared to celebrate at all.
But on the inside, I jumped for joy. As if walking into a surprise party, I was astonished — that I was alive.
Many of my birthday customs originated from the family calendar. In the month of January, my parents had been born a week apart in the same year. My birthdate followed my father’s by a week, and my younger sister’s number followed mine by six days.
The overlap made for a lively month after an already festive one. Christmas decorations remained hanging until the last possible minute when they were boxed and replaced by streamers, balloons and my mother’s bunny cakes dusted with coconut or, when we no longer toddlers, lemon chiffon Bundts. The accumulation of those January birthdays became known as birthmonth.
At the age of six, I attended Saturday CCD classes at our local Catholic church where I discovered two more January birthdays, those of twin girls born on the same day and year as me. We also shared the same hospital, operating room and newspaper announcement. The only thing we hadn’t shared, we joked, was a father. When we turned sixteen, our mothers conspired and threw us a surprise joint birthday party because we had so many friends in common.
I carried the practice of celebrating birthmonth into my early twenties and partied with those same twins in college. After I married, my stance on birthmonth became further entrenched, as it signified a time filled with childrearing, homemaking, and the demands of marriage and work. I stood my ground and lobbied for more than one night out.
My school-aged children groaned whenever I reminded them of birthmonth. For them, January was built for hibernation and exams. But my January sister’s husband was born in January, as was one of my closest friends from work. Together, we hosted birthday bowling parties. Later, my co-worker and I would meet for birthday cocktails. When we decided self-care was of utmost importance, we traded mimosas for facial masks instead.
Then my husband and I moved from the suburbs of Cincinnati to Over-the-Rhine. I no longer identified as being a suburbanite, mother or wife. My birthdays were just for me and I could go out any night of the week without children to mark my special month.
And I was now writer, a label I claimed — not one pinned on me.
In the city’s core, the stink of fresh paint in my home and the wobbly cobblestones in the back alley were fodder for my journals. So were the heated debates about poverty and gentrification juxtaposed with the rise of modern buildings and the conversations with the homeless man who helped me sweep in exchange for a sandwich.
Over-the-Rhine had become a petri dish where my husband and I watched ourselves grow within the city. Widowers before marrying each other, we went through more life changes than made appearances on the page. Both my parents died within five year’s time, my father never stepping foot inside our renovated home. My dog succumbed to heart disease. Our children had severed their bonds on cue and we deeply felt political losses of candidates and issues for which we yearned.
As a writer, I held those many contradictions in my words. My intrinsic desire for story led me to where my feet or mind wouldn’t ordinarily go and that curiosity about my surroundings breathed new life into me.
During our first years of living in Over-the-Rhine, I hadn’t understood the complexity of Cincinnati’s 52 neighborhoods. I wondered, what I was missing? As a side writing project, I walked and blogged about all 52 neighborhoods, eager to discover a part of the city — and me — that I never knew.
I became writer and walker. Until last fall, when I lost both labels.
I was a pedestrian in crosswalk when I was hit by a car. I had used the physical demands and mental stimulation of my long walks to get down on paper what was in my head and heart. Now, my writing dimmed, the connections to the page fizzled out.
During my recovery, I spent time on our home’s second floor, limping out to the balcony to survey the neighborhood. I could see the sparkle of the rose window of Music Hall, the long arms of cranes at the FC Cincinnati stadium complex, and the perennial promise of the community senior housing garden. The heights of rooftops, along with littered or cultivated lots, were like a hopscotch chalk drawing in the sky, illuminated by the sun streaking left or right depending on the time of year.
I longed to be out in those streets that had defined me. Now, I felt immovable, a curiosity myself that people came to see.
I was a fly stuck in amber with bruised knees and toes. I ached everywhere and struggled to walk. Only time could return me to my foundations, but I was angry, not good at waiting. A case of shingles only prolonged my stasis. If I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t write, and couldn’t unlock what was inside me.
During that period, I returned to the womb of my writing. I reread my first memoir written 15 years prior and combed through the earliest poems centering on my mother’s dementia. I discovered a writer so intimately and intricately tied to her words, and some intrinsic force compelled me to pick up a pen and at least move it across the page — a feat the average fly stuck in resin would not be capable of.
The words that flowed out after my accident startled and scared me. They were not sparks. They were fire.
I touched my deceased father in a way not possible while he was alive. On paper, I recreated our relationship from start to finish, relieving myself of the weight of guilt over his death. He appeared in my dreams as I wrote about him and the family’s shoe business. I refused to get rid of the worn shoes he tied in my dreams, tapping my foot to ensure proper fit, a sign of his forgiveness for my wrongs.
When I was hit by that car, something broke loose in me. A new self cast off the bonds of my former self. Ideas, thoughts and words fluttered all around me, as if I had been the one preserved in amber and the VW Passat had been the sledgehammer that released me.
I wanted my words to not only do good but to do better. I wanted to be a better writer, a kinder one, too. I broke away from “writer,” having steeped too long in the sticky fluid of the quest for interviews, book signings and lists. I wanted to fashion new shapes for my life — one still filled with words, and birthday celebrations.
And I wanted to surround myself with a love that came from within.
Months after the incident with the car, my birthday arrived. Four or five decades ago, my birthday celebrations were influenced by my Capricorn parents, a set of twins and a blinding snowstorm. Four years after that date, Roe v. Wade was decided. In some NFL seasons, a Super Bowl watch party substituted for my birthday party. For so long, forces external to me had been squeezed into my birthday suit, grower tighter and tighter.
Now, my parents were dead, but my younger January sister lived nearby and we met for birthday lunch. I made an appointment for a facial. I enjoyed a quiet dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant and ate cacio e pepe to call on my ancestral spirits to watch over me. I tackled walking in the dark with a new neon vest. I wrote. And I breathed.
I no longer needed a surprise party, an entire birthmonth or a date on the calendar to honor “Annette.” Instead, I reveled in feeling once more a barely perceptible urge to create.
I celebrated feeling anything, really.