Yet another birthday

“Did you have a wonderful time?” my friend Ria asked.

“A wonderful time might be overstating it,“ I replied.

Springtime in Charleston

Springtime in Charleston

I had visited my son, Stephen, in Charleston, South Carolina for my birthday.  It was a long flight; I changed planes twice.  I arrived on Saturday at midnight.

The flight was uneventful for the most part.  I experienced the new x-ray machines at security.  Everyone had to go through them and everyone I saw got patted down as well.  For some reason they only found it necessary to pat my left leg. Along the way most people were pleasant.  I find as I age that it makes a difference to be smiled at.

Sunday morning I helped prepare for a Sunday afternoon party my son and his wife, Michelle, had planned for my birthday, (which was not until Tuesday.)  Steve remembered the Sunday lunches of his childhood that my aunt Clare hosted every week .  There was always a mix of interesting people — artists, writers, neighbors, children, dogs and anybody my aunt happened to run into the week before.   There was usually a leg of lamb which one of the gentlemen guests presided over carving.  There was always plenty to drink.

For my (Steve’s) party I made a salad and roasted a leg of lamb.  There were other dishes — chicken with olives, roasted root vegetables, beets with blue cheese — already cooked the day before by Michelle and her friend.  Steve and Michelle had never, in almost 10 years of marriage, given a party.  They had a lot to learn quickly.  Dishes, glasses, napkins, chairs had to be arranged.  Michelle wanted a sit down dinner; Steve wanted a buffet dinner.  Guests were to arrive in one hour.  Steve declared that everyone was making too much fuss.  There was confusion and slightly raised voices, but when the first guests arrived it looked as if they were expected.

The party was a success.  I had a good time.  I talked to Suellen Hawkins Reiss, a psychotherapist and her husband Jonathan Reiss, a photographer and advisor about happiness.  His business card says, “Methods for Clarity and Awareness.”  He tried to explain some important points about meditation.  I told him that I find meditation difficult; I either think about something (not allowed) or go to sleep.  Jonathan explained that, if I allowed my mind to roam freely, I would eventually achieve thinking about nothing. I really mean to try this sometime, but I put it off because I really enjoy thinking.

I talked to two young, tall, handsome black men. One was a biologist with whom I had a lot in common because we had both worked (at different times) at Emory University on the cell biology of the gut.  The other was a dentist.  I got some good dental advice from him.  I talked to Steve’s friend Mike.  I knew Mike from past visits and enjoy talking to him — he is quick and funny.  He is recovering from a bad motorcycle accident , has a broken leg and was rather subdued on this occasion.

And I talked to Paulo.  Paulo is an enigmatic Italian who talks a lot. He says little about himself, but Michelle told me that he used to be a teacher at an art school and that he is a photographer. Sometimes months go by, she told me, that they don’t see him because he becomes depressed and stays in his tiny apartment. Stevie showed me a photograph by Paulo of the hands of a black man with ornate rings on every finger.  He cautioned me not to let Paulo know I had seen the photograph because he had forbidden Stevie from showing it to me.  Paulo makes a living now as a gardener for rich people.

Steve enjoyed the party.  He said his criterion for issuing invitations was that only smart people would be invited.  It worked well.

Michelle stayed in the kitchen most of the time with a friend from her work.

After the party was over Stevie, Paulo and I took a long walk through the streets of Charleston around the University.

A street in Charleston

A street in Charleston

There were ante-bellum houses, churches, grave yards and government buildings of historical interest; Paulo told us about every one of them.  His accent was heavy and it was an effort to understand him.  He had a lot to say about the old jail which is now being converted into art studios for students.  He feels it should remain a monument to the people who had been imprisoned there.  When he finally said he had to go home to his cat (Lucy) to feed her the bits of roast lamb we had given him I was quite tired, both from walking and from concentrating on what Paulo was telling us.

On Monday Steve, Michelle and I went to the coffee shop where Stevie goes every morning (before he goes to work) to study mathematics and  quantum mechanics.  I must explain that Steve is a doctor, but he went to medical school late.  First he got a Ph. D. in math, and math is his true love.  He fills many note books with mysterious equations and notes.  Someday he may publish, but first, he says, he must have results.

There was tension in the air.  Michelle suddenly left to visit some friends.  Steve and I talked, he fidgeted, talked to people in the coffee shop and I read the New York Times.  Michelle came back; I mentioned a need for the loo.  Michelle said the one in the coffee shop was undesirable and suggested we go across the street to a more elegant one in an upmarket mall.  When I emerged from the marble tiled rest room I saw Michelle in a jewelry store across the hall.  I joined her there and she bought both of us lovely earrings. I was surprised because she is the antithesis of an impulse spender.

In the afternoon Steve and Michelle went to their separate gyms to workout.  I napped, read and waited for the event of the evening, dinner out.  There had been some problems connected with the dinner.  No place had been booked or decided on.  Steve said he didn’t want to spend a lot of money. We walked to a place on the waterfront that had good oysters and otherwise mediocre food.  Steve was in a terribly bad mood and Michelle looked glum. I was puzzled and unhappy. After a while Steve said it was not my fault; there were problems.

Michelle, me and Steve -- my birthday dinner

Michelle, me and Steve -- my birthday dinner

I slept badly, and the next morning Michelle went to work and Steve, who had the day off went to the coffee shop to do math. It was my 79th birthday.

In the afternoon Steve and I went to Folly Beach.  The day was warm and sunny.  We walked along the smooth, empty beach to a point where we could see a lighthouse.  There were palm trees and bleached remains of other trees jutting out of the sand.

Folly Beach

Folly Beach

We picked up shells and found the sarcophagus of a little bird.

a little dead bird in driftwood

a little dead bird in driftwood

We saw some well camouflaged live birds.

bird in oyster patch

bird in oyster patch

We talked quietly about his troubles — the sort of troubles so many (if not all) people have in mid-life. It was a good walk, a good talk.

on the beach

on the beach

Steve on the beach

Steve on the beach

When we got home we were both tired. No dinner had been organized for that evening, but Steve and I snacked on party left-overs and talked well into the night about science, math, the origin of life and quantum mechanics.  For many years he has explained quantum mechanics to me; perhaps someday I’ll know what it’s about.  It was comforting to have it explained once again. Next he told me about Collatz’ Conjecture: this definition is from Wikipedia.

Take any natural number n. If n is even, divide it by 2 to get n / 2, if n is odd multiply it by 3 and add 1 to obtain 3n + 1. Repeat the process (which has been called “Half Or Triple Plus One”, or HOTPO indefinitely. The conjecture is that no matter what number you start with, you will always eventually reach 1.

Steve said that all mathematicians (including himself) have spent a few weeks trying to prove this and then given up to work on something more important. He said “A really obnoxious (expletive deleted), Paul Erdos, said ’it is beyond present day mathematics’”

I went to bed feeling I had reconnected with my brilliant, erratic, funny and kind son. I believe he and Michelle will resume a comfortable loving life together.

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19 Responses to Yet another birthday

  1. Darlene says:

    Belated Happy Birthday, Anne. I’m glad that you had a party.

    My, you do get around. I can’t keep track of you. I guess that’s what happens when your children live in different parts of the world and yours are really scattered from England to both coasts in the U. S.

    I’m glad Steven was able to talk to you. I’m sure your wisdom helped him with what appears to be a marital dust up. Middle age seems to bring problems in most marriages. I liken it to adolescence in reverse. If their foundation is strong they will weather the storm.

  2. Marja-Leena says:

    Belated Happy Birthday from me too, Anne. Darlene has said all that I was going to say. So just a thank you as always for your interesting stories and photos of your travels and your family. May you continue to enjoy life as fully and interestingly as you do for many more years! You are an inspiration to me.

  3. wisewebwoman says:

    Happy Birthday Anne! I am getting to the age where every day is a birthday. I was astonished at yours, 79! Lovely you could spend time with your brilliant son and just listen. Listening is the greatest gift of all. It helps us to sort things out, to hear our own words bouncing back at us towing the odd solution to our difficulties.
    You are a wonderful mother. A true matriarch.

  4. Rain says:

    Happy birthday. It sounds like you had a rich time with family if not a ‘wonderful’ one. I like the times where family trusts me enough to be themselves. That’s the top of the cake for me

  5. pauline says:

    Happy Birthday! May you celebrate many more!

    Funny how birthdays feel as though they should be exempt from everyday-ness. Life has a way of intervening doesn’t it? Hope everything works out – dissension among family members makes the whole family uncomfortable. Glad you left with a good feeling about your son’s immediate future.

  6. Annie says:

    Happy birthday Anne, and many more. I’m glad your son was able to explain the unpleasantness to you and that you feel good about their prospects for the future. Into every life a little rain must fall…

    Being able to reconnect is a good thing.

  7. Brighid says:

    Happy Birthday! Your posts are always so interesting and you have the good sense to just listen when the situation needs it. Hope there are many, many more birthdays for you.

  8. maria says:

    Sounds like you had a wonderful birthday! Thank you for sharing your visit with your fascinating son.

  9. Hattie says:

    Wonderful insights. We have found that the removal of a very disruptive family member has turned our get togethers into wonderful, harmonious events. We had a fabulous time with a daughter and granddaughters the past two weeks sans her childish and selfish ex-partner.
    I don’t like the x-ray machines, and they really seem to be designed to discourage people from flying, along with the hike in air fares.

  10. Dick says:

    It sounds like it was a real-life birthday, Anne, with light and shadow, which is maybe how it must be for someone who is still living her life fully engaged and passionately. That picture of you with Michelle and Steve is a joyful one, even with those shadows in mind. And I’m happy for you that you have taken on board Collatz’s Conjecture. If I live to be 109, even the Wikipedia back-of-an-envelope explanation will defeat me entirely!

    Happy 79th, Anne. They’re only years: onwards and upwards!

  11. Tabor says:

    What an exotic, emotional and meaningful birthday. congrats!

  12. Jean says:

    Oh my. I read you no doubt excruciatingly accurate report with a wry smile. This was of course no different from how most big ‘dos’ really are – it’s just rare to read or hear an honest account. So the pleasures and connections you describe are, I know. also absolutely true and wonderful.

    Your clear-eyed accounts of your life are moving to me because they are so honest and observant and so beautifully written. So is your warm, wise smile in the photograph.

    Your son and daughter-in-law sound like interesting and endearing people whom I would like to know – as did your other son in your recent account.

    Belated warmest birthday wishes, Anne!

  13. Happy birthday! How nice to get to spend so much time with your son. I hate having my kids scattered all over the place, but I suppose that’s just LIFE!

  14. Freda says:

    What a wonderful way to spend a birthday – belated greetings and Every Blessing

  15. Happy belated birthday and oh wow gorgeous pictures. I’m also living next to the beach so I know its pull. I can’t wait for the weather to be nicer around here so I can also take great shots like yours came out to be.

  16. Betty says:

    Happy 79th Anne! I’m curious – do you think old age is the best age?
    All is well that ends well and you made sure it ended well – with the patience of Job with sealed lips. Congratulations!

  17. Mage B says:

    But no parties and she in the kitchen. I’m so sorry they are having problems. I am so glad you were able to visit tho.

  18. dale says:

    Ach, when we’re not dragging our kids through it, we’re dragging our parents through it. Or getting dragged 🙂

    That Collatz problem is wonderful. I’m not going to be able to resist either, I think. I’d never heard of it.

  19. Another trip through your event-filled days. Food sounds delicious, also the Charleston landscape…someplace I’d like to visit again, perhaps in another life.

    You mentioned thinking to knit again and I read about Churchmouse Yarns and Teas on Bainbridge Island– on a NY Times blog about my own great place in Manhattan. Maybe we could meet there!

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