Year after year my mother’s birthday coincides with Thanksgiving, falling just before, after, or right on the holiday. And though it would be ridiculous to ascribe anything but chance to the calendrical synchronicity, there is something so fitting about this timing—what better time for family and friends to give thanks for a woman whose life is defined by giving?
But this year being her big 7-0, I find myself as screwed for a gift as the Pilgrims were for food.
On and off for weeks now, I’ve been scavenging for ideas: turning over this one, testing that one, with a trail of rejects in my wake like so many bitter leaves and berries hard as stones. This year in particular it has felt like sheer hunger to conjure something close to what she deserves.
A week in Paris? A yearlong massage? Her own private island?
As a relatively recent inductee into the ranks of parenthood, I know the smallest gesture from one’s child can have an exponential scale of impact—the handmade card my daughters present me on Father’s Day, the gummy smile my infant son has waiting for me when I look out from the kitchen to his high chair.
But still, this year, this milestone, after all she has done as a mother and more recently as a grandmother…it seems to call for something huge on my part.
Undoubtedly the impulse is born in part from looking ahead as well as looking back, even if 70 is the new 60 and she’s genetically blessed: her own mother died only two years ago at the age of 93, not to mention her grandmother who made it just shy of 104.
But over the summer my sister-in-law lost her mother suddenly in a tragic fall, and for the first time I think I caught a glimpse of how utterly unprepared I am for the same loss in my life. Specifically, I caught it before the funeral on a bright August morning, when we were waiting outside the church for the previous one to exit.
When the bagpipes began and the coffin appeared on its way to the hearse, my sister-in-law buried her head in a friend’s shoulder and began to sob. It wasn’t her mother in that coffin, nor was it mine, of course, but in the face of death such substitutions, real or imaginary, are all too fluid.
For the first time, it seemed, I glimpsed a void that dwarfed my prior apprehensions of it.
I can remember the sensation back in college when I first read the poem “New Season” by Philip Levine, a multi-layered narrative whose setting is a walk in the garden with his young son on the day that his own mother turns 70. At first there was my “How did he do that?” response to the poem for its various interwoven threads: the daytime garden walk, the coming birthday call to his mother that evening, and memories of his childhood in racist, ravaged Detroit when he was his son’s age.
Then there was the math to compute how old Levine had been when he composed the poem. According to the date he cites in the second line, 46 years old. Good news! I was only 20. Meaning I had as many years as I’d been alive not only to attain his talent, but to confront the existential buzzkill of a mother turning 70!
Twenty years later, I wouldn’t know where or how to begin such a poem now that the same occasion is upon me.
The last time I wrote a poem in her honor was soon after college, and perhaps it’s taken me this long to recover from the earnest but retrospectively embarrassing effort. Though my skills as a poet back then were no match for the tragic subject of my parents’ divorce after 33 years of what in many ways had been a great marriage, I was determined to take it on.
Thus was born “Telemachus to Penelope,” her fitting namesake being the Grecian archetype of faith and fidelity, her opposite lot in life a husband who, it turned out, had wandered far and wide over the course of thirty years while living under the same roof.
Yet in spite of all that went wrong in the execution of the poem, it does elicit a question now that was too premature to ask back then: where are the goddamned suitors?
Where have they been for the past fifteen years, the men vying for the hand of this most extraordinary Penelope? This classical beauty prone to cackling laughter, this devoted homemaker whose hospitality suggests someone raised in the Middle East rather than the East Coast. Sure, a handful of suitors have come and gone, but by my reckoning most men over fifty seem more interested in getting what they can below that age.
So there’s that idea for this year’s birthday: a good man, however hard to find.
I was hoping God himself would have given her that gift by now, and it only adds to his divine inscrutability that he hasn’t. Perhaps he wants her all for himself. The way he wanted Abraham, and gave him back his beloved Isaac only when he knew he had him.
Not that a fairly unromantic bit of biblical hermeneutics would make a good gift either: “Here, Mom, have this thought on Abraham and Isaac…. Happy Birthday.”
But do have these other thoughts, Mom. Because whatever I get you will only be a token of my plain inability to do justice to the occasion.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.