By Ellen Kaner Bresnick
WLCJ Personnel Team and Search Committee Leader
Many times, I have heard it said that, rather than focus on how old we might be turning on each birthday, we should be thankful that we are actually celebrating the birthday because, after all, “Look at what the alternative is.” This kind of reasoning bothers me somewhat, because it carries such a negative connotation of what a birthday could and should represent in our lives. Rather, I would prefer to think of a birthday in a more positive way – perhaps as an opportunity for taking stock of how we are living on a daily basis, and as a means for learning something really key about ourselves. Now, all of that being said – I realize that, at this point in our lives, in order to truly and completely understand the power of this one special day, we must often go back to the past, to earlier birthday moments that we have experienced, even those that might have initially seemed insignificant. I say this because any past birthday has within it a special story that can help us to discover these values and illuminate their importance in our present lives. And, in order to understand what “makes us tick,” we have to find those stories and unpack the messages that they contain.
For example, I remember many Northeaster blizzards that provided this Massachusetts girl with an unexpected day off from school for her December birthday. I remember the requisite “No School” announcement and the thrill of planning to do absolutely nothing except maybe curling up inside the house, where I, still pajama-clad, would read a good book and sip hot chocolate. Often though, despite my best plans for ultimate laziness, I found there were many things that my mother had deemed as more important. Thus, I had to get dressed and shovel the heavy, hard-packed snow off the walk or the driveway before I could get to the book. The day, therefore, always seemed to go by much more quickly than I had originally planned. And, adding in some spontaneous sledding down the long, curvy street on which I lived or along the hills in our backyard with all of the neighbor children even further diminished my reading plans.
However, a number of years after these surprise birthday snowstorm “gifts” came my way, I began to realize that, in truth, I was learning a great deal about the power of sharing in communal activities, even those as unstructured as sledding races or snowball fights. Every time that I told the stories of these snowy birthdays as a “tween,” I found I was gaining an understanding that community-building activities, even the unplanned ones, could be as important as, and sometimes even much more enjoyable, than those solitary ones toward which I usually gravitated. So, no, I did not always get to the reading, but with these other activities came a real appreciation of the fact that my birthday celebrations on those days could equate with something joyous in which the whole neighborhood shared. These were my people, my village, and they were the ones, even as they were equally as covered in snow, who could actually push through the many feet of white precipitation to get to the cake and ice cream. They were the ones who would genuinely wish me a “Happy Birthday” in order to ensure that my day was still joyful. For me, it was a real lesson that our community and support system often come from the most unexpected places, a birthday lesson and story that I could and ultimately would take through my journeys into Sisterhood and WLCJ activities.
Along the way, I have also met many people who have the same birthday. As I have thought about them, I have come to realize how much of an unexpected impact these people have had on my life. Hence, they have seemingly created for me another group of birthday stories. One story from this group focused on a time when I was in seventh grade, and I met someone who had been born on the same day and year and, actually, in the same hospital where I had been born. I remember thinking on our shared birthday, as my friends teased us about being twins, that we may have started out in a very similar way, but our daily lives were actually very different. I was the oldest of four children and lived in a very noisy and definitely busy household, while she was an only child who seemed somewhat lonely. I don’t know if she was really lonely, and my observation at the time may, in truth, have been somewhat presumptuous, if not naïve, as she may have relished the quiet of her house. Not until many years later, did I realize that what life hands us – in my case, a sister and two brothers – is what we get used to and what we seemingly prefer. We shared date and year and locations in our origin stories, but our journeys seemed to take us in very different directions. Was one journey “more right” than the other? As an adult, I have come to realize that neither one is “more right,” nor should we even compare them, but, without exposure to my seeming “birthday twin,” and my further reflection on this particular birthday “story,” I doubt that I would have processed these realizations as early in my life as I had.
Later, when I moved to Maryland, I met a woman at my synagogue who also had the same birthday. She was about five years older than I, but, as usually happens at our ages, we were two women who found common ground and became dear friends. One of our most cherished activities was going out to lunch on our shared birthday or half-birthday (if we were really busy in December). We would use the occasion to catch up on what was happening with our families or in our own lives, and we would laugh and laugh at their antics, as well as our own. Last year, when she was diagnosed with cancer, we did not make it out to lunch, as she was not feeling well enough to go. When she died a few months ago, as I grieved her passing, I thought of the birthday lunch that would not ever be again. I also thought of all the wonderful things that she had done in her life, but, in particular, I pictured the beautiful centerpieces that she had made for every Sisterhood event. Ironically, she was most famous for the “birthday centerpieces.” These were colorful containers that had within them birthday-related objects like decorations, paper goods, presents, cake mixes, and icing. She worked so hard over these because she knew they gave great joy to young children in homeless shelters and provided them with the opportunity to do something as ordinary as celebrate a birthday during some undoubtedly difficult times in their lives. If anyone knew how to celebrate a birthday, she did, and through these creations, she led her sisterhood in fulfilling the mitzvah of Tikkun Olam – Repairing the World – over and over again.
I have to admit that, as I approach this upcoming birthday, she is completely on my mind, and I am trying to figure out how to symbolically spend the day with her. I suspect that I will make a donation in her memory, and, if I am able and weather permits, I will probably go to the cemetery to “chat” with her. It just seems right. And I hope we find something to “laugh” about. I miss her laugh and her wide smile the most. Will this be difficult? I know it will, for this story, in my mind, has not been completely “written.” I am thankful, though, that our joint birthday will provide me with the opportunity to grapple with her loss, a task that I am not sure I have done completely at this point.
So, yes, what happened to her seemingly suggests the statement I don’t like and mentioned at the beginning of this writing, the one that says – “Don’t be upset about your birthday, and your age, because look at the alternative.” Truthfully, though, she was so far from being negative that I would do her a tremendous disservice to use that statement in any way. Rather, I would like to say that we should honor and love our family and friends, as we don’t know how long they will be with us or we will be with them.
And I would also say that our birthdays are meant to be celebrated with these very special people. The age may bother us a bit, but the cake and ice cream and camaraderie and family-love and friend-love never will. This is our community, and these people help us to write the stories of our lives.
And I would also say that the reason we have birthdays is to get in touch with who we are, what we think and feel, and what we value. And, as difficult as that may be sometimes, our birthdays, all of them, those of the past and the present, help us to face those things that sometimes we don’t want to face or feel. I hope I remember all of this when I get to that day later this week.
I know that, if she and I had gone to lunch this year, she would have teased me about this new age that I am reaching, and I would have done the same with her. And she would have continued by teasing me that, at our new ages, the memory is the first thing to go. I am sure she would have been right and the two of us would have really laughed over that, if we had actually remembered why we were laughing. That would have been a great birthday story!
So, when it comes time for your birthday, enjoy every minute of it. Remember all of the birthdays that have come before and the things you have learned from them and the stories associated with these days. Then, say a shehecheyanu blessing and give thanks for reaching this special day.
And, as we end this week, I am remembering to wish you a Shabbat Shalom! And, to all my December birthday “sisters,” I bid you a Happy Birthday, a special Yom Huledet Sameach – and may you find that extraordinary and meaningful birthday story!!