Saturday, November 26, 2016

Birthday Greetings

Early this month I had a birthday.  When I opened my eyes and remembered what day it was, I reached for my iPad.  I've had a birthday ritual in recent years.  Five years ago my parents had called my answering machine and sang Happy Birthday to me.  Every birthday since, I have played the recording of their birthday greeting. 

Three months after that call my father died. Three and a half years later my mother joined him, saying "bye-bye" as she whimsically put it. Now I had only their voices from which to conjure their presence. Last birthday it still felt a little raw only four months after my mother's death. This year it felt right as I played their recording. They were sending me greetings from afar. I listened to their voices and was transported back in time. At the end my mother sang Da da, Da da and my father joined in with a chorus.

I had done a painting of it , a realistic one of them by our old phone, the one I used to speak on in high school, talking each night with my best friend. I used to sit on the hallway floor as I twisted the cord between my fingers talking about how we would live our lives someday. What would we do? Would we have kids? Questions that lent themselves to long conversations. After about an hour my father would yell, "Get off the phone!" concluding our conversation. When I picture my parents calling me it is always on our old dial phone, long gone, but deep in my wiring.

Sometimes a realistic painting has to come first. I need to paint it out of me before I can play.  Perhaps I also had to wait a bit to let go of their corporeal form, but I took another run at it in a looser form, taking the key elements that stayed with me. My mother's birthday cake made an appearance, well actually several as it rotated through the years. Every year she did the same one, laden with airy chocolate frosting. We usually had it at Thanksgiving as my sister was a November baby also so we invariably shared the cake. My niece, who took over responsibility for Thanksgiving from my mom, continues that ritual, the annual birthday cake from my mother's recipe.

Now as I played with imagery, I pictured flames atop candles flickering, glowing like sparks, shooting through time and space with a suggestion of my parents in a chasm, another dimension, mouths open in song. And there was that phone cord twisting through time connecting them with me like an umbilical cord. 

There is a coda to this.  I was down in Illinois a day after my birthday to close on the sale of my mother's home.  As this was likely to be my last visit for the foreseeable future, I did a stop by the cemetery where my parents now reside.  I put a stone on their grave and told my mom about the new owners of the house, the parents of her neighbors. It is a solution we feel sure she would have blessed as they are new immigrants to this country just as her parents once were.  I was feeling a bit foolish speaking to the air and a tombstone, not quite sure how to have this conversation in this way, before a marker of their presence.  Then I had an idea.  Out came the iPad and their birthday song filled the air.   I wasn't sure if I was being irreverent in this act, but my family often erred on the side of irreverence, and in some strange way it felt like the most reverent thing I could have done.  I closed my eyes and felt their presence surround me, molecules of air vibrating with their energy once again.

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