When my dad turned seventy-five, there was quite a party.
We were all together: my four older sisters, my brother, and me, various and sundry spouses, the majority of his seventeen grandkids and four great grandchildren, family friends and neighbors, and my mother, of course. There was a band, too much food and beer, and activities for the kids.
A light drizzle fell most of the day and my parents sat under a pop-up tent while partygoers streamed through to visit with the birthday boy, and tell him he didn’t look a day over seventy-four, and accuse him (falsely) of dyeing his hair, and ask if there was anything they could get him.
“I never thought I would be such a pain in the butt when I got old,” he told me – only he didn’t say butt.
“You’re not a pain,” I said.
“Tell that to your mother.”
The day was a wonderful tribute, a good old-fashioned block party that my sister had been organizing for weeks: arranging entertainment; coordinating food; corralling siblings from out of town. As event planner, it was the responsibility of my sister – the woman my dad used to call the warden when we were kids – to secure the only gift my father really wanted for his seventy-fifth birthday. That is, all six of his children in the same place, at the same time.
It really didn’t even matter to him that this great convergence was happening on his birthday, although I’m pretty sure he misted up when we sang to him from the bandstand with arms draped around each other’s shoulders. What did matter was that all of his children had gathered in one location and were generally cordial. For a little while anyway.
Geographically, my siblings and I aren’t that far away from each other, or from the town in which we were raised. There are six of us – in three states, and all within driving distance these days. But it’s time that has divided us, not distance. Decades have passed since we lived in the same house together, the house my mom still lives in today and the one the out-of-towners bunk at over the holidays one year, or for a high school reunion the next. Of course, memories bind us, but our own families and careers and interests take precedence over shoring up ties that have weakened naturally and predictably over the years.
I think about my girls, what binds them now, and how easily they fall in and out of sister love. Best friends one day, hardly talking the next. Competitive, supportive, attentive, dismissive – all at once. In a family of women children, there’s an energy pulsing through the house that’s palpable and pervasive but with no predictable circuitry. The truth is, whether you have two kids or ten, something you really, really want is for them to just get along. To coexist peacefully. And during the summertime when temperatures are high and quarters are close, the opportunities for that might seem few and far between.
Near the end of his party, my father is worn out but still beaming. We look for just the right place to have the picture taken that says, Yes Dad, we were all here at the same time! Nobody can remember when we took the last one. By now, I’m convinced it’s a good idea that all six of us have gotten together, especially when I look at the broad smile on my father’s face as we line up for this portrait. And I wonder, Will my daughters make time for a picture like this thirty years from now? Will it be as important to me as it is to my dad?
He said he didn’t want anything in particular for his birthday. That having us all together was the best gift we could ever give him. Then I take a step back and watch my daughters this day – dancing and laughing, playing badminton in the rain, enjoying each other. For a little while anyway.
And I know exactly what he means.