In the past week, I have attended two birthday parties. That’s something of a rarity for me; in recent years, family parties have become a thing of the past, and my friends, it seems, are of an age where they forgo actual parties in favor of small, informal, sometimes spontaneous adventures. Still, these milestone markers, whatever form they may take, remain an important part of the fabric of our lives.
Last Thursday, I got a last-minute invite to an informal get-together/supper party for Aunt Annabelle, who turned 95. The Schlegel/Crabb side of the family is known for such longevity. Grandma Crabb passed away four days shy of her 97th birthday, and Mammy Crabb was also 96 when she died. I was surprised to be reminded that Aunt Kass, who made the trek to Mechanicsburg for the party, had just turned 86 last month. She certainly doesn’t look or sound like she’s that old.
As one would expect for a 95th-birthday party, this was a somewhat quiet affair. It was held at Country Meadows Retirement Home, where Aunt Annabelle has lived for the past several years. Panera Bread provided the food—sandwiches, salad, chips, and cookies—and one of the cousins brought several bottles of wine and a pan of brownies with “Happy 95th Birthday” written in purple icing.
The time was spent catching up with my much-older cousins whom I rarely see; one lives over on the East Shore, and another recently moved to Florida. One conversation we had sticks in my mind, that of the need to preserve family history. Cousin Robin, who is continuing Aunt Annabelle’s hobby of genealogy, shared her desire to write a book of various family members’ recollections of living through the Depression and two World Wars. My Uncle Merle had had quite a military career, even participating in the think tanks for the first flight simulators. His wife, Aunt Janie, was a WAC during WWII and had stories of her own to tell. Likewise, Uncle Bob, Aunt Annabelle’s late husband, was a decorated war hero.
The conversation raised a twinge of regret over the fact that my own father had taken his stories of the Korean War with him to the grave. One of my brothers had kept all of Dad’s military medals and ribbons, awards for which none of us knows the stories. Why had he received them? What had he done to earn them? We’ll never know.
The other party I attended was on Saturday of the same week, a 1st birthday party for Myles and Aubrey, my niece’s twins. As one would expect, this party was much livelier, full of the laughter and antics of babies, children, and young parents, not to mention the mess and fun of those 1st birthday cupcakes.
Conversations at this party were much different, but no less precious. Parents shared the antics—some funny, some crazy, and some concerning—of their offspring, and everyone looked forward, with both hope and trepidation, to what the coming days, weeks, and months might bring. There was the usual nostalgic wish that the kids wouldn’t grow up so quickly. The oft-repeated saying, “The days are long, but the years are short,” was never far from anyone’s thoughts.
Everyone present enjoyed watching Myles and Aubrey, comparing and contrasting them, noting the ways in which they resembled each other as siblings and twins, and how they exhibited traits of their family, and marveling over the ways they were already unique individuals. Even watching them dig into their birthday cupcakes was an exercise in contrasts, as Myles eventually dug right into his cake and destroyed it, while Aubrey was a bit less enthusiastic about getting too messy; in fact, the family dog inevitably consumed more cake than Aubrey did.
Throughout the party, I couldn’t help watching my own two boys—Wesley, now 15 and already making plans for life after high school, and Wayde, 12, as sassy as any teenager and barely an inch shorter than my husband—as they interacted with both adults and youngers. It both amused me and brought me close to tears seeing them speaking with aunts, uncles, and grown cousins as easily as the other adults, and the next moment taking turns on the tree swing like the younger children.
As I watched three-year-old Hudson talking back to his mother and pushing limit after limit as preschoolers will, I was reminded of the challenges Wesley presented in his younger days, and I remembered worrying how on earth I’d ever handle him when he grew bigger than me. Wesley himself commented how much Huddy reminded him of his three-year-old self.
Of course, the challenges we face now are much different, as we plan for Wesley’s impending scoliosis surgery. The timing, it seems, couldn’t be more unfortunate, as his recovery will ultimately impact driving privileges, summer jobs, and possibly even college preparations.
Huddy’s little brother Holden has similar challenges of his own to face. Because of an infection he contracted before birth, he was left with some eye issues and profound deafness. He is scheduled for a cochlear implant in the coming months that his doctor hopes will restore at least some of his hearing.
As I reflect on these two parties, one celebrating a long life, and one celebrating lives just beginning, the one thing that stands out most is the importance of story, the sharing of family anecdotes and memories that make up our everyday lives. Some of the tales told—such as the discovery of a new favorite food or toy, or a child’s tumble down the deck stairs—mean little, if anything, to those outside the family. Other stories, such as the Depression-era and Wartime memories my cousin wishes to preserve, have a much wider appeal and are important in a historical context.
But no matter what the nature of the stories, it is important—crucial—that we keep telling them, for it is story that ultimately defines our human experience.