May 30, 2016
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Until 1971, when national holidays began to wander the calendar in search of Monday, my parents each had a claim on May 30th: it was Memorial Day and it was my mother’s birthday.
By the time they met, the war was over; none of our family photos show them together with Les in uniform. The remnants of my father’s war were few: dog tags, Zippo, foot locker, sleeping bag, photos, and a slim folder of paperwork. His scars were not physical and, like others of his generation, he bore them with stoicism and little comment.
If my mother’s war had been a time of personal strength and freedom, she seemed equally willing to set it aside in favor of her new life with my father.
Each year on Memorial Day my father honored his memories, his lost family and friends, with a quiet walk among the headstones at the Veteran’s Cemetery. While my mother claimed to be unsentimental about her birthday, she never accompanied him on those walks, his brief abandonment of her like a small stone in the birthday cake.
But my father would return, soothed and soothing, and, wounds attended, the birthday would resume.
Each of my parents owned a part of the day, and a part of me. It seems we still celebrate together.
. . . . .
photo: Dorothy and Les, 1954
May 30, 2015
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It’s my mother’s birthday. She has missed the party for the last 13 years, but I have little doubt that she’s blushing over candles and attention wherever she is. Although she pretended otherwise, she loved being the focus of celebrations and for years (until it became a Monday holiday) was quietly resentful of Memorial Day, which shared — and put a sobering crimp in — her birthday.
She would be happy to know that I’m thinking about her, and that today I put away the down comforters and covered the beds with quilts her mother made. She would be pleased that I use her Revere-ware pan, her colorful Mexican napkins and her grandfather’s champagne flutes. She would be proud that I write about her, that I contemplate her artwork and examine the many photographs that trace the longitude of her life.
These are hardly gifts at all, small pleasures I can grant her too late. But her happiness, in whatever measure, in whatever dimension, is a gift I imagine for us both. Happy Birthday, Dorothy.
May 30, 2014
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By the time my mother turned 90, my dad was gone and Dorothy’s life had narrowed. Her vision and mobility were compromised and her thoughts didn’t always make it to the end of each sentence. But two things remained the same: her love of food and her love of attention.
There was surely no thing she needed as a birthday gift, so I did the obvious: I took her out to eat. Again and again.
Over the course of several weeks around her 90th birthday, we would make plans to go out to lunch or dinner — not unusual in itself as it was something we both enjoyed and could do together without too much conflict. But when we arrived at the restaurant, she would find, each time with renewed surprise, a small party awaiting her — special friends, close cousins, the women in her writing group. There were eight of these occasions, each at a different, favorite, restaurant, each with different, favorite, people.
Whether she retained any memory of these meals once we left the restaurants I don’t know. But for those sweet hours, her smile wide, she basked in generous affection and felt truly and joyfully celebrated.
. . . . .
Dorothy watercolor self-portrait, 1982
May 30, 2011
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For decades before the Uniform Monday Holiday Act turned it into a Monday event, Memorial Day was May 30th, and it was much more than a national holiday. May 30th was my mother’s birthday — a day as fraught with ritual and importance as anything the government could devise. Today she would have been 100.
Our house was perched on a small bluff overlooking the Veteran’s Cemetery. There, on the other side of a chain link fence, tens of thousands of marble headstones stood in quiet rows amidst acres of grass and towering eucalyptus trees.
My mother and father did not visit the graves of their parents. Their own final wishes specified ashes scattered at sea, with no marker or headstone, no “there.” But on Memorial Day, my father would leave my birthday-hungry mother to walk through one vast section or another of the cemetery, studying the worn markings, reflecting on his fallen comrades and, perhaps, the wonder of his own survival. The ritual walk on Memorial Day was his alone. As a child, I accompanied him once or twice, but I was no more capable of the necessary contemplation than he was of cartwheeling and leapfrogging among the headstones.
He wouldn’t talk about the War. It was his war, and its outlines were sketched for me in the vaguest collection of names and faded photographs. The desert. A patched sleeping bag where a field mouse had burrowed to have her babies. An aversion to the taste of lamb. Patton. Gillam. Europe. He had seen too much and lost too much and spent the remaining 40 years of his life guarding against the invasion of his memories.
photo by Robin Z