Everybody else seems to be far more interested in celebrating my birthday than I am.
I will freely admit I’m a bit of a nut in several ways. I tend not to like things that absolutely everybody else likes. Parades, apple pie, professional baseball games, Disney, and what is probably heresy for an archivist, touring archives or historical museums. In that last case, they’re either kind of tedious—I see this stuff every day—or if they’re really spectacular facilities, I just get jealous. Who needs it?
But I digress. (Surprised?)
Here’s the thing about my birthday. Any more, it isn’t so much my birthday as a personal memorial day. See, it isn’t just my birthday. It was my Uncle Stan’s birthday too. Periodically on that day one of us would call the other, say “Happy Birthday,” to receive the responding “Happy Birthday,” and then both of us would start giggling. Goofy, I know, but it was our little tradition.
Uncle Stan died 17 years ago, and I must say, I miss that dorky tradition dearly.
One of my favorite Uncle Stan stories is about the night I was born. As my Aunt Dorothy tells it, Stan was a pretty heavy sleeper. Didn’t wake up very easily. So when the phone rang, either really late at night or really early in the morning, I never quite caught which, Stan stumbled out of bed to get it. All Aunt D heard him say was: “A baby? That’s nice.” And then he hung up the phone and went back to sleep.
Well, Aunt D was rather perturbed, as you might expect. See, there weren’t any known babies all that imminent as I wasn’t technically due for another six weeks. And this was in the days when long distance actually cost real money and my mom has never been good about using it, so I’m pretty sure she wasn’t aware Mom, her older sister, had gone into labor. So she shook him awake and said “Who had a baby?” To which he mumbled something about “what baby?” and went back to sleep. Leaving her to stew for what was left of the night, not wanting to wake anybody else up by tracking down the source of the call.
Well, in the morning he disclaimed any knowledge of any such conversation and only after a few phone calls did Aunt D track down the story.
My other favorite Uncle Stan moment was back when I was about 13 or 14. Typical emotional, touchy teen. On a road trip vacation with the parents (three decades later, my brother still refers to those cross-country trips as hell trips) and resenting it like crazy. We were at Stan & Dorothy’s house without much planned, I’m pretty sure their daughters—both about my age—were both gone, and I was bored and attitudinal. So I was hanging around in the front yard, probably glaring at anybody dumb enough to walk by me, not that there were all that many people doing that since they were all hanging out in the back yard on the deck overlooking the lake. Uncle Stan took one look at me and said “Come on Attila, you need to help me go pick up soda for dinner.”
In retrospect, I’m pretty sure they weren’t in need of soda. Their garage always seemed to be packed to the rafters with 12-packs (sorry Aunt D, that’s probably TMI but it’s how my brain recalls it). But it was a bit of a ride to the grocery store and for all I know, Stan needed a break from all the family too. At any rate, we went into the store, he picked out two to three more 12-packs, and I realized he wasn’t kidding about my helping. He paid for the soda and walked away from the counter, leaving me to carry all of them.
So there I am, balancing these boxes of soda cans, heading out of the store. But here’s the thing. Remember those old grocery store automatic doors where you stood on the pad in front of the door to open it? This grocery store, for whatever infernal reason, had set them up so the exit was to the left, instead of to the right like any other normal store. And okay, I was in teen lala land as I try to exit to the right. So I’m standing there, not really thinking, waiting for the door to open, and it isn’t opening. Hasn’t even really crossed my mind yet that there’s a problem here when I hear this knock on the window to my right. I look over, there’s Uncle Stan outside holding his hands up in the air in the classic “What on earth?” pose.
Early teens are touchy, really really touchy. And embarrassment is something most don’t handle very well, and I was no exception. But when I exited the store to find Uncle Stan standing in the driveway in front of the store, doubled over laughing at me, I honestly didn’t get upset. I had a flash of what this must have looked like to him and started laughing too. We loaded the soda in the car, did the 45 minute drive home talking all the way, I don’t remember what about, and that was that.
That was the first time I really recall my (now well-developed) sense of the absurd kicking in.
So Uncle Stan, happy birthday. As I type this, I can hear you saying it back. I’m not quite at giggling point yet, but I’ll get there eventually. I do miss you. And that sense of the absurd? Probably the best birthday gift I ever got. Thanks.