Today is Owen’s birthday. Most of our kids came home last weekend to celebrate August birthdays. That would be Owen and me, both Leos. We celebrated a little early this year. Twenty four years ago, on August 17th, Owen was my best present for my 30th birthday. So on Saturday Bronwyn and Oskar put up balloons and streamers, and Freya and her boyfriend Keir made blueberry crisp. Edward grilled lamb, and Daric brought some gorgeous gerbera daisies and also a very nice bottle of rye whiskey from his wife Jamie. The meal was the perfect birthday present for me: dinner table conversation is my favorite form of social life, and listening to the Simons children tell their stories, banter, tease, and support each other warms my heart. I can’t tell, but I think Owen may feel the same.
It’s my new custom is to decorate the fridge with photos in honor of the family birthday person. During the week before, I had dredged up sweet and funny photos of Owen from babyhood to now. Coming into contact with his childhood innocence was powerful – and a big help I found as I tried to keep patience during some of our not-walks last week. But looking at old photos of my kids has its drawbacks. As delightful as it is to remember the childhood beings you may have forgotten, seeing them again captured in ink or pixels brings a sharp awareness of things lost. You will never go back, to those little people, and although you may look and remember, you will never know them (hear them, squeeze them, smell them) again.
I find the subtext of any event in August these days is wistfulness for the end of holidays, and for coming farewells. I used to look forward to the start of school, buying supplies with the kids, sharing their excitement at new classes, and anticipating more peaceful moments for myself. And before that, September meant new beginnings for myself, the discovery of new worlds that my new classes meant. Now it means deep breathing. Practicing not being clingy, learning the careless smile when tears threaten. Saying goodbye gracefully as the kids move farther and farther afield. Emotional honesty is not a boon in every arena, Wystan dear.
Learning to say goodbye is a critically important skill that begins with babies and peek-a-boo. I have had a lot of opportunity to practice it, from the time that my family moved away from Chicago and a huge extended family to a little college town in Pennsylvania. I still remember sitting on my Grandma Mary’s lap a last time before we left, her arms around me in the moonlight out in the garden (for some reason my folks thought it would be easier to drive through the night, something they never repeated). I wondered to my grandma why her eyes were so wet behind her glasses. I can’t remember what she told her seven year old grand-daughter, who was only excited about the adventure ahead.
Frequent practice does not seem to have improved my aptitude. Somehow I don’t think that’s how it works. As I prepared to bid farewell to my girls on Sunday, I thought of my Grandma Lucy and how she greeted us every time we returned to her home with “Rabbit’s friends and relations!” (Grandma Lucy was a fan of Milne’s Winnie the Pooh), and how at every parting she cried. We made that journey, with joy and tears, to and from Chicago many, many times. Owen didn’t get to meet Grandma Lucy. But he did make the acquaintance of his great-Grandma Mary, who was pretty sprightly most of the way to 97. How many hellos and goodbyes, in that near century of hers.
This weekend Oskar ,our youngest, heads off to his first year of college. Then there will be three of us for dinner, but since our kids did high school boarding school away, we learned last year to manage and enjoy. I have a full and rich life of my own. It’s just the actual facing the loss, the change happening, that is so painful.
“Nostalgia is a trap!” my mother said once. And she was too right. Now is the only time that we have, that is real. Not those old photos of chubby cheeks, or boxes of little clothes, or those sweet and funny sayings lisped and scrawled down and pinned to the refrigerator. This moment, today, and what you decide to do with it, is alive. And in truth I wouldn’t change out any of my kids’ future growth for a return to childhood sweetness — not even with Owen. It is too important to see where they are going, and how truly human they can become. Human beings are born to mothers every day, but truly human beings emerge only through the fires and floods of experience, and by learning to love something greater than oneself and one’s own agenda. Owen may be on his own special trajectory, but he too can learn, if ever so slowly.
This August however a new chapter unfolds for Edward and myself, that may change once again the way I feel about August. Call it the natural reward for raising and releasing children, not to mention trying to become more truly human myself. Or the best of birthday presents. If all goes well, and my Owen sitter works out, I will have the privilege of holding a grand-daughter out in Denver, in this our shared birthday month. I will snuggle her, and try to get acquainted, and sing to her my hopes for her future, before we say goodbye. I will probably cry, as my grandmothers did. Joy, loss, growth, joy. Time never stands still.