Grandparents were once young like us, right? Perhaps, but it’s always been hard for me to see any grandparent as the aging version of a once “cool” young person (I apologize Mom and Dad). Still I have come to realize that just because grandparents are old, doesn’t mean that they are boring. It’s just that kids are a little to young to appreciate the wisdom and good intentions of their AARP qualifying ancestors.
Lets face it, a 60 plus year age gap is a long ass time. Take my parents and my nieces and nephew for example. When my parents were in high school, back when the “greatest generation” was in its heyday, schools, restaurants, sports teams, buses and almost every major institution was segregated. Now, at least until January 21, an African-American is our president and our most beloved sports figures, particularly here in Miami, are black. When my mom was 10, the movies cost a nickel and records were the crowning achievement in music technology. Now my ten year old niece must shell out $15 for a bag of popcorn and an advertising soaked theatre-movie. Plus God only knows what parking costs in San Francisco. Music wise, it goes without saying how easily she accesses to the vast ocean of digitally available music.
This generation gap is infinitely wider than that of my generation and our parents’ parents.
But this blog isn’t really about generation gaps or how awkward it is to speak with someone at least six decades older than we are.
It’s about birthdays and how they relate to the most memorable conversation I ever had with my Grandfather Abdullah who passed away at age 84 in 1993.
Since I’m getting “old” and my childhood was at least 6 presidents and many gigabytes or technological advances ago, I can’t really remember too many specific conversations I had with my grandfather. I assume we spoke about simple things such as school, food, the weather and occasionally headline news. I’m sure I told him a lot about sports but I doubt he processed much of the trivia I offered. Still, whatever we spoke about seemed enough to make him smile, although I wish I had been a better listener.
The one conversation I will never forget was in the fall of either 1983 or 1984, and I’m almost positive it was during a weekend because I was home alone on a sunny afternoon.
It was long before the fortuitouscaller-ID and even answering machine days so when the phone kept ringing around 5:30, I eventually felt no choice but to answer.
“Hello, Hello” the voice on the caller’s end clumsily uttered.
There was a pause then I replied “Hello” somewhat out of breath.
“Is this Mark? Hello, it’s Grandpa”.
Again I hesitated because he was rarely the one to call.
“Yes Grandpa. Hello.” Then in some combination of an immature reaction and Freudian slippage, I continued with “Why are you calling?”
I think I meant to say “How are you?”.
And then came response to which this blog is dedicated, one which like my SAT score, the year the Red Sox finally broke the curse and my social security number, I expect to remember for at least another half century:
“I’m calling for you to wish me a happy birthday!”
I could end the blog here and feel confident I’ve conveyed a useful message.
But more detail is usually helpful.
I have always been quick on my feet so I deftly calculated my reply.
“Oh yes, happy birthday Grandpa. I’ve been wanting to call you all day but we were waiting until the family was all together so we could wish you a happy birthday all at once!”
For all I know, this could have been true but where were the blackberry birthday reminders when we needed them most?
The rest of the conversation was a blur. We probably spoke about school, food, the weather, maybe even something of greater consequence. I don’t think I asked him how old he was but by doing the math, I think it was his 74th or 75th birthday. All I know for sure is that I felt awful, though equally relieved to be a good bullshitter.
Since that day, almost 30 years ago, I have made it a point to remember and try to acknowledge birthdays. Having photographic memory helps me a lot as does Facebook. Sadly, I think the only really important birthday I can’t remember is that of my grandfather though I believe it is in mid-September sometime. In some instances, I deliberately don’t wish happy birthday to certain people who should know mine and have overlooked it one time too many, as I do like to prove a point once in awhile even if they are “silly”.
But grudges aren’t the issue here. If there’s one thing, one magnetic glue that narrows the most disparate generation gap conceivable, it’s birthdays. Birthdays may age us chronologically, but emotionally they are ageless. My six year old nephew and 74 year old father both feel deservedly special on their birthdays. I doubt that will ever change.
In retrospect, my grandfather taught me more in the 23 years I knew him than he ever realized. Some of those lessons were unintentional, two of which were not to be a prisoner of fear and to smoke cigarettes as a hobby. Smoking and fear probably go hand in hand, a lethal combination that took his life and perhaps his self-esteem long before it needed to end.
But now as I see it through the less opaque lens of an increasingly wiser grandson, son and friend to hundreds of people with birthdays, the greatest lesson my grandfather taught me was never to forget the important days, particularly a birthday, of someone you genuinely care about. Besides, we never know when it will that person’s last.
P.S: My birthday is August 5th