Clippings: Shared birthdays show what matters

Last Sunday, for the 23rd time, I blew out birthday candles with my great-grandmother. This time, though, was particularly special — my great-grandmother Lorraine turned 100 on July 24, my birthday as well.
My extended family gathered around the restaurant table in Malden, Mass., where she lives, and sang us both happy birthdays, as two waitresses emerged over our shoulders, each with a cake. I wasn’t expecting to be celebrated at my great-grandmother’s 100-year-bash (after all, 23 seems like an impressively insignificant age in comparison), but it was heartening to sit next to her once again and to go through our ritual.
People frequently remind each other that life is short, and with good reason. You never know what is going to happen next, so you might as well go after the things that truly make you happy.
But sitting next to Lorraine, and thinking about all that has changed since 1918 when she was born, I felt an overwhelming sense that life can also be very long. It may sound obvious — short or long, it has to be one of the two, right? — but as a 23-year-old recent college graduate, embarking on an frighteningly unknown, and seemingly endless, chapter of my life, this was a freeing thought.
If Lorraine’s life is any indication, more will change in my life than I can even begin to imagine right now. Lorraine switched homelands, religions and even her birth date.
Lorraine’s family immigrated to the United States from Italy when she was two years old in search of a better future in a land with more opportunity. Shortly after arriving, her father passed away, leaving the family with no source of income. With her brother and four sisters, Lorraine went from church to church in the Boston area to get free meals.
When she was only around middle-school age, Lorraine met her husband Jack, a young Jewish immigrant who spent his time outside of school helping his father paint houses. When they were 19 years old, she eloped with Jack, and converted to Judaism. While raised Roman Catholic, her family resorted to attending whichever church provided free food, so they became less religious over time. Lorraine was active in the local synagogue, and even learned how to cook traditional Jewish meals like cheese blintzes better than any of the other relatives.
About 10 years ago, Lorraine found out some news that shifted her previous conception of herself; she had been celebrating her birthday on the wrong day, July 23, for around ninety years.
“I guess no one bothered to look at her birth certificate,” my dad tried to explain.
We had always celebrated together anyway when our Boston relatives drove to Connecticut each July, but until recently our birthdays were one day apart.
Lorraine was apparently saddened by this news — that her family had not known her true birthday. I was happy, though, to share my birthday with my great-grandmother.
A lot more has surely changed in Lorraine’s life since she was born 100 years ago. Like everyone, she has experienced death and loss, and her memory has slowly faded. Yet, she also witnessed the birth of children and grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, and the warmth of new friendships.
Besides the events in her personal life, much is different now historically than it was in 1918; there have been 18 United States presidents since she was born. Additionally, many social norms differ substantially from when she was growing up in Boston in the early 1920s. Women (and men) tend to go to school for longer than she did, which was until the 8th grade.
Perhaps thinking that life can be long, that many things will change in ways that we cannot attempt to predict, serves a similar purpose as proclaiming that life is short. Both mindsets encourage people to put their worries and stressors in perspective, and to focus on what truly matters.
As family members came up to Lorraine to say their goodbyes in the restaurant last week, she held onto their arms and looked them in the eyes. She didn’t always remember their names, but each time she did say, “It was so good to see you.”
I’m not quite sure where this year will take me, but I hope that next July, I can sit beside Lorraine and blow out the candles with her for a 24th time.

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