Having recently celebrated a birthday in grand style (Alpha J pulled out the stops and with my other dear peeps, orchestrated a surprise party at my fave restaurant), I can’t help but think back to my last big bday, the one that ended in a zero. Married 27 years at that point, my husband, mr. invisible, had always made a big deal about birthdays and anniversaries by gifting me with a bauble or taking me to a beloved eatery or planning a trip to the Big Apple for a weekend of Broadway theater.
But five years ago, our anniversary breezed by with a card and nary a smooch from him–and my birthday? My childhood friend and his husband hosted a surprise bash, complete with onsite chef, and sheer, pink and silver table linens, flickering candlelight and towering crystal vases overflowing with blush roses and milky white gladiolus. The boys’ spectacular modern Greek Revival home that snugged up to the banks of the Kalamazoo River provided the fanciest backdrop for a party in my honor–well, ever.
My husband’s role? He told our hosts when they asked that my favorite cake was white. Really???? Who was this man married to? My friends had seen me inhale chocolate like a crack addict and didn’t trust his answer, thank goodness, so on the big night my candles blazed atop a delectable, three-layer German Chocolate confection that looked like Martha Stewart had sprinkled the coconut on it herself.
So as my birthday approached this year (and with said husband long gone), I decided to give myself the gift of travel. As a gal who always has a plan, I didn’t want the triple-digit desert heat to drive me inside like it did last summer, where thoughts about my failures start to tap dance in my mind like a full-on Busby Berkeley musical. And only those who have mothered, or been a wife, or run a household, or owned a business will get this, but the very best thing about this travel plan?? Nearly all of the details were taken care of by someone besides me.
Alpha J’s friends in Seattle and Vancouver, both places I’d never been before, were generous hostesses to us in their stunning cities, mosaics of lush green gardens scattered with sculpture, pristine coastlines and sparkling skyscrapers. In Seattle, I ate my very first fresh Dungeness crab, its sweet, succulent meat worth every tool it took to dig it out of dismembered legs and claws before dipping it in melted butter. Memories of steamed mussels, divine clam chowder, its silky broth dotted with celery, leeks and tiny bits of potato, and wild-caught salmon the color of a coral reef still dance like sugar plums in my head. From the Northwest to Canada, trains, sea buses, water taxis and ferries were a welcome reprieve from dodging highway traffic.
And Vancouver?? If New York and San Francisco had a baby, I think it’d have a face like this sophisticated, culturally diverse and welcoming, walkable metropolis. My friends and I roamed art galleries, watched actors sing and dance their way through “42nd Street” under the stars in Stanley Park, ate plates of fancy, jewel-sized sushi and stuffed ourselves with dim sum Bao buns. Speaking of buns, Vancouver was also the scene of another Tinder date, this one with a slender, blue-eyed, blonde guy who had sweaty palms and no game whatsoever–but who was brave enough to meet me and the girls for drinks at a waterside French wine bar.
Other summer getaways were a direct result of serving on charity fundraisers–and widening my circle of friends. “Give and you shall receive” came in the form of invitations to these new friends’ summer homes in the bustling, beachy luxury that is Laguna and the laid-back serenity of Madeline Island, Wisconsin. In CA, I hiked nearly 10 miles one day along the packed sand of Laguna Beach, picking up opalescent shells and watching gulls swoop low, diving and dipping their beaks beneath the languid tide to nab breakfast. So relaxed I was weeks later when I got to Madeline, a sweet little island in Lake Superior measuring 14 miles long and three wide, I experienced vivid, unhurried dreams.
Summer wouldn’t be complete, though, without a trip to where I grew up, married and raised a family, as my darling daughter, DD, is doing now. The only thing that would draw me to the midwest in mid-July with temps in the hi 90s and enough humidity to make you want to wring our your underwear is my oldest grandchild’s swim meet. I watched nine-year-old Wee, effortless and sure, her honey-tanned torso bent at a precise angle as she pushed off the blocks, her smooth, powerful backstroke slicing the water until she reached the pool’s edge. With a deft touch, she made a perfect somersault flip turn, taking the lead.
The next day, I took Wee with me to put flowers on Mama and Daddy’s graves, and her eyes widened as we bent down over the granite headstones. “There’s my name, GG!!” she squealed with excitement. She knew she was named after my mother, but had never seen the name they share spelled out in such a special place, a spot where ducks swim on a nearby lake and shade trees give balm to those visiting loved ones on a sultry summer day.
The cicadas’ chorus was a low thrum, not yet reaching the deafening pitch of late August. It was then I remembered one of my summer dreams, the one where I had a conversation with my mother, although it had been 46 and half years ago that I buried her on that grassy hillside. In fact, she’s been gone so long that I have only the barest recollection of her voice, its southern lilt like she never left the red dirt of Arkansas. But in my dreamy suspended state in that Madeline Island guest house, Mama smiled at me with an expression that was relaxed and unworried, and I heard her say, “You’re okay.”
And with her youngest namesake holding my hand, looking down at LOUISE etched in sturdy block letters below the word MOTHER and above the year of her birth and that of her death, I knew Mama was right.
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