The Keeper of Birthdays


June 1, 2015 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

birthday songLast week I had a blessedly low-key birthday.

The blessing is because it is the year-before-a-milestone birthday. A milestone, a millstone, a tombstone, what have you. My father talked about reaching this milestone for years before it happened, because he feared it; my mother never mentioned it, for exactly the same reason.

I’ve never been the sort of woman who didn’t want people to know my age; that seemed like vanity and nonsense. But after my last couple of job searches post-recession, I’ve begun to realize the value of not having that information easily searchable. My LinkedIn resume, for example, no longer lists my graduation dates, or the dates of my degrees. (Here’s how you do this.)

Forty is the old age of youth; fifty is the youth of old age.

I recited this French proverb (which I’ve since seen variously attributed to Victor Hugo, Hosea Ballou, and Oscar Wilde) with delight on my last milestone birthday. Next year I may simply move to France, where I can feel free to turn ten with a minimum of fuss. In the present, however, I am completely happy to have had an insignificant birthday. It is much cheaper.

Although I suppose I could travel light...  Photo by Melvin Sokolsky 1963, Courtesy Vintage Photography

Although I suppose I could travel light… Photo by Melvin Sokolsky 1963, Courtesy Vintage Photography

It was a Thursday, and a workday, this birthday of mine. In the evening I went to Story Club, a monthly venue at the Bryant Lake Bowl that my friend Mimi Nguyen brought to Minneapolis from Chicago. I am performing there in June, and I have only been there once before, so I wanted to get the lay of the land.

When I got home, there was a voice mail from my father. Keep in mind that he is (and always has been) completely tone deaf.

My mother doesn’t initiate any calls anymore, and it is hard to get her to pick up the phone when it rings if my father is not in the room telling her to do so. My dad rarely calls. This is partly because his eyes are bad, and partly because, well, it is my job to call them. We never know when is a good time, he says. You might be out.

Translation: we might have to talk to the @#$% answering machine.

They used to hate answering machines.  I still remember, back when my mild-mannered, prim-and-proper mother was placing calls, the message that began with a muttered under-the-breath oh shit! Oh, how I wish I still had that message.

My mother used to be the keeper of birthdays.

My Brother Scott's 4th Birthday

My Brother Scott’s 4th Birthday

She sent all the cards out on time, addressed in perfect cursive. She sent cards on other holidays too: Christmas, of course, but also Easter and Valentine’s Day. I used to roll my eyes when she’d send me Valentine’s Day cards. They stopped when I got married, and started up again, for a while at least, after the divorce.

I’ve been terrible at cards for a long time, though I used to try. I even had one of those spiral bound Hallmark card organizers with pockets for each month; you write all the birthdays on the front of each pocket and make sure you have cards in advance. Now I’m infamous for buying cards, and then forgetting to send them.

The Friday before the second Sunday in May, I ended up leaving work early to go to the post office to express mail a Mother’s Day card. It seems I can get two foundation and two government proposals done by deadline in one week, but I can’t mail a damn card to my mother on time. Afterwards I burst into tears in the post office parking lot because it doesn’t really matter to her whether the card is there on time or not.

Now birthdays, too, are my father’s job. Though he is not a sender of cards.

On occasion my mom will surprise me. A week or so ago there had been a phone call that was largely a conversation about nothing, but which kept getting prolonged by one or the other parent every time I suggested saying goodnight. We have those conversations a lot. At one of those moments, my mother burst out with – “Say. When is your….BIRTH-day?” She plucked the word as if from air, triumphant; it emerged from her mouth with a flourish, like a perfectly cleaned bone.

“May 28th,” I told her, and I told her how old I was going to be. “No!” she gasped. “Yes indeed,” I said. “And you and dad will be married sixty years in August.” “No!!” she repeated. “And your birthday is June 1,” I said. “When’s that?” she asked. “I’ll send you a card,” I told her.

And I did. This time I didn’t use express mail. It seems things that come in large envelopes like that are usually sales pitches to old people. When I had called that Mother’s Day, I found they had never opened it.

While I was trying to decide whether it was too late to call them back (and had not yet turned my ringer on) a second message arrived.

Fortunately my phone butler was still on duty.

You have my permission to love him. And yes, I called them right back.



40 thoughts on “The Keeper of Birthdays

  1. Thank you for a beautiful essay that I would have paid good money to read. Thank you for disrupting a busy Monday morning when I should not have taken time out to read for pure pleasure and thank your for an arresting title that made me do just that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank YOU, Bridget. It was such a busy Monday for me that I didn’t have the time or the energy to respond to comments yesterday. I’m glad you found it a compelling title; I changed it several times in search of what seemed to suit. ;-)


  2. Diana says:

    I love this post! ISo much resonated with me. We must be related, or simply of a similar generation. And yes, I love your dad. He reminds me in some ways of mine. He never sang me a solo happy birthday — I don’t think. But I saved a couple of his voicemail messages from when he was in hospital for the last time, and very occasionally listen to them. And I’ve started saving some of my mom’s now — because I know at some point she won’t be around any more, and I want to remember her from now — when she’s still herself, and before she goes. Every so often I clean out some of the less wonderful ones, as more wonderful ones appear in my voicemail.

    Happy belated birthday Paula! May you experience many lovely, life-affirming adventures and encounters in this coming year. I look forward to more posts.


    • Thank you, Diana. I’m afraid someday I’m going to find it difficult to listen to these (did you ever hear this story?, but I think it will be a good difficult, if you know what I mean.


      • Diana says:

        Thank you for sharing that link, I did see that post, and I am so happy for he was able to get that recording back. I have to admit that I rarely listen to the messages Dad left. Usually on or near my birthday, because I was born on his. Quite a few years ago now I took a trip with a couple of friends and my parents, and during the trip I did a video recording in which I interviewed my father. I have no idea what I asked him, and the answers were certainly not compelling, but I remember thinking (even as I recorded) that one day he wouldn’t be here any more, and this might be the only thing I could watch to enjoy his company/presence again. I should find the clip and share it with Mom. She might appreciate it.

        A good difficult indeed. I suspect you will find this very difficult for a while at some point in future, and then begin to appreciate it again with joy. And may the joy always win out in the end.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Norah says:

    Happy birthday, and happy days, Paula. Your post is filled with joys and sadness all mixed up. That is what life does to us. To hear your father sing you happy birthday like that makes me sad for the loss of my own, but happy that you still have yours to do so, tuneless though it might be. I love the way he continues singing the rest of the words he has to say. It made me smile and I understand how pleasing it was to capture this recording rather than have it lost in conversation.
    It is sad for your too because your mother is no longer able to recall the months or the years, but she knew it was birthday time for you.
    I wish you happiness Paula. Enjoy the last of this decade, a new one with new adventures is just around the corner!


  4. marydpierce says:

    This is lovely and wistful. Your father is a treasure. I love how he recalls the event of your birth. As for age, I approach that subject from what I like to call the Scarlett O’Hara school of thought — I won’t think about that now, I’ll think about it tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day.

    Happy living in the world of today!


    • Thanks, Mary. We had a long conversation the last time I was home about how much things have changed in the childbirth arena where fathers are concerned. And although he keeps saying that he cannot imagine wanting to be present through all that, I suspect my mother felt differently. The last time he told me the story he said that when he came in “her eyes were as big as saucers.” And all I can think of is that maternity ward scene in The Woman’s Room, with the women lined up on guerneys like they were on a factory assembly line, and how patronizing and dismissive the doctors were. I hope it wasn’t like that.


  5. Mary Rowen says:

    Oh Paula! I am in tears over this post. Your dad reminds me of mine, whom I miss so much. Thank you so much for posting. A good cry is a good thing every now and then. Have a wonderful birthday.


    • Apparently the story has had that effect on a number of people, Mary. So I’ll take you at your word that the cry was a good one, and not too distressing. It has been good for me to hear all these affirming things, as sometimes I focus way too much on the difficult aspects of our relationship. And I fear I am not giving a balanced picture. Of course if the love were not so present and real, I would not be so frustrated at the difficulties!


  6. woodbeez48 says:

    A belated happy birthday, Paula. How lovely to hear your dad’s voice and to share in his obvious love for you xx


  7. Ann Rubin says:

    I’m glad we have your permission to love him, because after those two messages – I DO. That is a wonderful capture of a father’s love. I have tears.


    • Good, Ann, because when I come up lacking, it is nice to know there are others’ out there whose emotional capital can spell me once in awhile. I like to believe the universal economy works that way. I have a new (well, newer) car now, which means it may actually be possible for me to get to an Alzheimers’ support group out in Richfield – my 1993 Toyota Tercel had a bad habit of stalling in stop-start traffic, so I had been avoiding “rush” hour like the plague. Thanks again for FB-ing me that info.


  8. Annecdotist says:

    Wow, Paula! What a wonderful post. I so enjoyed hearing those half-sung messages from your dad, especially the latter one celebrating your birth. It’s hard for men of that generation to connect with their feelings, but he’s done it here. And clever you to get it from the hands of your phone butler to share with us all. (I wouldn’t have a clue.)
    I really don’t like my birthdays – and it’s not an age thing – but the problem is they’re quite difficult to ignore. Last year I had a hospital appointment on mine, which was just fine.
    Glad yours was okay, and you manage to mark next year’s significant one in a way that suits you.


    • I’ll figure something out. I had a friend who invited everyone to his Senior Prom. And wore a gown. He looked stunning; I was quite upstaged. I think he may be the same person who first acquainted me with the Volga Birthday Dirge:


  9. jan says:

    Last week was my birthday too! I’m definitely in the mid-life crisis of old age, early onset second childhood… you name it. Such a sweet story about your parents. Thanks for sharing!


  10. Ariel Bernstein says:

    Happy belated Birthday, Paula! It’s no surprise you have such wonderful parents :) I love that French quote too!


  11. Judith Post says:

    Loved the French quote, and glad you had a nice, low-key birthday. My granson’s is May 24 and my friend’s is May 28, so we celebrated birthdays, too. Geminis are fun.


  12. plaguedparents says:

    Happy belated birthday! I too am terrible with cards, and my Grandmother is the keeper of the birthdays. It is a melancholy feeling thinking what will become of the cards when she passes,


  13. Charli Mills says:

    Maybe you could introduce your father to Facebook…:-) I’ve not had anyone who was traditional in that sense of sending cards until my daughter married and gained her husband’s grandmother. Now I get holiday and birthday greetings from her in the mail. A great post. Happy birthday!


    • I can introduce my father to Facebook just as soon as I figure out how to explain the difference between a fax and the World Wide Web to him. And why my roommate and I have different email addresses even though we live in the same house. Yes, the one actual card I did receive in the mail came from my very conscientious (and not too into Facebook) sister-in-law. And there’s an odd story about that one, too. Stay tuned.


  14. pinkmenotmom says:

    Happy birthday, Paula. This essay is so beautiful and touching and compassionate – I think it’s my favorite of yours so far. I love the rhythm of your sentences in this piece – just gorgeous. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful post.


  15. Terry Tyler says:

    I SO agree with that proverb, in fact I’m going to nick it and put it everywhere! I am 55, and see my 40s as the end of, and nicest part of the ‘young me’ – and I feel so different now. I am aware that the path to old age has now begun; it’s not just the dodgy knees and the saggy jowls, it’s what’s inside my head, too. Happy birthday for last week – and of course you’re a Gemini, I should have guessed!


  16. All photographs, priceless. All of your stories and memories, priceless. You tell a good story, Paula, is there a memoir in all this?


  17. Lisa Reiter says:

    What a beautiful piece Paula. I love the many layers around being a keeper of birthdays and the way you express the sliding loss of those memories for your Mum. I love your Dad’s answer machine messages and as an aside, I’m delighted to discover you’re another gemini. (Not that I’m into astrology in the way my own mother uses it to predict everyone and anyone’s fruits and foibles!) My birthday is 31st May and I’m a decade behind you in the milestone birthdays. I’m guessing I might remember to make you a card next year :D


  18. […] terrible at sending cards myself (as I mentioned last week), so I don’t really expect to get […]


  19. TanGental says:

    Great reminder; love the sotto voce oh shit. My parents refused to have an answer machine – well dad did – ‘if hey want me enough they’ll call back’ – though when British Telecom introduced an automatic service he would go straight to the phone on returning the the house, dial 1571 and listen or messages, always a little disappointed if there wasn’t one. s for leaving messages I can’t count the times the machine would fill with mum going off on tangents talking to the tape, often forgetting to include the real reason for the call.


    • My apologies, Geoff. Missed this comment on a busy week. Yes, I think everyone has someone in the family who talked to the tape and filled it up. I never quite know how to interpret that. Either they are very lonesome or your presence itself really doesn’t matter – they just want to talk. ;-)

      Liked by 1 person

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