I was born the same day, in a much later year as Thornton Wilder, a fact that had no impact at all on my life, since I discovered our common birthday long after my life’s path was half tread.
I read him in my youth, and must admit I can recall nothing of what I read, which I attribute to all that I have read since, and not as any criticism of Wilder’s writing, for his talent is beyond question.
But what was disconcerting was to learn that Nick Hornby was born five years to the day after me and has penned works that I love but cannot hope to equal despite my having lived longer if not more fully than he has.
As we walked slowly through the Forum the Coliseum receding into the late afternoon, the Virgins stood patiently as befits a priestess trained to avoid the stares of passing men, even tourists such as we were, the columns staring down reminding us of our youth
despite the birthdays that we celebrated with the joy of togetherness, and the nagging knowledge that we were another year closer to that moment we refuse to acknowledge, aware always of its growing proximity.
We stare back at the Coliseum, as the sun slides behind its walls, and as the vendors selling all manner of items the buyer will regret in mid-flight home pack up for the day, I imagine Caesar pausing in thought then, sneering, turning his thumb down.
He is four, has been for five months now, but when you ask them how old he will be at his next birthday he doesn’t pause, says, “thirteen,” with a smile that shouts, “yes I know how to count quite well, but sometimes I just choose not to!” He is slowing down, actually, the last week he decided he was seven and decided he would be 27 on his next birthday. I am certain it has nothing at all to do with the presents his classmate’s brother got his Bar Mitzvah, but there is something in the smile of a Jewish four-year-old that reminds even a grandfather who long ago gave up the faith that there is something magical about turning thirteen despite the ever dreaded thank you notes.
My sister only wanted a horse an my parents thought they could solve that dilemma with a pony at her fifth birthday party where she would get all the extra rides, her friends and playmates be damned. Like most great parental plans, this one was doomed to failure, and failure marched front and center as they learned from the pony was loaded back into the trailer and my sister tried to tie herself to the trailer with ribbon from her gift wrap. She was never good with knots, even when she died at 52, the cancer having ravaged her one organ at a time, but even in her waning days, she whine to our mother that all she ever wanted was a horse, then winked at me, staring around her hospital room, since we both knew there was a pony in there somewhere.
He is four, he announces to all gathered at the extended family table that he will be five soon, in January. It is important that we know this just as it is important that he sit next to his cousin, for boys like he should always sit next to cute girls and sisters don’t count, everyone knows that. Four people in his class have birthdays in January And he tells us their names, we hoping there will be no quiz. As I call him to get his food from the buffet he turns to his father, and says, “Josh, save my seat,” and smiles broadly. He repeats this ensuring we have all heard. When I ask him why he says Josh, not daddy, he laughs and says, “Because it’s his name, silly, like your name is Papa Lou, and anyway he always calls me Charlie, not son.”
He is four today. He’s been practicing being four, so it is somewhat second nature. But he made a decision. Next year he will be five. He was going to be 27 next year, but decided that can wait another year. I asked him why he was delaying, he said, “You get better presents when you are four or five.” I confess his logic, but wonder what I should do with the tie and cardigan I bought for his next birthday?
I look at the photo, me holding my granddaughter. Between us we are 57 years old, she has just celebrated her first birthday. In the photograph we are both laughing hysterically, in the photo we are both young children.
He is still three, but he is not easily convinced of that fact. He says he is four, although with that certain smirk and a wink he admits his birthday is next week. He says he is practicing being four and it doesn’t seem all that hard. He says he has gotten so good at it that next year he is thinking of turning twenty-seven. His father smiles at this, imagining all the teenage years of angst bypassed in a single night.