Last night, this old house rang with laughter, story-telling, and not a few choked-up speeches. For my 60th birthday, at my request, my husband invited friends and family from every decade of my life to celebrate. And what a celebration it was.
Since we moved back into my childhood home, we’ve had a few parties. My parents were not party-giving people – the most they could muster would be cake and coffee with my grandmother, and she would bring the birthday cake. But my engagement with all these people – friends and family – must have come from somewhere. But where?
Certainly not from my mother, who was always delighted when her far-flung siblings came to call, but was otherwise introverted – her only friend was my father. (When I was in junior high I overheard her say to him, “She has so many friends,” derisively, as if it were a character flaw.) Certainly not from my sister Andi, who could be similarly awkward in a crowd. That left my father, and suddenly it all made sense.
Many a winter night a knock would come upon the door, and there would be one of his friends – an old-timer like Herman Whitford or Wallace Burdick, or a new pal like the builder John Gaccione of Westerly. They came after supper for a cup of coffee and a leisurely hour at our formica table in the kitchen, hashing over everything from the price of two-by-fours to the proper way to dig a well. Sometimes I eavesdropped (particularly when Gaccione brought his teenage son, who was hotter than a kerosene stove but literally never said one word), but mostly we women folks stayed in the living room and watched TV.
My father always had people around him. His business, sawing lumber, brought a steady stream of customers – friends and strangers – to our backyard. He befriended men and women alike, from the old Swamp Yankee Ben James of Woodville, a potato farmer with a hooked nose and a big heart, to the colorful Marguerite Kamp, a bleached blonde in bluejeans who brought us homemade butter and bacon.
He was particularly close to the former Police Chief Dudley Wheeler of Stonington, and in the 1970s they would travel regularly to Vermont to visit their mutual friend, Frank Clark, who owned a sweeping farm in the hills of Peacham. There, under the guise of helping Frank run his sawmill, my father had a ready getaway from the cares of home life. The real attraction was not Frank’s mill, which had its charms, but the hours they spent around the woodstove trading stories or out and about in the Vermont hills, visiting old timers like Ben Berwick.
The friends who gathered with us last night entered my life in different ways, but they have enriched it just as my father’s circle enriched his. The oldest friend was Karen, whom I met on the first day we moved into this house in 1965, when she strode up the lane that connected our houses to see what was going on and found me sitting on the stone wall with a bowl of canned pears. Although she and neighbor Deb were three years older than I, they immediately took me under their wing and what followed was years of playing Barbie dolls, Yahtzee and Monopoly. When she walked through the door last night, all those years slipped away, and I felt that stab of connection that comes between people who have shared a childhood.
Then there was Andrea, whom I met in ninth grade. I was immediately drawn to her wit, intelligence, and high spirits. Although we drifted apart, five years ago we reconnected, and the renewed friendship has been a blessing for both of us. When she read a poem in my honor, I cried.
Not far after that came Cheryl, another high school friend, but one four years younger. When I went away to college, Cheryl wrote to me every week, with care and concern way beyond her years. Since our days of listening to Dire Straits in her bedroom and sunbathing at Scarborough, she has never wavered in her wisdom, caring and loyalty.
Like my father, I met some friends through work. Laura spoke movingly of the years we had spent at two newspapers, working full time and raising our families, our “lives intertwined,” as she put it. Long after we left the newspaper world, our friendship continued to blossom, and we have laughed and cried together on many an occasion. Kristen worked by my side for years, but in the post-newspaper world we have found a renewed bond in our college teaching. She understands things no one could who has not faced down 20 college students on a regular basis, and her sharp humor puts it all into perspective. Arline, an admired colleague for years, has grown into a dear friend with whom I share an oddly similar childhood and a taste in reading. When we get together, the talk is nonstop.
Marc is another friend who has listened to my travails through thick and thin, and with him I have served on a historical board and started an authors series that lasted 10 years. But mostly Marc is a generous and intelligent companion who always has something interesting to say. Through him I have gotten to know Joanne, with her sly wit and deep caring for her fellow man.
Then there was treasured family. The oldest, my uncle Tene, will turn 98 in a few days. He looks 20 years younger and with his son, my cousin Frank, held lively and engaging conversations. My sister-in-law Jane said we are “sister friends,” and nothing could be truer. My brothers-in-law David, Paul, and Jack were on hand, the brothers I never had.
My three children attended, of course, along with my daughter-in-law Cassie and my daughter’s boyfriend, Ryan, and their tributes also made me cry. Colby reflected on the time a local reporter had pegged me as “the town historian,” and I was furious. Why? He wondered. Because, he concluded after much reflection, I was so much more than that, and the label was reductive. (How insightful of him, and how characteristic of him to be that insightful.) Mary said that everyone always asks her if she’s my daughter, and, bless her, she does not resent that in the least. Perry remembered my efforts to keep in touch with him when he was at Keene State, even writing him letters.
And how can one not love a daughter-in-law who calls you an “intelligent, caring, down-to-earth, easy-to-talk-to, bad-ass mother-in-law”? And a future-son-in-law-we-hope who is your new go-to always-win trivia partner?
Last but not least was my best friend, the hub around which my world spins, my husband Tim, who had put together this party, and who makes every day into an occasion. When he spoke of how we can have fun just driving around on the weekend, he captured the essence of our life together.
Some good friends live too far away for a party like this, or could not make it because of other commitments, but I still feel their love from afar.
What do these people have in common? What makes a friend? Who was my father drawn to, and what people engage me? I could only say, looking around at the beaming faces in our dining room, that all of these people are open, not closed. By that I mean they come to me as friends and family in a spirit of openness and truth. They are all creative in one way or another, and creativity and openness cannot be separated. They are not posers. They are not trying to one-up me, or hide their vulnerabilities, or retreat when I try to connect. They are not jealous, or petty, or back-stabbing. I try to live up to that. It is an honor when someone shares their inner world with you, and that cannot be taken lightly. But for those who would make the effort to reach out, to be open, the rewards are deep. I felt the rewards of these connections last night, and it made 60 seem like an age to be celebrated, not a number to be dreaded.