Prompt 251. Turning 34 Again
& writer Beth Kephart on putting the pieces back together
It was my birthday on Wednesday, and leading up to it, I announced to my family that, although I was supposed to be turning 35, I would be sticking with 34—a stance not motivated by vanity or fear of aging, but because so much of the last year felt like a lost year. Maybe once in our lifetime, I said, we should get a redo.
I expected a quiet day with loved ones—that’s usually how I spend my birthday. As much as I love fêting others, I’ve never been big on celebrating my own, in part because it’s the day after July 4 and people are usually out of town. (As anyone who has a birthday close to a holiday knows, it feels like celebration limbo.) And being back here in Switzerland where my mother is from and most of her family still lives, feeling good, surrounded by my beloveds—including River, who just marked her one-year adopt-aversary—I already felt like I was in a dream. I woke up that morning, had breakfast with my family, went swimming in Lake Geneva, and had a nap, all the while thinking I was having the best birthday of my life.
But little did I know that my mom had been planning something for months, and what began as an afternoon walk with my brother became a matryoshka doll of a birthday celebration. After stopping at a little shop to buy River a Swiss collar to mark our year together—the same kind I bought for Oscar many years ago—my brother led me over to the train station, saying we should ride up the mountain. As we were waiting, two of my cousins, Elise and Marie, walked up, much to my surprise. We greeted each other with big hugs, then climbed aboard the train, which was one of those old ones that clacks and creaks up the incline like a roller coaster to its summit. When we got off the train a couple stations later, we found ourselves at a beautiful park, where we began to play some games my cousins brought along—croquet and another called mölkky, where you use sticks to knock down numbered pins. The next thing I knew, a third and a fourth cousin arrived, then a fifth cousin who lives in France and had just flown in for the occasion. Next it was my uncle, then my godmother. I was flabbergasted.
I was still reeling when we finished the game and began walking over to a restaurant located in one of the very typical old Swiss chalets overlooking Lake Geneva. And there was the ultimate surprise—more cousins and aunts and uncles, some of Jon’s family, so many friends, and Jon at a grand piano, surrounded by an entire string section from a local conservatory, playing “Happy Birthday.” I was shocked and delighted and so moved by all of it—days later, it still feels unbelievable.
And I think one of the things that made it so special was that the gifts people brought were their particular gifts. My mom is such a gatherer, and she did that in spades with this party. My brother’s girlfriend Anchi, who works in event production, took care of the decorations, and so stunningly. My cousin Amelie, who is a classical musician, brought her flute and played the most beautiful song that brought tears to my eyes. My uncle Olivier, who is an archeologist, brought the drone that he uses to photograph ruins to snap a family photo.
People often ask me for advice about how to support someone when the ceiling caves in, and my answer is always the same. You don’t have to become superhuman, stepping in to do anything and everything. Just do the thing you already love to do. If you love dogs, offer to walk someone’s pup. If you love to mow, show up and give someone’s lawn a trim. If you love to cook, become the casserole queen. If you love to dance, do what my friend Behida did and put on an impromptu show on the sidewalk below their hospital window. And if your gift is figuring out how to move a Steinway up a mountain, leading everyone in a round of the Mardi Gras favorite “Iko Iko,” and setting off a second line, that would also be acceptable.
I write a lot about how living means learning to hold the beautiful and terrible in one palm, and that night felt like an object lesson in making space for everything. At one point that evening, my family gave toasts (an important part of gathering, according to my friend, the gathering expert Priya Parker), and my mom’s included a mention of how I am the luckiest unlucky person she’s ever met.
It’s the truest thing—for all the misfortune, I’ve also had immense good fortune, something I felt acutely as Jon and the strings played “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and the New Orleanians in the house encouraged everyone to get up and dance and to wave their napkins in the air. Jon played that song over a decade ago, before we were together, when he showed up at my hospital room, shortly after my first diagnosis, his entire band in tow. I continue to be amazed and even feel a sense of relief about the fact that everything is constantly changing. The first time I was diagnosed with leukemia, and maybe even more so the second time, it was dizzying to watch my life collapse at such a rapid speed. It’s equally dizzying but also dazzling to see how much rebuilding can occur.
And while I still resist the pressure to find silver linings, I do believe life’s interruptions are good reminders to put in the work with the people you love, to create special memorable moments, to bring your gifts fully to the present. Today’s essay and prompt, from the National Book Award finalist Beth Kephart, touches on this, and it’s not to be missed. It’s about a gift she got in childhood and how it still reverberates.
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Prompt 251. The Gift Giver by Beth Kephart
My mother believed in birthdays. One cake, two cakes, three—some cakes tall and some cakes square, some cakes with wax paper-covered coins slipped between the layers. She believed in balloons and ribbon curl, and for a while, when her three children were small, she believed in accompanying the big day with something stuffy and homemade, something she’d crafted at who knows what hour on her trusted Singer.
My stuffed Humpty Dumpty sat (legend has it) atop the cake (was I three? was I four?), though there must have been a bit of saran wrap or foil between his egg-shaped behind and the frosting, for there, in that one place, are no telltale stains. The stains, the dirt, the years, are everywhere else—watermarks and split seams, a smile that has lost a stretch of lip, a lost ankle ribbon. Today this tattered Humpty takes its vaunted place in an old wooden cart carried forward from my husband’s Salvadoran youth. Humpty is going nowhere in its cart.
As the years passed, I tried to equal my mother’s gift—to find, in keepsake shops, Humpties intricate and interesting enough to surprise her, I do mean please her. I found, over the course of decades, just four ingeniously crafted Humpties, which I bought and wrapped and gave to her—it never mattered when or in which season. After she passed away, I brought her Humpties home.
My mother has been gone for seventeen years. Photographs don’t return her to me as vividly as this minor collection of Humpties—these eggs in various stages of tumult. Lately, missing my mother, working through all the complications that defined our relationship, I’ve been pondering Humpty, this humble nursery rhyme character who, fallible and shattered, could not be pieced together again. Not by the king’s horses. Not by the king’s men.
I think of how my mother must have spent hours stitching her Humpty for me. I think of the hours I spent searching for Humpties for her. I think of how everything shatters in the end, but how love’s first wish is to make what is broken whole again.
Your prompt for the week:
Write about a gift that you received that in some way defined your relationship with another. Where is that gift now (or where did it go)? What does it tell you about who you have become?
Beth Kephart, a National Book Award finalist, is the author most recently of My Life in Paper: Adventures in Ephemera (Temple University Press) and Consequential Truths: On Writing the Lived Life (Juncture Workshops). More at bethkephartbooks.com.
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