There is an eerie feeling of the past returning to haunt you when you enter a restaurant in which you haven’t set foot in years and are seated at the very table at which you often sat all those years ago.
We used to live here, but that was three moves ago. When my wife and I were first married, this was one of our regular places. It wasn’t unusual for us to recognize people we knew as they were heading out the door or hurrying past our table on the way to the rest room. And as we ordered our coffee and tea and appetizers, I could feel the ghosts of meals past that populate this place. The time that my niece dined with us and challenged my Jewish rejection of the divinity of Jesus. The time we ran into one of my bosses not long before she was fired and, soon after, died.
We were celebrating my mother’s eightieth birthday, albeit in a much more low-key manner than we marked the same milestone for my father back in November.
It is difficult to wrap my mind around the idea that both my parents are now octogenarians. They don’t seem to fit the profile, either in visage or in spirit. They still perform physical labor on their land, build and fix things, travel all over to visit their children and grandchildren.
It’s more than that, of course. At some level, we continue to see our parents as we did when we were children, regardless of intervening time and tide. In our hearts, they will always be young and vital, as when they were the primary influence on our lives as impressionable infants and toddlers and school-age children.
My father removes a black and white photo from his wallet and passes it around. My parents standing next to an old car, about a year and a half before they were married. Age seventeen. The same age that my niece is now.
We place the candles with the numbers 8 and 0 on the cake, light them, sing when Mom blows them out. She will reenact the same ritual tomorrow in the Bay Area with two of her grandchildren. My sisters, who reside in Texas and New Mexico, couldn’t make it.
As Mom opens the gifts (a wind chime in the shape of a bird, gardening gloves, a planter, a knitting bag), I can’t help but reflect on how many more of these times we will have together. We want to believe that these celebratory occasions will just go on and on forever, but we know better. Try to live in the moment, I tell myself. Enjoy it while you can.
My mother can be a difficult person. But I know that I have likely tried her patience at least as much as she has tried mine. Today, she is in a delightfully upbeat mood, complains about nothing, does not bicker with my father.
As the party breaks up, we say we will see each other again next month, making tentative plans for Passover. My mother continues to express bewilderment at my vegan ways; I try to make menu suggestions.
And then it is all over and we walk out to the cars together, some of us heading north, some of us heading south. We have met halfway to celebrate this birthday, and it is then that I realize that we will meet halfway in all things for the rest of our days. My mother tells me about her computer problems and laughs when I tell her about the Yiddish song I have been singing to my little grandniece.
As we prepare to part ways, she presses something into my hand, makes a mumbled remark about gas. When I join my wife in the car, I open my palm to find three folded twenty dollar bills.