[This Commentary originally appeared in the July 12, 1990 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]
Our society excels at noting matters of record. These milestones can brighten up an otherwise dull journey. Whether they be points of interest while traveling or anniversaries of historic events, we enjoy inducing structural comfort into our lives. Structural comfort implies our choice of markers can be arbitrary. We pick them only because the milestone ends in five or, even more often, zero.
Think about it. How many people celebrate with fanfare their twenty-third wedding anniversary or their ninth year since graduation? Most folks go wild on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. High schools and colleges treat the tenth year reunion with much ceremony. Yet, what does the twenty-fifth year of marriage have over the twenty-third or why expect much difference between the ninth and tenth reunion years?
So goes it with birthdays. We have a few birthdays we (or, more appropriately, our friends and family) really like to emphasize. While we might stress some milestone birthdays more than of others, each of these birthdays has its own set of traditions. Let’s take a quick review of the special birthdays in our lives.
We can start with the real one, the day we enter this world. We don’t have a whole lot of memories of this one, but we can guess what might have happened. Tradition generally includes parental nervousness, maybe even the issuance of a speeding ticket on the way to the hospital. Following a cold slap on the behind, we could expect to see an increase in “It’s a Boy (Girl)” cigar sales, with even C. Everett Koop accepting the gratuitous gift.
Neither can we remember our first birthday, the event likely to have the largest attendance of distant relatives this side of someone’s First Holy Communion (followed closely by the wedding reception). Our forebears use this opportunity to have us do silly things, (mainly because they know we’ll never remember what we did). For us, we cried – a lot. Our only satisfaction came when the flames of the burning candle captivated our limited vision. We celebrated by sticking a loose paw into the cake.
Each year from two to five represents a special birthday for the family (although mothers will insist all birthdays are special). As the years go by, though, only the less distant relatives attend and the novelty of your birth begins to wear off (or be replaced by younger siblings).
Something exciting happens to reinvigorate your sixth birthday party – school. Yes, number six marks the very first time you own friends come to celebrate. This is good, for it relieves your extended family from the obligation. Besides, you probably enjoy your friends much more.
Birthdays six through ten will consist of silly games (thanks to mom), great gifts and good times. We remember these birthdays. Usually one of these birthdays will offer something we cherish for all our lives. (For me, it has to be the small 50x telescope I received on my seventh birthday.)
By the eleventh birthday, kids’ parties have become passé. Not so much that your mother doesn’t want to go through the trouble (she does), but you and your friends now associate birthday parties with younger children. Part of the problem stems from the tendency to limit parties to only boys (if you are a boy) or only girls (if you are a girl). The whole boy/girl thing has started to pop up and, all of the sudden, birthday parties just seem best left in the past.
There might be a small celebration or two upon reaching our thirteenth birthday. After all, with this birthday, you become an official teenager. Ditto for your sixteenth birthday, although this tends to be more important for people from Lackawanna. (So says my mother, although my godmother confirmed this theory when she sent me a rather special birthday card when I turned sixteen.)
We next exalt birthdays eighteen and twenty-one, for these signify our entry into the adult world. Many people have wild parties in honor of these birthdays. With these birthdays, though, mothers begin to lose interest in more traditional forms of ceremony. They insist on doing the same things they did when you reached your sixth birthday. Of course, they do this because they have realized the secret of life – you don’t age if your kids don’t age.
I don’t remember too much about these two birthdays. About this time in my life, I began to ignore my birthdays. I figured if I started ignoring my birthdays at a young age, I would be more successful ignoring them as I got older. They tell me it’s healthy to ignore birthdays when you’re older.
I also had to work on both of those days. This helped. It also angered me. In our house, our parents exempted us from household work on our birthday. I expected nothing less form my employers.
After twenty-one, only the birthdays ending in zero produce festive (and sometimes surprise) occasions. That means our fortieth birthday, our fiftieth birthday and our sixtieth birthday. (What, did someone say I skipped one?) After that, we mark sixty-five (retirement) and seventy. At some point, when we get old enough, we go back to the yearly celebration.
(Author’s Note: The entire paragraph above is based on hearsay and speculation. For a more in-depth and factual analysis, may I suggest asking your nearest grandparent.)
Now, for the milestone birthday that I skipped, (you know, the one that rhymes with “dirty”), ask me about it next week. Better yet, don’t ask me. One thing about milestones – you only pay attention to them if the drive you’re on doesn’t produce anything more interesting.
Next Week #67: Summertime Stargazing (originally published on July 5, 1990)
Next Week #69: The Great Tax Battle of 1990 – Winner #1: George Bush (originally published on July 19, 1990)
[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]