Everyone in my family had a strong opinion about where we should go for my birthday. I don’t know how the Kardashians agree on vacation destinations. But after an onslaught of strum and drang, I was ready to book a reservation for a trip to the Maldives – wherever that is – for one!
Instead, I impetuously e-mailed invitations to friends and family: “To celebrate my BIG birthday, l’d like to host a small dinner party. Absolutely no gifts, please.”
But how could I make my little big party unique?
Reveal parties, still the rage, wouldn’t work. What would I reveal? My age? My husband is still trying to convince people that I am arm candy. Maybe I should reveal that I still suck in my stomach when a good-looking guy walks past. Especially if he’s handsome and under sixty. Or maybe I should admit that I sometime recycle my newspapers without reading anything other than the Arts section. Finally, I decided that instead of collecting presents, I would give every guest a gift – a book from my personal collection.
Before the party, I grabbed a bunch of books off various shelves, trying to determine which I could part with. Then I sneezed. Yikes! I hadn’t cleaned those shelves or dusted those books for months. I talked myself in to tackling that job before moving on to the fun part.
After removing the layers of accumulated dust, I was ready to boogie.
I wrapped each book I planned to give away in brown paper. Then, on the paper, I wrote a brief explanation of why I had chosen that particular book for that particular guest. A friend about to leave for an extended journey would get an art book comprised of post cards. A theater aficionado would receive “Chekov’s Leading Ladies.” One granddaughter, a musician, would receive a copy of a Sixties Songbook, actually purchased in the sixties. My husband would unwrap “This is My Beloved,” a book he’d given to me years ago. It still smelled of patchouli oil, my essence of choice in my twenties. (It was a toss-up between that book and Henry Miller’s “The Tropic of Cancer,” ‘50s’ porn, tame by today’s standards. But still…)
The night of the celebration, I reached into my basket of books and pulled out the first one, a philosophy book, “Open Minded,” and handed it to a friend from Germany. Helmut burst out laughing, tickled by the ironic humor. Helmut is not known for his ability to listen to anyone for more than three consecutive minutes, especially if he disagrees with them.
Next, I handed my brother “Sister and Brother,” a biography of Gertrude and Leo Stein, the American ex-patriots who discovered Hemingway, Picasso and various other artists who peopled their salons. The book would perhaps be of little interest to my brother, whose most exotic form of entertainment is Pickle Ball – but the title fit. He chuckled when he looked at my inscription: “When we were kids, my family always said, ‘Norman is so sweet. He’s so nice. Well, Marilyn’s smart.’ Funny that, in the end, you turned out to be the smart one, and I turned out to be the nice one.”
Though I hadn’t intended it, the conversations around me stopped when my brother laughed. My guests then clapped when he read what I had written. I just was going to call out the names of my other guests and hand them the rest of the books, but everyone wanted me to continue reading each inscription. I hesitated, as some were quite personal, such as the one I gave to my friend Jo, but finally I agreed.
“To my ‘old’ friend,” I read. “Cheer up. We’re in this together.”
The book was “Wise Women,” photographs of beautiful women – all over 65 – and short pieces about each of them, noting what they’ve accomplished and what they’re still accomplishing. I continued reading the notes, as the rest of my guests each received a book. Some cried. Some laughed. Some wondered if I had any other 50s’ porn to give away.
Choosing to be the giver, rather than the receiver turned out to be the right decision.
Thirty-two people I cared about took away 32 of my coveted books, each underlined and filled with my notations. Neither my guests nor I had been prepared for the intensity of the experience.
However, the party didn’t end without my receiving a special gift of my own. Ironically, it was a book. My four granddaughters had created and published a hardcover book they’d titled “80 Reasons Why We Love You!” Each listed 20 reasons ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. I especially loved the ridiculous.
You have important stories to tell, and you take the time to tell them.
Without you I would never get ginger ale and potato chips.
Because you are a boss-ass bitch.
You get drunk on two sips of wine.
You do not take life too seriously.
When I was little, you let me put stickers all over your face – then you went out in public because you forgot they were there.*
You fabricate endings to stories in the best way possible.
You always ask questions and truly listen.
You never treated me as anything other than an equal.
You laugh hysterically at your own jokes.
You are stubborn and always have some political opinion.
You make me feel relaxed by merely holding my hand between yours.
You are the most bad-ass 80-year-old I will ever know.
I keep this funny, love-filled book on my desk and glance at it repeatedly to remind myself that my granddaughters are right. I am a bad-ass 80-year-old. A bad-ass 80-year-old with 31 fewer books to dust.
*I remembered the stickers were there; I just didn’t care.