Birthday snapshots through the ages


As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, February 17, 2019. Above, the author celebrates his 7th birthday at home in Providence in 1967.

I turn 59 this month.

As birthdays go, it’s not a noteworthy number.

I mean, it can’t hold a candle to, say, 40. For that birthday, my wife, Deb, threw a surprise party for me at our house. I opened the front door to the shouts and good wishes of more than fifty family members and friends. What a bash!

My 18th birthday was memorable, too. It fell five days after The Blizzard of ’78 had buried Rhode Island under more than two feet of snow. I spent my birthday night in a music store on Federal Hill where my older brother, Rob, worked. His boss was worried about post-storm looting, so he deployed the two of us to stand guard. It was dark and eerily quiet amid the unplugged Fender Stratocasters and Peavey amps as we fought to stay awake, but nothing happened.

Well, nothing but this: In celebration of my new “legal” status – 18 was the drinking age at the time – Rob placed a brown paper bag on one of the store counters. “Happy birthday,” he said as I slid the bottle out. It was a fifth of something called Rock and Rye – “Rock” as in rock-candy, I would learn. The sweetened concoction was the color of maple syrup. I took a swig from the bottle’s wide mouth and grimaced. Looters may not have caused any damage that night, but my birthday cocktail did.

My seventh birthday stands out, thanks to a photo my mother took. In it, I’m about to blow out the candles on my cake while sporting a construction-paper crown, likely made for me at school.

That black-and-white snapshot reminds me of another unforgettable birthday moment, this one belonging to my son Evan. When I suggested over breakfast one morning that he’d have fun at pre-school because it was his big day, he was unconvinced.

“It’s like any other day,” he said in his raspy voice, eyes fixed on his Fruit Loops. “They just give you a stupid hat.”

(Clearly, I was a more superficial child than my son, for there I am in Mom’s photo album, forever happy in my “stupid hat.”)

When my brothers and I were growing up, our mother’s age defied the passage of time, at least by her calculations. Each March, she’d tell us with playful certainty that she was turning 22. As we moved through adolescence, Mom finally made a concession to Father Time and upped her age to 33. And there it would stay, at least as far as she was concerned.

My brother Rob had other ideas. With a big party planned at our house to celebrate Mom’s 45th, he exercised his budding graphic design skills and spray-painted a birthday greeting on a white bed-sheet. The day of the party, while Mom was at work, I helped Rob and his Rhode Island School of Design roommate hang the sheet from the gutter above the front porch of our house, which stood on busy River Avenue in Providence.

“HAPPY 50TH, NORMA!” the birthday billboard proclaimed to the constant stream of passersby, most of them unaware of its inaccuracy.

One of my mother’s friends said she would have never forgiven her kids for doing such a thing. Lucky for us, Mom was a good sport, even if she did say the prank was “awful.” (Looking back, had we been better sons, the banner would have read “HAPPY 22ND!”)

A final memory for this account: As my 12th birthday approached, I received a card from my orthodontist. At the time, braces were not as prevalent as they are today, and I was self-conscious about my “tinsel teeth.”

Depicted on the front of Dr. Prescott’s card was a herd of buck-toothed cartoon animals, all of them beaming with braces. The caption read “Lots of people have them …”

Yeah, right, I thought. Then I looked inside: “BIRTHDAYS WE MEAN!”

My face broke into a silver smile.



LPs, Braces, And The Generation Gulf

My son Peter held the vinyl LP in his hands. It could have been a dinosaur bone.

“Wow,” he said. “This plays on both sides!”

I was amazed by his amazement. And then I thought, why should I be?

Peter had never seen an album before. He grew up listening to CDs, which only play on one side, of course. As he marveled at the grooves in my musical artifact, I felt Age tap me on the shoulder, look me in the eye, and wink.

Generation gap? It’s more like a gulf. Show anyone under age 20 a typewriter or TV rabbit ears or a wooden tennis racket and they look at you as if you were from a different planet. Which in some ways you are. Life today is not what it was a generation ago.

Consider orthodontia (from Greek orthos, “straight, true, correct” + odontos, “tooth”). While I dreaded getting braces, my three kids couldn’t wait to get rigged out. In my sixth grade class, I was one of only two students out of 25 who had tinsel teeth. Today, according to the American Association of Orthodontists, 70 to 80 percent of teenagers in America have or will have braces.

My path to braces began with a retainer in second grade – a futile attempt to corral the toothy Stonehenge that had emerged from my upper gum. Soon it was clear: I had too many teeth and not enough room. So when I was in fifth grade, my dentist extracted four of my bicuspids. Then an x-ray detected a rogue tooth in my palate. That had to come out, too. This time I went to an oral surgeon. For a week afterward, I lived on lemon sherbet, which is forever linked in my mind to an aching mouth and dizzying medications. When my stitches were gone, so was my appetite for lemon sherbet.

The braces were the easy part. My orthodontist, Dr. Prescott, was kind and assured. The nurses were sweet. The appointments were quick and painless.

As my twelfth birthday approached, I received a card from Dr. Prescott. The front showed a bunch of buck-toothed, braces-laden cartoon characters, with the caption “Lots of people have them…” Right, I thought. Then I looked inside: “BIRTHDAYS WE MEAN!”

I broke into a silver smile.

%d bloggers like this: