I have a big birthday coming up this year. Never mind which one — ok, I’ll be fifty — but somehow this one feels bigger than any previous big birthdays. When I turned thirty, my first child was still small and I was not yet finished with my degree. At forty, I had a second child and tenure. Those other milestones — the children, the degree, the job — all felt bigger than a birthday.
The milestones now get farther apart, I think, and the birthdays get bigger. My daughter did just turn twenty-one, which certainly felt like a milestone, along with her high school graduation and driver’s license, but I think I don’t really get to define myself by my children anymore. (Maybe by grandchildren, one day, but I’m in no rush for that one.)
Fifty also has a big part in my family lore, because that was the birthday when my father finally owned up to his age, having done the Jack Benny thing for many years and only admitted to thirty-nine. As I remember it, there was a big party, and his (younger) brother wouldn’t give him a present until he owned up to his real age. And, as I remember it, he did. (Must have been a pretty good present, I remember thinking.) My mother never used to admit to her age around her kids. She was twenty-three until the day my older brother, perhaps around twelve at the time, did the math and confronted her. “Were you really eleven when I was born?” Since then she’s been ninety-nine when asked; as you can imagine, she looks terrific for her age. (Actually, for any age, but that’s another story.)
So anyway, the birthday, it looms. And, while I’m not really one for resolutions, I’m starting to think about one for this one. Starting right now, I’m going to write one letter a month this year, to mark my birthday year. I’ll write to people I see all the time, and to ones I haven’t seen in years. I’ll write to folks I “see” on Facebook and some I don’t. I haven’t decided exactly who will get the letters — and I reserve the right to write more than twelve, though I think if I actually do manage twelve that will be pretty good.
There are a couple of things I want to do with this resolution. First, though I write a lot, I don’t write pen-on-paper very much any more, and almost never for anyone else to read. (I do freewrite in some of my classes, but I don’t think grocery lists—my other most-written genre — count.) In the last few years most of my pen-on-paper letters have been letters of condolence, in fact, and when I realized that I decided I needed to exercise a few different muscles. Second, letter-writing is another family tradition, and it’s one I haven’t been enough a part of. My father writes me (and not only me) a letter every week, and has done so since, I believe, the fall of 1974. Those first letters (to me at boarding school) were pen-on-paper, and while he’s adapted with new technology (electric typewriters and carbon paper, word-processors, and now e-mail) I still treasure those original ones, which have made several moves with me over the years. Third, I feel a little more like giving back with this birthday than getting. While my letters may not make much of a difference to their recipients, I’ll at least get the pleasure of writing them and sending them off. Maybe I’ll even get one or two in return, thus spreading the cheer around!
It’s a pretty limited resolution, I realize; I’m not raising money for a charity, traveling abroad, or taking friends on a destination vacation. Nor am I promising to write a book or transform my courses. I may try some or all of those things, but they would be good at any time. This is something small, something I can manage (and afford!), and something I will enjoy. And now, I’ve made it public. Periodically during the year I may report on my efforts, if anything interesting comes of them. But for now, I have to go write my January letter before the month gets away from me.