Life cycle events require planning. One’s wedding, for example, necessitates strategic balance melding families. A bris demands concise decisions (who will hold the baby, who will say the barucha, and who will feel slighted when they don’t). And then there’s Aunt Helen’s birthday, an annual rite mandating intense debate, examination of multiple hypotheses, and prayer.

We sat as a trio last Sunday— reflecting, exploring, discerning. Hal and I were deep in discussion as Margie, not always amused, was deep in eye rolls.

“Are you getting her a gift?” I asked.
“Absolutely not,” said he. “A card is enough.”
“One card from the three of us?”
My younger brother tossed it back: “What do you think?”

(Several minutes passed as we played out sending one card from H and Margie and another from me, or perhaps a single mailing signed “The Bogarts”. Moreover, should we choose the latter, what return address is right? Finally, The Good Son spoke:

“Separate cards,” Hal insisted.

Next step: choosing cards. Where oh where might we find two equally generic greetings, each totally “safe” from neurotic scrutiny?

Rummaging his inventory, Hal came through. One bore a yellow envelope, the other deep raspberry. This too was an issue.

“Your aunt will have a problem with the envelope colors,” noted Margie. “You can’t send the pink,” she warned me. “She’ll say it’s too dark. Let Hal take that one. She won’t get mad it him. You send the yellow.”

One would think, then, that the nonsense was over. At least H did. He and Margie ducked out of town mid-week, grabbing a few days of respite. And so it was that on the anniversary of her birth, I took our aunt shopping.

It was Thursday and I picked her up at 2. The sun was shining. What could go wrong?

We had yet to break the plane of her sidewalk…

“Char says ‘A little birdie’ told her it was my birthday. Was it you?”
(This question, I sensed immediately, could not be good for the Jews).
“It might have been me,” I mumbled. “I’m not sure.”

“How could you?”
“How could I what?”
“How could you tell Char it was my birthday?”
“She likes you and—“
“What business is it of hers that I have a birthday?” she interrupted.

The thing with my aunt is, you see, that the way speaks—the cadence—well, one never knows if her questions are rhetorical.  And it’s always what you don’t expect.   

“And another thing, Michael Jacobson. Why must he call me as well?”
“I told Michael NOT to call you,” I defended. (This, in fact, was true. In recent years my good friend from Philadelphia has been a loose cannon, arranging random dinners with Helen, all-the-while leaving The Boys wide open for taunts like “Michael and Lana take me to dinner. Why don’t you?”

“I’m still angry with him,” she continued, “For the way he went behind my back and invited Harriet to lunch. I TOLD him I didn’t want a celebration.”

How sad, I thought. At 98, her mind sparkles with brilliant memory and impeccable grammar. She is educated, cultured, and…with all she has going for her, she can never just enjoy.  She can never just accept.

It’s hard to stay angry, hard to resent someone so bitterly unhappy.  Our Dad would counsel us to be nice to her, that life hadn’t gone her way. We get that—Hal and I. How often have we silently repeated the mantra our father drilled: “Have compassion for those less fortunate than you.”

“And another thing, was it you that told Norm Diamond it was my birthday?”
“Absolutely not!”
“Why should I believe you?” she demanded.
“He didn’t ask when your birthday was—he knew it was June. Norman asked me how old you were.”
“And you told him?” she shried.
“Of course.”
“Why would you hurt me so?” she rejoined.
“Aunt Helen, he is your first cousin. You eat dinner with him Sundays.  You grew up together!“
“And,” she cut me off, “If he wishes to learn my age he may ask me himself.”

It was pushing 4 as our journey ended.  Briefly, I thought of dinner—(should I ask her?)—this being her birthday and all.   I couldn’t, though. I just couldn’t. It was probably the right thing to do…but I didn’t.  Not that I feel guilty about it.

But I don’t feel proud. 

In some ways I’m like Aunt Helen after all. I can always do better.

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