We had a big family hoop-dee-doo this past weekend to celebrate my Dad’s upcoming 90th birthday. I can’t fathom turning 90. Can you imagine the stuff I could get away with at 90 years old? ‘Oh, he’s old, he didn’t mean to knock over that giant display of oranges’. “Oh he’s old, he did not mean for us to sit at the intersection through the entire green light while he hobbles like a swaying weeble across the street’. Oh he’s old, he did not mean to drop that can of Spam on the hood of that Lamborghini’. ‘Oh he’s old, he didn’t mean to write a check in the grocery store express lane for his 36 items after he searched 10 minutes in each pocket for an expired coupon at 5:30 pm when the rest of the working-world behind him is trying to rush home’. ‘Oh he’s old, he did not mean to give all the ladies at the nursing home hallucinogenic mushrooms’…
90 years… I am not belittling the accomplishment. But I’ve known my Dad for more than half those years and it’s more like he has casually avoided death versus actively finding a way to stay alive. I mean, I do not recall him ever exercising. He spent years overweight. He smoked till he was in his 50s. Never been on a diet. Consumed burgers, bacon and bourbon whenever the hell he wanted. He worked like a slave way too many hours of the day and slept nowhere’s near enough at night. He lived with mountains of stress trying to make ends meet while raising five kids. Occasionally hung with his pals at the bar, belonged to a gun club, rode the New York City subway for years… These are things that kill most humans. But God Bless him, he keeps chugging along and I pray it is in the genes because I do a helluva lot of the same bad things.
Through months of exchanged e-mails, the party to celebrate 90 years was planned. This was a day to forget about the aches and pains of old age, the frustration of the loss of independence and the scary loneliness of outliving your friends and peers. This was a day to be joyous and celebrate. His eyes have seen wars and peace, walls of separation go up and then inconceivably come down. The Holocaust and 9-11. Man on the Moon and a cure for polio. Born into a world before the first television show was aired and living to see laser-fast computers in most everyone’s pocket. A life well lived, a family well raised. Sorrow and joy and all the things in between. If there is any solace to knowing that there is more to look back at than forward to, it is knowing you can look back and be proud of a life that has been an unarguable success.
So we gathered up darn near all the family for a celebration of his 90 years. Emotions during the weekend were tempered a bit by my Mom’s recent health issues but the family still managed to whip up one of our usual jolly-ole’ chaotic brouhahas. We completely filled a room in one of my Dad’s favorite Florida restaurants with a big mess ‘o’ friends, kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, not-so-great grandkids, cousins, nieces, nephews and a handful of step-second-ex-ins once or twice-removed semi-relatives that I’d need a genealogist or a genie to figure out how we are actually related.
Now for my Clan, it wouldn’t be a big family dinner if at some point Dad did not get annoyed by the restaurant’s bad service. I’m not sure why something always goes amiss every time we all get together but it is an uncomfortable family tradition that I assume stretches back most of Dad’s 90 years; though my earliest memory of it was when I was still sporting a single digit age. Our family drove up from New York City to have their first meeting/dinner with my oldest Brother’s soon to be wife’s rural Connecticut family. I can still instantly get looks of dread and horror from my family by just mentioning the name Valle’s Steak House.
In a sort of cautionary ‘welcome to the family’ tale, Dad must have scared the bejeebers out of my brother’s future in-laws, when he blew up like an atom bomb in an active volcano loudly yelling at the restaurant’s staff for the night’s on-going abysmal service. It might have been well deserved but that infamous explosive first impression is still a story often retold all these decades later. On the precipice of 90, Dad’s still mighty feisty but not with the same intimidating spit and fire, but I could still see the lava brewing behind his tired eyes when it became horribly obvious that his birthday party‘s waitresses’ serving skills were akin to that of the Three Stooges blindfolded.
Any thought of Dad’s fiery anger flaring up disappeared when Mom, through strained whispered breaths, brought the room to tears talking about how dedicated, loving and selfless Dad has been to her and his children through their near 70 years of marriage. Sure, his past fireworks might be the fodder of family lore but it was nice being reminded of his huge heart and straight intentions.
After the oversized spinning musical blooming flower candle spewed hot wax all over my Sister’s husband, Dad blew out the last few flame remnants. Soon after the massive cake was reduced to mere crumbs and icing edges, my parents were obviously done, as was the party. Most everyone headed back to the house where the folks mostly napped while the rest of us watched the afternoon turn to evening and then stretch to well past midnight. Photos, laughter, stories, debates and of course the occasional tear, filled the night as the many circles of conversations ebbed and flowed. I mostly sat poolside on the porch near the kegerator enjoying the comforts of being around family. Teased but not judged.
90 years is a long time. I was surprised during one of the later evening conversations when a few of my relatives pointed out that I was the one in the family most obsessed with mortality and death. Maybe that is true. The passing of time has certainly been the subject of many of my blog entries but it is harder still to not to have those thoughts at a 90-year old’s birthday party. It does make me wonder if I make it to that age, what will I be like? Will I handle it better or worse than Dad? What new inventions will make computers look like Victrolas? And what I really wonder, many many years from now when I am 90, will they finally be finished with that never-ending construction over on the tollway?