I don’t want to beat the proverbial dead horse, and I consider myself a very fortunate man.
While I generally make an effort to register and feel my appreciation on a daily basis, I will be honest and say that birthdays are special ones for me, and not just because Kim Kardashian was born exactly 15 years after I was (Just kidding about the last part.).
The gifts began early this morning, when Dunreith and I went down to the spa at the hotel where we are staying here in New Orleans’ fabled French Quarter. I rode the recumbent bike while she hit the hot tub, and I was reminded anew of my exercise addiction (As addictions go, it’s a relatively healthy.).
From there we ventured out into the Quarter, passing by a group of street musicians who riffed on the Gershwin class “Summertime,”, two of them playing their “bone,” the lead singer, a woman, making her clarinet sing with equal virtuosity to her voice-all of this happening while a bride-to-be sporting her wedding dress and tennis sneakers struck a pose behind them as her mother, whose facial structure the bride has received, smiled with the kind of indulgent and joyous anticipation can.
Even though it was Friday morning, the weekend’s arrival draped over the square near Cafe du Monde, where another band sat on benches and sang and clapped in unison, “Let the good times roll,” the mighty Mississippi moving in its endless rhythm under a sunny sky.
We stopped into Pirate’s Alley and into the home in the Crescent City where William Faulkner wrote his first novel and that now is a bookstore filled with novels and non-fictional works, like John Updike’s description of Ted Williams’ last game in which hit his 521st home run in his final at bat against Orioles pitcher Jack Fischer-a feat supremely fitting as the closing to a career that saw him realize his goal of being the greatest hitter who ever lived, or at least come awfully close, but somehow did not move him sufficiently to break his vow of never exiting the dugout to tip his hat to the crowd, no matter how much the crowd and even the umpires implored him to do so.
“Gods do not answer letters,” wrote John Updike in a beautifully concise sentence for The New Yorker about Williams’ final blow and refusal.
The bookstore also had on one of the walls copies of a typed Tennessee Williams poems about eyes, complete with edits made in pencils, and a handwritten note by Flannery O’Connor about a 14-part series for NBC about Catholic writers to which she had contributed a comment that she did not know would run.
From the bookstore we entered Mr. Apple, a confectionary store where I bought the tastiest smoothy $7 can buy, the yogurt, raspberries, walnuts and honey prepared by Momo Julie-she says she has that name because she “acts like a mother”-with supremely loving care.
Julie explained that the family opened the store 40 years ago when friends and family who consumed their tasty treats and suggested they start a business. A brother had the relevant degree, and so they did.
The speciality: Creole praline, or prah-leen, depending on who is talking.
Julie said she was just using the recipe that had been passed down by her great-great-great-grandmother one generation at a time, from mother to daughter, in kitchen after kitchen.
After that we drove to the Lower Ninth Ward and by the Brad Pitt “Make It Right,” homes, two story, brightly colored, architecturally creative structures perched on stilts that are just tall enough to give the illusion of security, but that would certainly be no match for another hurricane the magnitude of Katrina.
Although many of the homes show signs of life, along with signs for brush clearance, mold removal and home sales, many others still look largely as they did after the biblical deluge subsided more than six years ago.
We met Aidan for dinner and drove to Mosca’s, a roadside legend founded by Al Capone’s former chef, or so the legend goes, Aidan informed us.
While there we dined on food that took an hour to prepare. I followed Dad’s instructions and ordered the Oyster Mosca, a concoction with enough garlic to require two bottles of Listerine to eliminate the smell.
I loved it.
Aidan’s settled in to college life smoothly, making friends on his floor, playing flag football and lacrosse, studying enough to earn respectable grades and generally holding his own in this new phase of his life.
The conversation between the three of us was animated and easy, with the restlessness and anxiety before his departure gone, replaced by appreciation of what we’ve done for him and what we were sharing together.
Which of course was the point.
People from all different parts of my life told me what we have shared, through Facebook, email, texts, cards and calls.
I heard from friends from Pierce School and Brookline High School, from former students in South Africa and Longmeadow, Massachusetts, from journalism and teaching colleagues and friends, and, of course, from family.
I talked to Mom and, as I do every year on this day, thanked her for having me and making the conversation possible.
I spoke to Dad and told him we had fulfilled the oyster mandate.
I received calls from Aunts Ginna and Helen, from brothers- and sister-in-law Shaun, Rebecca, and Josh, and from both brothers, my best men Mike and Jon.
Returning to the hotel after dropping Aidan off at campus and making plans to meet tomorrow (not too early), watching a film with Dunreith before she started to drift into a sweet slumber, and having space to let all that had happened start to sink in, I felt the gratitude start to sink in and around and through me.
I remembered previous renditions of this day and struggled to believe that it truly has been 25 years since I became of age and thanked a clerk for carding me in Palo Alto.
But, rather than look back, I mostly felt the moment and the love that each of these calls, cards, texts, emails, and post represented.
I am a lucky man indeed.
I have been, and will continue to be.
And, today, in the city that spawned jazz, one of the truest American art forms, and whose residents, even as they are wounded, let their generosity shine through, I felt particularly deeply the gifts I have received from the web of family and friends with whom I have woven my life.