Celebrations | Time’s a-wastin’: Let’s rejoice in our blessingsby janet silver ghent
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For my husband’s 75th birthday, I hired a band, invited choir members who sang at our wedding and asked guests to dress up. As an afterthought, the invitation said we were celebrating my 70th, several months late, and our 50th wedding anniversary, 37 years early.
In 37 years, Allen and I will be mere memories. The time to build those memories is now.
At my parents’ funerals, distant relatives and family friends offered condolences, too often saying, “It’s a shame we only get to see you under circumstances like these.”
I’m tempted to reply, “So invite me for the good times!” Instead, I nod politely, because people are hard-pressed for words when addressing a mourner.
However, guests have no such inhibitions at joyous events. That’s why Allen and I make a point of sharing the happy times, whether it’s Shabbat dinner, a New Year’s Eve sing-along or a personal milestone. And while we didn’t particularly want toasts at the birthday celebration, family members asked to speak. I have to admit, it was good to hear what people had to say about us — while we’re still alive.
Our teenage grandson, the son of a single mother, talked about how Allen has been a father to him. Meanwhile, Allen’s 85-year-old brother, the product of their mother’s first marriage who was raised by other relatives, described re-encountering his brother later in life and becoming best friends. Others described Allen as the proverbial Mr. Fix-It, whether one needed help with a leaky pipe or a knotty emotional problem.
My relatives took a lighter approach. My brother joked that I had “achieved Guinness status by having the shortest speaking stint on the Oprah Winfrey show — maybe if [Janet] had used human growth hormones she would have been given more time.” Although I am a mere 5 foot 1, that’s not why Oprah gave me short shrift. In contrast to the fashionistas on the panel, I had been invited to provide a left-wing perspective on the fashion industry. After I talked about shirtmakers in Korean sweatshops going blind by age 25, I was ignored.
My daughter’s talk, “10 Things My Mother Is Known For,” bared other idiosyncrasies: “[My mother] not only sings in choirs but will also break into song at any moment in time, whether it be in a restaurant, a train station or even while taking a walk. All she will need is to see a word or an object that remotely sounds like a song she has heard at some point in her life, and all of a sudden, there she goes. Allen seems to have this skill too.”
She also commented on my love of gardening, noting that when she and her brother were growing up, I “would get the whole family involved by having family weeding days … or nightly events where we would all go out with salt shakers and look for snails.”
Music and flowers bring joy, and they’re an important part of many celebrations. But in contrast to other religious traditions, they are not part of traditional Jewish mourning rituals because they’re for the living. We don’t put flowers on graves or caskets. Malvina Reynolds, the late Bay Area songwriter and the daughter of Jewish immigrants, summed up this philosophy in “Bring Flowers,” which we sang at the party:
“There’s lots to be said for the guy who’s not dead, for the guy who’s still breathing the air. Don’t wait for his wake, but let’s bake him a cake while he’s still here to eat up his share.”
The final line of the chorus: “Bring lilacs and daisies and daffodils sweet for the guy who is still on his feet.”
There is a time to weep, as Ecclesiastes points out, but Jews are also commanded to be joyful, difficult as it may sometimes be. During the past year, I’ve learned that several friends are coping with life-threatening conditions. Fortunately, some of them were able to share the joy at our celebration. And why not?
Years ago, when I was a reporter for a daily newspaper, I wrote a series about a toddler grappling with acute myelocytic leukemia. One day when I went to visit her at the hospital, she was happily wheeling push toys and cuddling a teddy bear. The playroom attendant said, “We’re squeezing in all the playtime that we can.”
Me too. L’chaim.
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