This year marks The Sun’s fiftieth in print. In honor of the occasion we’re revisiting topics that have appeared in past issues and reprinting some of the original responses. “Anniversaries” first ran in our January 1999 issue.
When my wife and I moved last year, our realtor gave us a gift certificate to a nice restaurant. It sat idle while COVID raged. Finally spring came, and the pandemic seemed to subside a bit. On our anniversary we decided to brave it.
The restaurant was almost full, and we were shown to an outside table. Since I wear hearing aids, the volume of my voice is sometimes hard to calibrate, and I loudly wished my wife a happy anniversary. A couple sitting near us overheard, and the woman exclaimed, “It’s our anniversary, too!” Then another couple chimed in, “Us, too!”
We chatted about the amazing coincidence and the power of marriage, its ups and downs. It felt like we all knew each other somehow. One man said, “I wish a minister were here so we could renew our vows.” At this my wife and I informed him that we are both interfaith ministers, and, as if it were the most natural thing to do, we suggested we all stand and form a circle.
Right there, in the midst of the other diners and the clinking of plates and cutlery, we joined hands and renewed our vows of thirty-eight, forty-six, and fifty-two years.
South Salem, New York
After my twenty-one-year-old son, Tristan, died, somehow the world kept spinning through the seasons, bringing each year a new anniversary of his death. On the first I received many flowers and well wishes, and my younger daughter, Tanis, and her boyfriend took me out for lunch. We shared stories of Tristan and then raced all over town playing Pokémon Go. Our laughter was an unexpected release.
On the third anniversary my older daughter, Jenn, and I tied dozens of purple ribbons to trees in our neighborhood in recognition of International Overdose Awareness Day, which comes only days after the date that Tristan died from drug poisoning.
The fifth anniversary of Tristan’s death is fast approaching. Nobody sends flowers anymore; very few people send well wishes. Yet every year my heart is just as shattered. There have been some anniversaries when I’ve done nothing but cry alone and think of my beautiful boy.
This year Jenn and Tanis and I are considering getting tattoos of Tristan’s handwriting. Or maybe we’ll visit a psychic medium. Who knows? All I know is that I’m glad my daughters and I will weather it together.
Vancouver, British Columbia
When my wife, Debbie, opened the back door to scold our dogs for barking at squirrels, our nine-year-old tropical lovebird, Tweetness — perched on Debbie’s shoulder — decided to take off through the open door. There was a moment in which we thought he might come back, but he only went higher into the pecan tree and then flew farther and farther away, until he was gone into the unseasonably warm November morning.
We told our surrounding neighbors the news and took out an ad in the newspaper, hoping for the improbable: that our bird would be found. We tried not to think about the incoming cooler weather, or Tweetness struggling to find food in the wild for the first time — while also attempting not to become food for something else. A feeling of helplessness settled in.
We’d gotten Tweetness from the local pet store, and he’d immediately bonded with Debbie. He loved everyone, in fact, with one exception: Denise, our lifelong friend and neighbor who fed him and the dogs when we were gone. She’d wear an oven mitt to ward off his pecking, but it only inspired him to attack her with even more vigor. The two had a mutual disdain for each other.
About three days after Tweetness’s departure, I was pondering how to spend our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, which neither of us felt like celebrating, when my phone rang. It was Denise. She’d been shopping and had overheard someone talking about a lovebird that had been found by a carpenter working outside. He’d brought it to a woman who kept various exotic birds.
We drove a few miles to retrieve our bird from the woman, who said she’d known right away that Tweetness was somebody’s pet. We celebrated our twenty-fifth at home with Tweetness, thankful for the miraculous turn of events. We didn’t need to exchange cards or gifts that anniversary; we had our lovebird.
Swansboro, North Carolina
My paternal grandfather was crushed to death between two streetcars on a spring day when my father was only nine years old. Four years later, near that same spot, my father’s mother was struck and killed by a car while pushing her young daughter to safety. Each year, I call Dad on the anniversary of his father’s death, just to see how he’s doing and listen to him reminisce. Sometimes he brings up these losses. Mostly, he does not. Every year, he forgets that I call him regularly on that date.
On the last such anniversary, it was rainy and cold. My father answered in a subdued voice, but brightened up a bit when he heard it was me. “Well, Carolyn, for heaven’s sake,” he said. “What a nice surprise. I was just sitting here feeling kind of blue.” He talked nonstop for an hour, his mood growing lighter as he went on. He told story after story about his travels along the back roads of Maine, and all the funny characters he’d met, most of whom are gone now. He even described his old milk route: “I delivered two quarts of milk to the Johnsons on Main Street, and around the corner on Elm the Conants always took a pint of cream.” I’d heard it all before, but every year I’m glad to listen.
Like most lesbian couples we know, my wife and I have two anniversaries. Ours are December 26, 1980, and July 19, 2008. The first is the day we became partners, before marriage was an option. The second is the day we wed. I can’t say which date is more important.
Our relationship became official the first time we made love. We had been to a bar but had decided to leave the noise behind and head to the beach. There was a crescent moon over the black water, and we used a flashlight to navigate the shoreline. When our narrow beam surprised a flock of gulls, they all rose at once in a white cascade of wings. That’s when we kissed. I could have lain down right there on the wet sand, but she had the sense to steer us back to the car. We drove smiling, mostly silent, to her apartment. Nervous, she turned on the TV when we arrived, and I walked over and turned it off again. We still laugh about this.
Our wedding took place in our backyard among flowers and close friends on a perfect summer afternoon. California’s ban on same-sex marriage had been overturned just two months earlier. We still couldn’t enjoy the 1,138 federal rights and privileges that marriage confers — that would take another seven years of letter-writing and marches — but we were legally a couple, wife and wife. It was a day we’d never quite believed would come.
In 1988 I was an exchange student in Vienna, Austria — a life-changing experience for a boy from Utah. That year was also the fiftieth anniversary of the Anschluss, when Austrians voted to join the German Reich.
Even as an outsider, I noticed a difference in the way Germans and Austrians dealt with memories of the war. Germans had done much soul-searching about the Nazi era and even forbade showing films of Hitler’s speeches. Austrians, however, did their best just to forget. Many claimed to have been passive participants in a war they didn’t want and professed innocence of the most egregious crimes against Jews and others. For them those unpleasant times were over.
After a class discussion about the Anschluss, a couple of my Austrian classmates complained about dragging up the past and asked why we couldn’t just get over it. They were tired of being lectured about something so distant from their reality. Jews were no longer treated poorly, they said. Sadly I often hear these same sentiments from many white Americans when they have to learn about slavery.
My classmates and I frequented a Bavarian-themed Bierkeller. Our favorite beer there was a smooth Austrian lager called Hirter. After that discussion about the Anschluss, the complainers announced that we were going there for a special drink on April 20. I was surprised they were making specific plans; we always went on the spur of the moment. When I asked why, they said, “So we can celebrate a birthday!” They wouldn’t say whose, but they did tell me that on that day we would drink a new beer: “Hirtler.”
I went home confused. When I told my host sister about it, she was aghast that they would celebrate April 20 — Hitler’s birthday.
When April 20 came, I told my friends I wouldn’t join them. They said I was being silly, that there was no harm in it, but I said I’d see them the next day. Years later I was living in Tokyo when I happened to meet one of those classmates. We reminisced, and he told me he really respected me for not going out for “Hirtler” beers. He wished he’d had the courage to stay away, too.
On their fiftieth wedding anniversary, Bud and Betty hosted a party on their wide lawn. In attendance were their three sons and two daughters, a dozen adult grandchildren, many extended-family members, and a lifetime of friends and neighbors. I stood in the shade of tall elm trees, holding a plastic glass of champagne and a piece of white cake. Everyone around me agreed that Bud and Betty were a special couple, and the successful ranch they owned showed what hard work and devotion can accomplish.
Bud, who had long been a community leader with the gift of gab, stepped up to a makeshift podium and greeted the crowd while Betty remained quietly behind the scenes. He talked of growing up in poverty with ten brothers and sisters. When he met Betty — the sister of his older brother’s wife — it was, Bud recalled, love at first sight. After a brief courtship, they’d said their wedding vows fifty years ago.
Bud described how they’d scrimped and saved, built a home from scratch, and raised a family. His anecdotes included a few broken bones, kids’ 4-H projects, and calving during winter snowstorms. He ended by saying, “We’ve been through a lot, for better or worse, richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, loving and honoring each other.”
After some applause Bud took a seat. Then, at the family’s insistence, Betty reluctantly stepped up to the microphone. Everyone was quiet. She stood there a moment in silent contemplation, then turned to Bud and said, “I don’t remember the ‘richer.’ ”
Growing up in communist Poland in the 1980s, I heard a lot about America, the land of the free. For the adults around me, who’d spent their lives under an oppressive regime where books and movies were censored, phone lines were cut, neighbors weren’t to be trusted, and police could round you up in the middle of the night, America held the promise of a better life.
When I was seven, my parents brought us here, to a place where you could be who you wanted and say whatever you pleased. One of my earliest memories is of walking down the sidewalk and wondering which of the American houses neatly lining the street, with their clapboard siding and manicured lawns, had a gun inside. That’s what the adults in the Polish-immigrant community talked about in those days: how Americans were so free they could own guns and shoot you if you trespassed.
It’s been more than three decades since I left Poland for good. Normally on my immigration anniversary I think about the bittersweet passage of time, but yesterday the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. As a thirty-nine-year-old mother of three young boys, I’ve long bemoaned the lack of a decent support system for parents in this country. To bear a child without worrying about how much time you can take off from work while your insides are still bleeding, or how you’ll pay for childcare, or when you’ll be able to pump breast milk, or how you’ll pay for formula — that, too, is a freedom.
Striking down Roe v. Wade feels like a punch to the gut. People are posting their outrage and grief on social media, changing their profile pictures to images from The Handmaid’s Tale. Some are even calling for boycotts of July Fourth celebrations. I get it. I’m supposed to see fireworks with my family tonight, but celebrating independence right now feels like a sham.
And yet. The little girl inside me wants to sit in that field of fellow Americans, looking up at the fading sky as children run around with glow sticks and the band plays “The Star-Spangled Banner.” She wants to be a part of that and aches at the thought of this night being taken away. So, on the anniversary of that little girl losing her home, I will celebrate. Because this is my home now.
Arundhati Roy once said, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” In the hush before the first firework lights up the sky, I’ll try to hear it, too.
I used to think it was romantic that my parents got married the day before Valentine’s Day. One February 13 I got home from school and realized that my parents had placed no orders for takeout, left no frozen potpie with instructions for me to fend for myself. They weren’t going out for their anniversary.
With snow falling outside, I got to work making what my fourth-grade brain thought would be a romantic environment for them at home: I cleaned the living room and, sweating from the effort, inched the couches far enough apart to spread a wool blanket before the fireplace for a picnic. I set out a basket with cloth napkins and a bottle of white wine (I didn’t know it should be cold), then cooked — well, overcooked — bow-tie pasta salad and phyllo-wrapped meat. I pulled every houseplant into the room, decorating them with stuffed animals climbing the trunks or sitting in the arms of a ficus.
I couldn’t wait to see my parents’ faces. When they finally got home, though, the looks of surprise and excitement never came. I couldn’t grasp why. I didn’t know that, for some time, they had quietly been contemplating divorce.
On the first anniversary of 9/11, I asked my high-school freshmen to write down everything they remembered from that awful day. They balked a bit, as fourteen-year-olds will do, but once they began writing, they produced pages of heartfelt, sincere remembrances. Some students volunteered to read theirs aloud, and a few of us cried.
The following year I observed the anniversary in the same way, and I continued to do so every year until 2009. That year, when I was explaining the assignment, a young man raised his hand. “I was in kindergarten,” he said. “I don’t remember anything about that day.” I asked the students instead to write down what they had learned about 9/11, which was woefully little.
While they wrote, I remembered how my parents used to speak of the attack on Pearl Harbor in hushed tones. My father had enlisted in the army after the attack. My grandfather had tried to as well — at the age of fifty-two. But Pearl Harbor had occurred thirteen years before I was born. I could never understand it the way the older generation did.
Last fall, during the annual re-broadcast of the news coverage on September 11, I heard a man say, “We’ve seen the towers fall hundreds of times. We don’t need to see it again.” Perhaps we don’t. But the younger generations do.
S. Kay Murphy
Today is the thirty-third anniversary of my arrival in this country from England. My parents had not wanted me to come. It would be a step down, they said. I had been working as a secretary at a firm next door to Harrods department store in Knightsbridge. In America I would be working in someone’s home, doing housework and caring for their children.
My employers, Jerry and Camille, met me at the terminal in Los Angeles, and we had a beer while we waited for the luggage. Though I was only nineteen, the bartender didn’t hesitate to serve me. I must have looked quite sophisticated in my beige-and-white double-breasted suit with black patent-leather pumps and matching handbag, my hair held back in a ponytail by an Italian silk scarf.
Jerry asked me for my first impression of Los Angeles. It was just as I had imagined, I told him: the tall palm trees, the balmy night air. Later, I would tell Camille that I had seen their house in a dream: the road winding up the hillside, the steps leading past stone walls.
What I didn’t tell her was that I’d left home to save my life. I wasn’t escaping war or persecution, like so many immigrants before me. I’d lived in a little house on a country lane of fields and hedgerows and Elizabethan cottages with roses over their garden gates.
In those days, if you were under twenty-one, you had to have a parent sign your immigration papers. My father had refused to sign mine, saying he wouldn’t let me go. I said if he didn’t sign I would tell everyone about his affairs with other women. I didn’t, however, threaten to tell about the affair he had been having with me for fourteen years, because I could not yet put that experience into words.
I have some black-and-white photographs taken on the observation deck at Heathrow Airport on the day that I left. It must have been windy, because my father’s hair is ruffled. He and my twelve-year-old brother squint into the camera. My mother wears a flowered hat that matches her pink wool coat. She does not look directly at the lens.
I am not in these pictures. I am in the DC-10 taxiing down the runway in the background. I am gone.
Packed into the back of my family’s van were two garbage bags of my clothes, boxes of books and used kitchen gear, and a twin mattress and box spring. After loading me precariously into the car, my mother pronounced me secure because my belongings were wedged tightly around my power wheelchair. There were also pink plastic laundry baskets overflowing with cans of food from the staff of the nursing home where I’d stayed after my family could no longer handle my neuromuscular disability. I felt like those worried nurses, who waved goodbye as we drove away, were the universe’s way of apologizing for my own mother’s nonchalance about my safety. I crossed my fingers and hoped we wouldn’t get into a car accident.
We had forty-eight miles ahead of us to my first apartment, two friends who had faith in me, and the opportunity to make my own choices about what was and wasn’t safe. I was sixteen years old, terrified, angry, and exhausted by the low expectations others had of me. I’d overheard some adults at the nursing home, who’d thought I was asleep or too far away to hear, say, “She’ll be back.”
It’s been exactly forty years since that day. Today is my own private Independence Day, but it’s never been a joyous anniversary. It’s hard to feel celebratory about something connected to childhood institutionalization. But I still have those two friends, and we’ll get together. I will make cake, and we will eat it.
Forty years ago I was a pregnant college freshman. I’d been on the pill, but, as the saying goes, accidents happen. That phrase could have been used to describe my entire life to that point. I consistently made bad choices and didn’t respect my body or myself. In other words, I was in no position to be anyone’s mother. I made an appointment at an abortion clinic during Christmas break.
I don’t recall much about the procedure, but I do remember it was a difficult decision involving many sleepless nights and lots of tears. Afterward, lying alone in bed, scared and sore, I knew that my life couldn’t go on this way. I couldn’t go on this way.
Roe v. Wade, which the Supreme Court recently overturned, gave me the chance to alter my trajectory. I completed my college degree and worked in Child Protective Services to help overwhelmed parents and abused and neglected children. I married and raised three healthy, well-adjusted kids. In my own small way I advocated for other girls and women by marching for women’s rights, acting as a volunteer escort at abortion clinics, and donating money to organizations like Planned Parenthood.
But each December I experience a profound sense of loss for the daughter I will never know. Time hasn’t softened or dulled this sadness. I doubt it ever will.
My parents invited about fifty guests to their twentieth-anniversary celebration in 1971. They hung colorful paper lanterns, and Dad set up a bar in the backyard. My sister and I, both in our teens, carried around trays filled with Mom’s homemade hors d’oeuvres.
At one point a handsome, athletic man in his forties showed up. He was underdressed for the occasion, as if he had just been roused from the couch on a Sunday afternoon and dragged to the party. Standing on the porch overlooking the crowd, ready to descend the stairs with replenished trays of appetizers, my sister and I saw this man being introduced to Mom. The moment he shook our mother’s hand, a visible aura encircled them. Before I could say anything, my sister turned to me and said, “Did you see that?” We were Christmas-and-Easter Catholics, but we knew a sign when we saw one.
The only thing I learned about Harvey at the time was that he was still crestfallen from a divorce four years earlier. Many years later I would hear the rest of the story: The courtship started slowly, with Harvey finding ways to invite himself to picnics and pool parties he knew my mother would attend. He finally made his move about three months after the anniversary party. He had invited a few folks to his house, absent any planning, and when the guests got hungry, Mom accompanied him to the kitchen to whip up some omelets. I imagine Dad outside, regaling people with tales of his extensive business travels, and Harvey inside, declaring his undying love and devotion over eggs and toast.
When Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer that year, Dad, afraid of all things medical, didn’t visit her in the hospital. But Harvey did, every single day. She made it through.
They married two years later.
Foster City, California
My son Alex died after years of suffering with AIDS. The disease was slow, giving us many false hopes. Finally, on the morning of Cinco de Mayo, he woke, said, “Good morning,” and collapsed on his pillow. His heart had given out. He was forty-one years old.
The next year, on Alex’s birthday, my ninety-one-year-old husband, Roger, and I decided to go out for drinks. I dropped him off at the front of the restaurant, and he walked in with the aid of his cane while I parked.
Roger had dementia, and it had made him sweeter. During his most productive years he was a man with ideas, a kind of efficiency genius, full of advice. We called him Mr. Fix-It. An investor, a planner, a sock-the-money-away kind of guy, he remembered the Great Depression and often said to me, “You can only spend a dollar once.”
I was cold in the overly air-conditioned restaurant, and Roger offered me his jacket. I’d been his caregiver for more than two years, looking after the house and garden, paying the bills, even sending alimony checks to his ex. But there he was, sliding out of the booth to put his coat around my shoulders. I accepted it graciously.
We ordered martinis. “Give us your best gin,” Roger directed the waitress — an extravagant request for him.
“Beefeater is fine,” I clarified. “Shall we split the steak?” I asked him.
“Sure,” he said.
The drinks arrived with long toothpicks skewering three stuffed olives. As a sign of affection, Roger dropped his olives into my drink. His mind seemed clear, and we talked like we hadn’t in years, but when I mentioned our best friends, Roger couldn’t remember them.
To change the subject, I raised my glass for a toast: “To Alex on the anniversary of his birth, forty-two years ago. He was a good son. May he rest in peace.”
“Yes, happy birthday to a good son,” Roger added. “I can’t believe he’s gone.” We clinked glasses and drank. “And who was his paramour?” he asked, trying to remember.
“John,” I said.
“Ah, yes, John.” But the look on his face told me he didn’t remember the young man still living in the guest apartment in our home. “We have a lot to say about how we end up,” he said.
He may have been referring to some of Alex’s choices. Our son had used drugs and lived dangerously in other ways. But I thought about us, drinking gin and sharing a steak in our old age. Still, we’d ended up just fine. We’d made a good life together.
The martini was lovely and cold, but the bond I felt to my husband in that moment was a stronger intoxicant than three ounces of gin. I felt closer to him than I had in years, unaware it would be the last time we would really connect.
Rumford, Rhode Island
On April 13, 1743, Thomas Jefferson was born in Shadwell, Virginia. He would later go on to write, in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” He would also write, six years later, “I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks . . . are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” He then referred to Phillis Wheatley’s poetry as “below the dignity of criticism” and gave British writer Ignatius Sancho the backhanded compliment of naming him as the best the Black race had to offer, though still at the bottom of white intellect.
I, too, was born April 13, nearly 250 years after Thomas Jefferson. On our shared birthday I often wonder what he would think of the achievements of Black Americans. Here are just a few made on the anniversary of his birth: April 13, 1954: Hank Aaron plays his first game for the Milwaukee Braves. April 13, 1964: Sidney Poitier is the first Black actor to win an Oscar for a leading role. April 13, 1997: Tiger Woods is the youngest and first Black golfer to win the Masters Tournament.
I wonder what Jefferson would make of our current world. I wonder what he would think of young, Black, female writers like me. Would he dismiss us as flukes? Anomalies? Would he realize the error of his ways? Would he tell us he meant “equal,” but not like that?
I don’t remember the date our divorce was finalized or when “I’m leaving you” first burst from my lips, but I do know I moved out on January 1, because it’s an easy date to remember.
Since then, every New Year’s Eve I have acknowledged that another year has passed, and that the divorce was the best decision for us and our daughter. My ex and I have recovered from the heartbreak and have built new, more-fulfilling lives than the ones we had together.
Though twenty-two years have passed, our bond is not broken. We found each other again as friends, confidants, and coparents. Our daughter is now a poised, loving young woman; we often call each other just to talk about her. It wasn’t easy, our truce, and it was never a sure thing. We swallowed a lot of pride, controlled our anger, and made some difficult compromises. But it’s been worth it.
The date of our divorce doesn’t matter. We never really left each other. We just let each other be happy.
As I celebrate another anniversary of sobriety, I realize I’ve become the woman I once resented: a “prude” sipping sparkling water at the bar. When I was a drinker, my plan was always to have a few drinks and then switch to sparkling water — clear, clean, and ladylike. But once I started drinking, plans would change, and I’d end up doing shots or helping to drain the keg.
My mother once suggested I try having two drinks a day — no more, no less. I thought I’d rather pull my fingernails off one at a time. Two drinks didn’t have any significant effect. Two glasses of wine wouldn’t empty the bottle, and who leaves wine in a bottle? A prude.
I consider myself a somewhat intelligent person, but I was dumbfounded when, at a recovery meeting, someone suggested just not taking the first drink. The thought had never occurred to my twenty-six-year-old self. There was an appealing simplicity to it: no more blackouts, no more treacherous drives home with one eye closed to keep the lines from moving.
From that moment on, I’ve taken the journey at my own pace. I’ve accepted that I won’t be carried around on a pink pillow, immune to life’s ups and downs. And I’ve learned that a binge won’t resolve the challenges I face.
In the first twelve months after my father’s death, I was often visited by memories from the last year of his life.
The day I turned twenty-eight, I remembered one year earlier when my dad had called to sing me “Happy Birthday,” as he did every year.
In August I recalled the day we had spent the previous summer at a small amusement park in Pennsylvania. We’d ridden every roller coaster with breathless laughter and screams of delight.
In November I recalled his final birthday, which we had spent with coffee and pie for breakfast and The New York Times crossword. I had taken a bus five hours on my day off just to hug him and be with him. He was turning fifty-five.
I remembered the day we got the diagnosis of stage IV cancer. The day New York went into lockdown and we decided to quarantine together. The afternoon we learned the chemo treatments weren’t working. The last Father’s Day we had together, when he said he couldn’t have asked for a better daughter.
When the one-year mark arrived, I didn’t know what to do. It was the anniversary of the worst day of my life. I stared out at the ocean and thought about the trips we’d planned but never taken and all the things I still wanted to tell him. I was ready for the familiar hollow feeling I’d had with each memory of the year before. What I didn’t expect was the relief that washed over me as the sunset filled the sky. Although my life was forever altered, I would never have to go through that first year again.
Brooklyn, New York
Before we got married in 1971, my husband made it clear I had to share in his passion for wild birds or our bond wouldn’t take. Luckily my parents had taught me to love nature, so adjusting to a life with a bird researcher was no problem.
Now in our seventies, my husband and I are more consumed than ever with our bird work. Every spring we band songbirds for six weeks on four Lake Erie islands and the area near our home. Every fall we band songbirds and owls for eight weeks. It’s hard work, and we’ve become more involved with each migration cycle.
Our December schedule is particularly hectic. That month brings two birthdays, five bird counts, our wedding anniversary, and Christmas. In 2021, when friends asked what we’d do for our fiftieth, we had to wonder if they even knew us. Every year our anniversary lands on the day of a National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count. The day is always a blur of birds, birds, birds.
True to form, we spent our fiftieth bundled against the weather on Kelleys Island in Lake Erie, counting birds during the day and banding northern saw-whet owls into the night. We’d grown accustomed to this crazy, runaround life. Nothing was going to upset our routine — not even the number fifty.
A hundred years ago my aunt Helga was born, two years after my mother, her sister. I have seen Helga only in black-and-white photos. I never saw the brown of her hair or the tones of her flesh, only grays. I wonder what color eyes she had. At sixteen Helga stares out from the last photo taken of her, frozen in time.
I know her mostly through the letters she wrote from a Nazi prison. I wonder about the birthdays she had in that prison — in 1938, 1939, 1940, and 1941. Did she do anything to mark them? Did she feel especially sad on those days? She never made it to her next birthday in the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
Helga was a resistance fighter. She and my mother were caught smuggling anti-Hitler newspapers into Germany and charged with high treason. My mother managed to get acquitted and fled Germany just in time. Helga was not so lucky.
I wish we had celebrated Helga’s birthday just once while my mother was alive, but Mom kept her sadness sequestered away. On Helga’s hundredth birthday I cry the tears my mother never shed in front of me. It is a day for crying. I envisioned a grand party and memorial rolled into one, but the pandemic stopped those plans. I’ll have to wait for next year.
I think of Helga as I contemplate the mess the world is in today, and I know that the best way to commemorate her life is to live as best I can, even with fascism rising around the globe. It is vital to keep resisting evil. I owe it to her.
Madelaine Helga Zadik
I was six months pregnant on our first wedding anniversary. No doubt that’s why my husband decided to take me fishing. I guess he figured I’d enjoy sitting in the car while he stood on the bank of the river, fly-fishing with his buddy Mike. Mike brought along his three-year-old daughter, Katie, so I wouldn’t get bored. For nearly two hours I read Katie Dr. Seuss and the Brothers Grimm as I listened to the rain plinking on the roof and to Katie’s growing complaints of hunger, tiredness, and general toddler despair. Watching them walk back to the truck, I forgave the wet, smiling anglers for their lack of understanding on my “special day,” though I was relieved when Mike declined my husband’s invitation to come home with us.
On the way home, we stopped off at my folks’ house and picked up the top of our wedding cake, which Mom had kept for us in the basement freezer. There were the bride and groom beneath a frosty, heart-shaped plastic trellis, their little red smiles imperfectly painted but seemingly sincere. I carried the cake box carefully to the truck and held it on my lap — my knees, actually, as my lap was pretty much taken up by my expanding middle.
We pulled into the driveway, and I sat for a few minutes with the cake balanced on my knees, waiting for my husband to open the door and help me down. Instead, he grabbed his tackle box and the one small fish he’d caught and headed for the house, disappearing through the back door, forgetting about his pregnant wife sitting in the truck with the wedding cake. He must have suddenly remembered, because he reappeared, ran to the truck, and opened my door.
“Let me take that, honey,” he said, lifting the cake box from my hands. He set it down on the bench of our picnic table while he helped me down from the truck. It was then that our one-year-old golden retriever, Poppy, bounded out to greet us, all tongue and tail and wriggling enthusiasm. Poppy and I both saw the cake box at the same time. “No!” I yelled, but it was too late. Poppy’s keen nose had detected the thawing vanilla icing, and she jumped up for a closer inspection — knocking the box off the bench and onto the wet walkway. My husband picked up the box, but the cake remained on the cement, lopsided and smashed, the bride and groom tilted precariously sideways. As I stood there watching my wedding cake slowly dissolve, a devastating sadness came over me. I reached down to rescue the bride and groom from the earthworms, and that’s when he laughed. My husband laughed.
That was twelve years ago. Now I can laugh about that first anniversary, too. I can see the humor. I’ve forgiven him.
Yet once in a while — after an argument, perhaps, or another anniversary celebration that didn’t quite live up to my expectations — I open my cedar chest and pull out the tissue-wrapped bride and groom. There she stands, bouquet in hand, smiling crookedly with painted red lips, her arm linked with the groom’s. He would be smiling, too, only his head is gone — lost twelve years ago in a tragic accident involving a dog, a wife, and a fishing trip in the rain.
In my inbox was an e-mail with the name of the man I’d had an affair with in the subject line. My hand trembled as I opened it. “As most of you now know,” it read, “Anthony succumbed to his year-long battle with colon cancer. In his final days, he was married. He was baptized. He said goodbye to his closest friends, and his family never left his side.” The tribute to the man I’d loved was from his new wife. There was also an invitation to e-mail her memories of Anthony. “Every story is welcome,” she wrote. “I want to read how drunk you got, how much he loved you, the fight you had, the times you laughed.”
The last time he and I had spoken was nine months earlier. Bitter and angry, I’d blamed him for leaving my life in shambles after our affair had ended. Afterward I’d proceeded to throw away all photos of him, delete his e-mails, and erase any evidence that the affair had ever happened. Now I ached for him, but I was too ashamed to reach out to the other people who cherished his memory. I was trapped in a purgatory for mourners who have no place at the funeral.
I typed a response anyway. The computer screen blurred as my fingers flew across the keyboard, words coming faster than I could keep up. I told her everything I’d wanted to tell Anthony.
Her reply took my breath away: “I am sorry for your loss. Just as you are sorry for mine.” We exchanged a sporadic but comforting correspondence for a while. Shortly before the first anniversary of Anthony’s death, his widow invited me to their home for a celebration of his life. I wrote back and told her I’d spent the last twelve months composing letters to him, sharing thoughts I didn’t share with anyone else. “Anthony once told me regret and guilt are useless emotions,” I wrote. “Over the past year I’ve been consumed with both.”
One year to the day after Anthony died, I stood on the front steps of the home he’d shared with his wife, listening to the murmur of the crowd inside. A familiar shame took hold. I was a scourge from the past, an adulteress. What place did I have here? I wiped my palms against my jeans and knocked. Thankfully Anthony’s wife loved him enough to make space for me. She welcomed me with a tight embrace, then ushered me in. Someone with red-rimmed eyes approached, smiling kindly as he offered a box of tissues. “You must be Kim,” he said. “Anthony told me all about you.”
Los Angeles, California
In the summer of 1956, when I was twenty-three years old, I fell in love with the woman with whom I would spend the next sixty-five years. I had come to teach at the Lutheran high school and junior college where she was dean of women and assistant to the president. We’d become friends right away, but I soon realized I wanted more with her than just friendship.
I had no idea how to advance the relationship, no role models in my life — or movies or books, for that matter — for women loving women. I had no evidence that such a thing could even happen, and I knew that if it did, it was considered a perversion. Though we spent our free time happily together, I was otherwise miserable and frustrated, afraid that if I let her know I was in love with her, she would be repulsed or tell the church authorities I was a pervert. She was a few years older than I was and had dated men, even refusing a couple of proposals.
On my birthday in November we went out to dinner to celebrate. Afterward I drove her back to the house where she rented a room. Her landlords lived there with her and were asleep in the back bedroom. I walked her to the door, and when I turned to leave, she took me by the hand and led me inside to a couch in the darkened living room. She took me in her arms and kissed me, and we made love for the first time.
Until she died a year ago, for as long as we were together, we publicly celebrated my birthday on that day each November, and privately celebrated our anniversary.
My wife and I were underage when we married. Only after we threatened to elope to a neighboring state, where the legal age was lower, did our parents sign for us.
We were married in our pastor’s living room. My wife wore an inexpensive dress purchased at a small shop. My dad had given me money for a new suit. With only sixty-five dollars between us, a honeymoon was out of the question. Besides, I was still making monthly payments on her wedding ring.
For years I felt a sense of guilt that my wife hadn’t had the wedding she deserved. I was determined to give her a better ceremony someday. For our twenty-fifth anniversary I decided to host a reaffirmation of vows, and my eleven-year-old daughter and I began planning the event in secret a year in advance. I set a date and reserved our church as the venue. I ordered flowers, candles, wedding cake, and food for the guests. I enlisted the services of a pianist friend to perform, and an artist I knew designed the invitations. My daughter practiced Pachelbel’s Canon daily. I decided my wife’s simple wedding ring should have an upgrade, and, with my daughter’s help, I chose a new one. Also, in perhaps my most brazen move as a husband, I ordered her a new wedding dress.
I realized I’d have to share my plans at some point; the occasion was too monumental to spring on my wife out of the blue. So a few days before our anniversary, I sent her a formal invitation along with a bottle of champagne. The first thing she saw when she entered the house after work that day was the wedding dress hanging in a doorway.
Twenty-five years after that simple living-room ceremony, my wife and I had a full wedding and the honeymoon we’d always wanted. And the dress? It fit perfectly.