By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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I can’t remember how old I was when Mom and Dad, both city born and bred, gave me the tin barn with dozens of tiny play animals and accessories for my birthday. I can recall the wonder of opening the endless cellophane wrappers and spilling the white, beige, tan, and gray critters onto the kitchen table as I hurried to see them all before leaving for school.
I live in the middle of farm country today, although I work on the twenty-eighth floor of an office building in a fair-size city. I’m certain I prefer living in the country because of that play farm; it took me to a world where a rooster’s crow begins the day, the air smells clean, placid cows drift from one pasture to another, and fields are dotted with bales of hay.
The tin barn has passed from hand to hand in the family, each new recipient stacking bright yellow hay bales in the barn to feed play cows, balancing white plastic barbed-wire fences around legions of baby chicks, horses, cows, lambs, dogs, and busy farmhands, and loading play milk cans into a cart.
When my own daughter was old enough to be entertained by the farm, my dad made sure it would be there on each visit. He watched her clucking and quacking and neighing as she passed the hours giving the animals a life of her own imagining. Her pleasure in the farm probably came from getting the play cows to do her bidding, as she always had trouble coaxing our neighbor’s real cows to the fence with fistfuls of sweet grasses.
My daughter is seventeen now, and wants to be a field biologist living on a farm. My dad passed away last year. My mom almost gave the barn to an aunt to take back home for her new granddaughter. I asked her to save it, though, in case my daughter has children. Of course, if they grow up on a farm, they’ll have little need of a tin barn and plastic animals to show them the way to a less frenetic world.
I would, however, enjoy watching another generation of small hands meticulously arranging the livestock on a living-room floor, as I recall the joy of receiving the gift on a birthday long ago, and remember the man who stowed it away year after year so that it could continue to work its magic.
Dale Elizabeth Walker
On January 17, I celebrated my thirty-eighth birthday. My family outdid themselves in cooking, baking, and decorating the house, even to the point of hanging streamers on the front porch in the subzero gale blowing that day. I received presents that were chosen with obvious care and affection.
In the wake of such a demonstration of love, I find it sad that I will remember that birthday as the day the United States chose to launch the first air attacks on Iraq.
Chased out of the house around noon so that my family could decorate, I spent some time driving around listening to broadcasts about the F15s streaking over Baghdad, unleashing their torrents of high-tech weaponry.
I didn’t cry that day, but there were moments when I came close. I remember an interview with an eleven-year-old girl who lived on a military base. Her uncle was on his way to the Persian Gulf. She denounced the necessity of war in that wonderfully categorical way that eleven-year-olds have. When asked if she was scared, she replied, “Very scared.” I can still hear her voice. I thought of my five-year-old daughter at home hanging birthday streamers and balloons.
As I arrived home, the thought came to me that our neighbors might wonder at the streamers on our porch. Did we have the monumental bad taste actually to celebrate the start of a war? “My birthday,” I explained to our next-door neighbor who was out shoveling his drive. He nodded. “Hell of a day for it, eh?”
As the evening progressed with cake, candles, and presents, thoughts of the war were still with me. I wondered who in Baghdad was celebrating their birthday that night, huddled in an air-raid shelter.
This war came no closer to us than our TVs. Still, it had that power unique to all moments of human stupidity; from half a world away, it had the power to infuse, pollute, and corrupt everything we touch, see, do, think about — even birthdays.
My father left on a windy day in March, near the time of my first birthday. They say winter held on a long time that year. My father didn’t go far, only a few miles down the road. In sadness, in misunderstanding, in emptiness and pain, miles can’t begin to measure the distance. A piece of my heart grew cold on the day he left, and nothing since — not mother, not lover, not friend, nor children — has ever warmed that spot again.
After a while I had a stepfather, but I never called him Dad. Dad was a stranger, the man who came to visit me now and then. He came on birthdays and Christmas with presents, but never with himself.
It wasn’t all his fault. Circumstance conspired against us. And I was a stubborn, unyielding child who wanted to know the man, as I wanted him to understand me. It never happened.
As my father got old, he was plagued by illness. From a hospital bed he asked me to understand and forgive him. The woman I had become said, I forgive you, but the child who lived inside refused to. She didn’t know how to forgive this stranger. I had a husband and children of my own; he no longer seemed as important. I felt pity for him, but now my life was full and rich. After that small, tentative step toward each other during his illness, we turned back to our lonely places.
My father recovered and left the hospital, and a few more years passed. I found myself once again longing to know the stranger. Yes, I thought, now is the time. I will show him his grandchildren. He’ll get to know them, and me, at last. On a cold March night I called to invite him to my birthday dinner. In a quiet voice he accepted, but I could hear the hope beneath the words. He died the next week, on my birthday.
I was born in the post office, special delivery — that was the family joke. It was a hospital back then, but soon after I came along it was torn down to make room for the post office. Whenever you passed that block, just before you reached the main drag of town, you could count on someone making a post-office joke.
I was born special, though, in a caesarean delivery performed by old Dr. W. He wasn’t as handy with a knife as he was with a fishing pole. His office walls held all his fishing rodeo prizes. Patients sometimes wondered whether he spent much time keeping up with the latest medical advances. Still, most everybody went to him; you had to, unless you were black and couldn’t, or white and didn’t want anyone in town to know your ailments — then you drove down to Tallahassee. Sometimes even then people knew. There is a trick to doing anything in a small town, even if you do it out of town.
Dr. W. was famous for fishing, but when it came time for me to be fished out of Mama, the knife slipped and he cut my forehead. No one said a thing. If Papa’s Aunt Belle hadn’t been standing guard outside the delivery room, no one would have ever known.
Mama, still groggy from the sedatives and anesthesia, got a lawyer right then and there, filed a malpractice suit, and won a multimillion-dollar settlement that I inherited at age twenty-one. I’m gainfully retired now, and I spend my days performing charitable acts.
Well, that’s the story I wish I could tell you. I could have, perhaps, if my family hadn’t believed you never rock any boats, and if Dr. W. hadn’t been with the family so long, and if he hadn’t delivered Mama in a cabin on the outskirts of town. I could have if I had been born in 1975 or 1985 instead of 1955, and if I had been born in New York or even Atlanta, instead of the lower-left corner of Georgia where everyone knew everyone.
I never expected to live to see thirty. For as long as I can remember, I was certain I would die young. This belief was convenient; I was able to rationalize all my lazy, self-indulgent, and hedonistic impulses.
But when I turned twenty-eight, suddenly I wasn’t so sure I was going to die. I was beginning to get my life in order, to plan ahead. When I turned twenty-nine, I got really scared. I was afraid that, in one of those ironic twists of fate, I would fulfill my own gloomy prophecy. I began counting the days until my thirtieth birthday. I had my cholesterol level and blood pressure checked, started taking vitamins, bought a can of mace and a rabbit’s foot.
By midafternoon on the day of my birthday, I began to relax. All I had to do was make it through dinner.
As we waited in the foyer of the restaurant for the maitre d’ to show us to our table, I commented on the clean scent of fresh wax on the glossy parquet floor. When we were children, my cousins and I used to race down my grandmother’s breezeway. Every Saturday after the floors were waxed, we put on clean white socks and skated the length of the house. The lemony wax smell seemed a good omen.
When the host showed us to our table, I took two steps, twisted my ankle, and went down like a poleaxed ox. We all heard the bones in my left foot snap. As my husband helped me up, the host murmured, “Will you still require a table, or may I seat the next group?”
Karen Potter Morrione
My birthdays used to begin with anticipation, only to end in disappointment. I wondered why no one cared enough to make my day special. Then it occurred to me that I had put effort into making others’ birthdays memorable; why shouldn’t I do the same for myself?
I told no one. The preparations took all day. My favorite pot of fall chili had to be concocted. A layered chocolate cake had to be baked and decorated. The house had to be cleaned, and games had to be planned. I made sure my hair looked just right, and I put on a long evening dress for the occasion. I gave my family a birthday party for me. They were surprised — and a little embarrassed — but we all had a wonderful time.
I grew up a lot that day. I realized that no one else is responsible for making me happy on my birthday — or any other day.
When I had my fiftieth birthday, I thought I had reached the end of everything. No man would ever want me again, I thought. No one would hire me for a job; a man at fifty is “distinguished,” a woman is “over the hill.” And since my dreams had not been realized, there seemed little hope that they ever would be. Fifty was a wall between me and the world that I awoke one day in March to discover blocking my path.
Then I got breast cancer. I think one of the reasons I survived is that I had to fight hard for the treatment I wanted. The doctors wanted to cut my breast off — in fact, they wanted to cut both breasts off, as a preventive measure. One doctor gave me five months to live if I didn’t submit to a mastectomy. But I fought in the way I have learned to fight bureaucracy, until I got the doctors and the hospital and the treatment that I wanted. Struggle does wonders for the immune system.
Right after the treatment — minor surgery plus radiation — I was unable to look ahead, to make plans. My friends stepped in and saved me. They invited me for Thanksgiving dinner, they got tickets to the theater, they made me believe I was going to have a future; I went back to writing on my calendar in ink, not pencil.
Seven years later, birthdays are a time of rejoicing. I celebrate each one for a week. They are a reminder that life is the supreme good. Each birthday, for me, is a time to thumb my nose at the doctors and at death.
I didn’t want to be born. My mother was in labor for more than twenty-four hours before they succeeded in dragging me into this world. For months I screamed every night. That was my revenge. Then I refused to grow, which made them suffer even more. That didn’t help either. Reluctantly I became normal.
Every year, I dread the anniversary of that rainy, gray November day. There is nothing I want to celebrate. War, hunger, injustice, and sickness: I do not want to rejoice on the day of my arrival in hell. But every year somebody insists on making me feel loved. Every year somebody surprises me with gifts and attention, and I am deeply touched. When I wake up on that morning I want to crawl back into the cosmic womb, but by the end of the day I am happy to be alive.
Birthdays? They remind me of separation, of insecurity, of suffering, and of the longing to return to that eternal darkness. Birthdays? They remind me of closeness, of love and friendship, of standing in the light and dancing.
On the plains, in the mountains, along shorelines around the globe, people have been turning thirty for a long time.
Some people till the dry earth on the sub-Saharan plains, planting seeds, pulling weeds, hauling water in great jugs strapped to their backs. Some people sit in the cafes of Milan, New York, Paris, and Tokyo. Others dry seal hides over an open flame somewhere north of Hudson Bay. Some ride packed buses in Bombay, Mexico City, Chicago, and Beijing. Some crouch in shelters with their families and neighbors, while the bombs fall outside like a hot rain.
One year ago I was walking through the rain forests of Costa Rica in knee-high rubber boots. On the plane home, I cried. I was saying goodbye to the birds and monkeys and giant turtles, and to the people of Costa Rica. I was making a change, and I was scared.
I am now in the middle of that change. It’s dark and creepy. But once in a while I catch a glimmer of something shiny and promising. I can’t believe how little I feel in this grown-up body, in these most grown-up times. Do the mind, body, and spirit ever move in the same direction at once?
There are many things I want for my birthday: a camera, a file cabinet, new shoes, a couple of nights at a bed-and-breakfast in Mendocino. . . . But what I really want for my birthday may not be so easy to get. I want to stop being so fearful of loss. I want to gently embrace the process of change. Isn’t that what growing older is all about?
There are laughing voices, pleasant faces, lengthening shadows across the lawn. It is late on a midwinter afternoon in 1945 in Phoenix, Arizona. People shift their chairs from the growing chill of the shade to the few remaining spots of sun.
It is my thirty-eighth birthday. Along with twenty or thirty friends, my husband and I, with our two small daughters, are guests at this congenial gathering. Everyone lingers at the tables placed around the swimming pool where we have enjoyed a long, leisurely meal. The cocktail hour customarily precedes the food at these Sunday luncheons in Scottsdale. Full wine bottles replace the empty ones. The general atmosphere is less than sober.
My birthday is passing with the usual indifference of my husband. I am angry and growing angrier every minute. Though it happens every year, it is impossible for me to accept his insensitivity. A casual “happy birthday” would be enough, but it never happens. “Birthdays,” he says, “are for children. It’s childish of you to expect me to remember yours” — though on his birthday he is always delighted to accept any and all tributes that come his way, including, of course, a party.
Katy, my younger daughter, a blonde, blue-eyed five-year-old, has early on discovered a large box of chocolates placed on a low table well within her reach. She is aware of the unusual circumstances of the day and the unaccustomed freedom they give her; she is taking full advantage of the situation. Several times I have asked her to be more moderate. But she continues eating.
My husband sits now, glass in hand, tongue thick, talking politics with another man. It is one of several subjects on which we disagree and one in which he has little interest, knowledge, or expertise. I raise my voice and begin to bait him sarcastically. In no time I have pushed him into a corner. Others cast uneasy looks our way. Their sympathy for my husband only adds to my anger and frustration.
I rise to take my children home. The dogs and cat are waiting to be fed, and both girls have school in the morning. My husband decides to stay on with some of the other serious drinkers, so I gather up my daughters and say my goodbyes.
Though Diana, my eight-year-old, senses that my mood is not directed her way, she is quiet. Katy sits tensely on the edge of the seat, clutching the box of chocolates that our hostess insisted she take home. By now I am convinced that her behavior is the source of my rage.
When we reach the house, I order Katy to follow me into my room. I sit her on the bed. I then drop to my knees and begin to cram chocolates into her mouth.
One by one I push them in, all the time talking to her in an angry voice. “All right,” I say, “you want chocolates? Here are chocolates. Here’s one, here’s another, and another. . . .”
She cries and tries her best to swallow between sobs. Diana pulls at me, crying too, and begs me to stop. But I am unable to relinquish so convenient a target. I proceed to unload all my frustration and shame on the head of my five-year-old daughter.
Finally I walk out to the kitchen, sit at the table, and cover my face with my hands.
Santa Barbara, California
Thirteen. My mother took me to Woolworth’s to initiate me across the small hump of preteen years. I’d been waiting for this day, for womanhood: Maidenform, Playtex, Teenform. She was in a hurry; her other child flipped discs of Robert Goulet and the Beatles in the aisle. I remember the thick bunching against my chest; her quick and agitated fingers, so hot in July; the tiny hooks and tiny size. I remember the large windows and crowds gawking in the parking lot, young wives and schoolmates whirring by as the white shield stretched over my sweat shirt, glaring twenty-eight double A — something small is rising.
Much younger, I stole dimes and stamps for pamphlets advertised on the backs of boxes — “Sex and Your Children,” “What Every Girl Needs to Know.” Four to six weeks later, the books arrived sealed; I was found out. That summer I stole talc, deodorant, and razors. I still remember the smell of depilatories; that pharmacy — Frazier’s — with X-rated books. I was waiting: to menstruate; wear halters; kiss dirty; stay up late; come of age.
Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico
When my friend Jeff tested HIV-positive a few years ago, every day became a day for celebration.
We celebrate the good and the not-so-good: when he enters the hospital; when he exits from the hospital; after his first chemotherapy treatment; after the results from endless tests. We celebrate another Christmas/Chanukah season spent quietly but joyfully, a New Year’s Eve with friends, the first movie since August of last year. A one-day getaway to a cabin with a fireplace becomes as wonderful as candles on a cake, a simple meal in a restaurant with a friend becomes a treasured gift. These are true “birthdays.”
New York, New York
The smoke from his cigarette snaked through the dark and wrinkled my nose. The silver medallion swung in a long arc, back . . . and forth, back . . . and forth. “Your eyelids are growing heavy. You feel sleepy. . . . Sleep, sleep.” My father had just finished reading a book on hypnosis. “You’re going back into the past. Far into the past. You are ten years old. It is your birthday. Tell me what you see.” I stared at the medallion as hard as I could, not wanting to disappoint him. My eyes began to water. I could think of nothing; I could not dredge up one memory. My mind was completely blank. Where was I on my tenth birthday? Where was I on my tenth birthday? I looked up at him; he lowered his eyes in disappointment. “Oh, well,” he sighed as he walked toward his room.
A few minutes later I raced after him. “Dad, I remember. I remember!” I said breathlessly. “We were camping in Pennsylvania. You, me, Mom, Darla. I was so surprised because we had a big cake. Where did you get a big cake in the middle of the woods? I had braces, glasses, and a Dorothy Hamill haircut. I got a John Travolta record, a John Travolta T-shirt, and a John Travolta poster.” He pulled the cigarette from his lips, crushing it into the ashtray on his bureau. Smoke escaped from the corners of a bashful smile that now creased his face.
“I told you,” he said, so proud.
New York, New York