Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Happy birthday, Betty!

Today is my mama Betty's birthday.

What she wants for her birthday is computer help, and a nice brunch out on the weekend. So tonight we will have cake. Fruit tart because she likes it, and real cake for the kids, because without it, it's not a birthday. And candles. God yes, candles.

"Will we have ALL the candles, Mama?"

"I think we should just have a couple."

At this point, all of our birthdays are really about the kids. We grownups don't have quite so much interest.

My kids have no recollection of a life without Nana living in our house. Nana has always lived with us, and always been theirs. It has always been like this and always will be.
Jordan, who deems it supremely unfair that Nick and I get to sleep in the same bed, while the rest of them have to sleep alone, often tiptoes upstairs to sleep with his Nana. I'll often go into his room to kiss him one last time and his bed is empty. I find him sound asleep upstairs in Nana's room, whether she's there or not.

When the kids list our family members, Nana is always one of us. They still don't quite get that she's my mom, that she was a grown-up before I was born. That she had a whole big life without them.

This is beyond their grasp.

When you think of all the places she's been, and all she's lived through to arrive at her current location, on the third floor of our house smack dab in DC, it's extraordinary.

I mean, she started out in North Dakota, and was the only one of her siblings to go to college. She met my dad there, fell in love, and then married him on his Air Force base in Texas.
Note: I wore this dress for my wedding almost five decades later!
They moved to Minneapolis--not an unreasonable move for a girl from ND and a guy from Duluth--where he worked as a pharmacist and she designed children's clothing. They were, as far as I can tell from photos, approximately 12 years old when all of this took place.
The Peace Corps had just been created. They joined and went to Afghanistan, where they made dear and lifelong friends. The ones you've probably heard me talk about are Jordan's parents, Pat and Phil, and Maude's parents, Lou and Tom.

I hope my dad and Lou are hanging out somewhere, having adventures together.

After Peace Corps, my dad joined the precursor to USAID and went to Vietnam. There was a war going on, you know, so spouses couldn't go. So during those years, Betty lived in Bangkok.

And then my dad went to graduate school, and then they moved to India (and had me!), where they lived through a bit of another war. Then Bangladesh gained independence and we moved there (and had my brother!). Then Egypt. Then Virginia. Then India again.
I sometimes forget that she went, willingly, to places with cholera and typhoid and malaria and a host of other diseases that she most certainly didn't grow up with. The first time her mother, my beloved Gramma Lillian, visited us in Dacca, I had worms.
Betty and Pat jaunted off to Burma in the early 70s. When we lived in Bangladesh, she flew to India to buy a Christmas tree and citrus fruit, and came back with oranges and two kind of scraggly Christmas-ish trees that we tied together.

She once got stopped at airport security because she had her enormous garden shears with her. And she said, "Oh! I always carry them!" And they let her through. Wouldn't you?
This was decades before 9/11, let's remember.

My parents spent the 1990s in South America.
 And then in 2000, Dad retired, and they moved back to Virginia.

It was never any of our plan to have her living with us. In an ideal world, she and my dad would still be in Virginia, and my kids would have weekends in the country at their grandparents' house.

But life is unpredictable, and while it can devastate you, it can always surprise you in beautiful ways.

When I tell other Americans that my mom lives with us, they're often shocked. When I tell people from many other countries--and this somehow comes up regularly with cab drivers--they nod. This is how it is where they are from, they say; this is how it should be.
I don't know about shoulds. I just know about is.

This is how it is. And we are lucky.


  1. I think that what is, is wonderful. Happy Birthday Betty!

    Also, laughing a bit at "weekends in the country". We have grocery stores out here, you know. And public transportation, even! ;)

    1. Thank you, Jess!

      And you know I really enjoyed typing that. :)

  2. Happy birthday, Betty! What a wonderful post - fabulous pictures. Your family is gorgeous (and hot damn, your dad was insanely handsome). xoxo

    1. Thank you, Wendy! Hugs! And he was pretty gorgeous, wasn't he?

  3. Happy Birthday Betty! She is delightful! Love all the photos, especially the wedding photo. Enjoy the celebration this evening and brunch! Let me know if I can supplement the computer help

    1. Heather, I particularly love their wedding photos. They are so young and sweet and beautiful. Thank you for your offer of help!

  4. Happy birthday Betty! I can see from your photos what an amazing life you have had! I am so glad you get to spend so much time with your adorable grandchildren and hope the coming year brings you much joy and happiness!

    1. Thank you for the lovely wishes, Jaclyn!

  5. Happy Bday Aunty (Coz you know, we don't call parents of people elder to us by their names)! Its evident that she has led an adventurous life which she has enjoyed, many don't. I wish many more such years to her in the best of health and with the best of companions.

  6. Happy Birthday to Betty! My Dad was a sea captain and sailed all around the world. My history is similar in that my siblings and I were all born in different countries, my sister was born in Gibralter, my brother in Northen Ireland (where my parents were from) and I was born in Canada. We finally ended up in the US in Maine. I built an in-law apartment for my parents and they both lived there for a year before my dad passed away at age 81. He had been fighting leukemia for years and I really believe that he waited until my mom (who was legally blind by that point) was safe and settled with me before passing. My mom lived with us for 10 years before she passed away at age 87 and now my in-laws (both in their 80's) live in the apartment. I get the same reactions as you when I tell people that my in-laws live with me. It's not that common here.

    1. Wow! Thank you so much for sharing this with me. Your story is really interesting, and I so enjoyed it--I love that your dad was a sea captain! No, as we both know, it's not that common here. But it is wonderful when you can do it.


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