Posts Tagged ‘birthday’

I enjoy looking at the sketches of my grandpa’s life on his old calendar entries, or in his journals, and trying to fill in the gaps around them. How did an event affect him? What did he think about it?

There are a few days that I don’t have to guess about or fill in, though, because he wrote them out in full detail from dawn to dusk. We’re going to stop in on one of them this week.

My grandfather, in his later years, would sit down on his birthday every year — August 13 — and write down everything he’d done that day.

Since he wasn’t in the habit of climbing mountains or going surfing on his birthday, the letters also serve as a pretty good look at what his everyday life was like.

So here we are on Wednesday, August 13, 1975, my grandfather’s 65th birthday.

The Yankees are in third; the Mets are in fourth. Record-setting miler John Walker is on newspaper front pages. Buddy Ebsen is on the cover of TV Guide. The Bee Gees are at Number One. The Grateful Dead are on O’Farrell Street.

President Ford is on vacation in Vail, Colorado, where he starts his day with a swim.

At 1107 Hope Street in Stamford, Connecticut, the day begins with a bland breakfast and proceeds apace.


The blow-by-blow account, with occasional notations:

Arose at 7:30 – temp 70 degrees – Hot day coming up
Breakfast – Maltex and Wheatena mix, toast, Sanka, orange juice
Brought art stuff down from attic into studio
Took stuff from studio to attic

(Perspective from me: Wonder what his art stuff was doing in the attic? The upstairs studio — formerly my Aunt Elaine’s bedroom — served as his art room all the years I knew him. He wasn’t painting the studio: His journal’s year-by-year list of home projects makes no mention of such a project in 1975. Never mind what I said about knowing everything about the day: It’s not even lunchtime and I’ve already encountered a mystery.)

Lunch at 12:00 – Hamburg – potatoe – tomatoe – peanut butter + crackers – cool tea
Listened to news 12:30-1 pm
Rest period

(I find it interesting that he didn’t watch the news; he listened to it on the radio. He might have been tuned in to local legend Don Russell’s program on WSTC, described in an earlier blog post.)

Petro service man arrived 1:20
Cleaned boiler & burner – left 2:50
Took pics of stuffed bird at bird bath.

(The stuffed bird wants some explanation. My dad played organ at the wedding of a fraternity brother around this time and was rewarded with the gift of a stuffed heron, which lived in the front hall of our house for a good decade before it started falling apart. The wedding was in Attleboro, Massachusetts, and the stuffed bird apparently lived at my grandparents’ in Connecticut for a while until my dad could bring it home to western New York.)


And you thought I was making this story up. My family visited Hope Street in the first week of August 1975, and that’s probably when this was taken. (If you’re a long-timer here, you might recognize the car visible out the window.)

Cut some branches from trees.
Thought of mowing grass – Too hot. 88 degrees.

Went for Stamford Advocate – bought LOT. TIC.

(Yeah, forget the apologia for my grandfather that I wrote a couple years ago. Dude loved his lottery tickets. At least he confined himself to one at a time.)

Surveyed building foundation across street.
Supper at 5:15 – Lamb – rice -beans from garden – orange pieces
Cold Sanka – birthday cake with strawberries + ice cream and candle

(I have heard of Sanka but have never had any; my grandpa seems to have enjoyed it almost as much as he enjoyed lottery tickets. Wiki tells me the name Sanka is a conjunction of the French words “sans cafeine,” meaning “without caffeine.” Whaddya know.)

Recd gifts – travel kit, stick deodorant, 2 LOT TICS & tie from Corine

(Yup, more lottery tix. Er, LOTTERY TICS. Shame that, as far as I know, my grandpa never actually won. Also gotta love stick deodorant as a birthday gift: “Here’s hoping you smell better in Year 66!”)

Car repair book & $10 from Ma
Took rubbish & garbage to cellar

Listened to radio news – 6:30
Listened to TV news & weather – 6:45 to 7:30. Showers on way
Evelyn J. called – a pair of Rod’s brown shoes has gone missing

(So, would it be fair to say that Rod’s brown shoes didn’t make it?)

Sat out on porch – cool breeze coming from N.W.

(I love that he knew where the breeze was coming from. Probably the same innate sense that enables people to know one kind of tree from another. I don’t possess that.)

Watched Merv Griffin show – 9 to 10

(Guests included Polly Bergen and Gay Talese.)

Bedtime snack – shredded wheat & puft wheat
To Bed 10:30 – read magazines

(One of them was probably Time, whose August 11 issue bore a cover story called “Lisbon’s Troika: Red Threat in Portugal.” I do not think the risk of Communist takeover of Portugal unduly burdened my grandfather as he lay down to sleep with a bellyful of wheat.

(Good night.)


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November 1970.

November 1970.

What does one say about older brothers?

Do you talk about the times they spilled your secrets, or the times they kept them?

Do you talk about the times you swapped punches with them, or the times you closed ranks with them?

Do you talk about the flak they generated, or the flak they absorbed?

Do you think of the things they taught you, or the things you found out for yourself? Do you take out the scales and try to weigh the balance between the two?

Do you depict them as irresponsible, or merely true to themselves?

Do you marvel at the ways in which they are different from you, or the ways in which they are the same?

Do you wonder how frequently and how closely you will stay in touch with them after the unifying central bond of your parents is gone?

You could do any and all of those.

Or, you could just page through the years of memories and look for one you like.

It would have been sometime around 1991 or ’92 when my older brother Eric spent a summer working at Kentucky Fried Chicken, one in a long line of summer jobs he held over the years.

Working the late shift meant he got to divvy up the remaining chicken with his co-workers and take some home at the end of the night.

We got sick of the bird after a few days, and he stopped bringing it home. But early on, we were still looking forward to it.

And the first night he brought home a box, he and I sat around the family dinner table ’round midnight, cheerfully devouring the chicken while we shot the breeze about Public Enemy or Michael Jordan or our summer jobs or whatever else was top-of-mind to a couple of college-age kids in the suburbs of the Rust Belt.

While I’ve grown to know the health hazards of late-night eating, there is something wonderfully cozy about sitting around a table late at night sharing food with someone else — especially when one or both of you has just come home. A single light shining through the kitchen window into the darkness, and a modest treat on the table, is as welcoming as home gets.

I think I first got this feeling when we would take family trips from Rochester to Stamford. We’d arrive late — maybe around midnight — but we’d still be a little strung out from the road, not yet ready to turn in, and sometimes we’d gather around the kitchen table and have a short glass of Seven-Up or something, and immerse ourselves in the comfort of having reached a friendly destination.

But, back to the Nineties:

There were no Big Reveals and no heavy discussions on this semi-forgotten evening. Just a straightforward, open, very pleasant sharing of time and space and chicken.

It is a fonder memory than its raw materials would indicate.

Happy birthday, older brother.

November 16, 1970.

November 16, 1970.

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Last year I forgot to mention my grandfather’s birthday until after it passed. (Some grandson, eh? The guy gives me fodder for years’ worth of blog posts, and that’s the thanks he gets.)

I won’t be quite so daft this year.

August 13, 1974.

August 13, 1974.

Here, the guy who kept the calendars pats himself on the back for a change.

Perhaps it was discomfort or modesty that led him to label his quickly sketched cake and candles, as though their identities were unclear.

(It is kind of a bare-bones cake, without so much as a single rosette, though the same was probably true of whatever cake my grandma actually baked.)

As we’ve previously established, this was a couple years after my grandpa’s first heart attack. I imagine each birthday felt a little sweeter to him after that, even after he’d settled in to his new lifestyle.

I don’t think I’ll dump any more of my overwritten quasi-analysis onto this calendar entry.

I’ll just wish my grandpa a happy birthday, offer him a slice of plain scratch-baked cake, and thank him for keeping the calendars.

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When my family celebrated my great-grandmother’s 80th birthday in October 1966, she must have seemed like a survivor, the heart of the family tree.

Oct. 11, 1966

There might also have been a undertone of uncertainty to the celebration. After all, 80 years was a long haul by 1966 standards, and surely someone in Pauline J. (Krebs) Blumenau’s orbit must have wondered how much longer the family matriarch would be around. (She had already outlived her husband by 43 years.)

The National Center for Health Statistics says that a white female reaching age 75 in 1961, as my great-grandmother did, had an average of 9.28 years of life remaining.

“Grossee” — the nickname is short for grossmutter, German for “grandmother” — had used up more than half of those 9.28 years in October 1966, and would have been statistically on track to pass away sometime late in January 1971.

What happened next is a reminder not to put too much faith in statistics.

My great-grandmother lived almost three more decades, dying at age 107 in July 1994. She was born the same year as the patent of the first successful gas-driven automobile, and lived into the age of the Internet.

Even more remarkably, she was able to live a pretty good life for all but the last year or two. She didn’t get around that well, but her mind was still sharp, and she stayed active doing small kitchen tasks for many years. (This picture shows her on the job circa 1981.)

Grossee played organ in church in her younger years, and augmented the family income for many years by giving piano lessons. She gave my father his first instruction in piano; 40 years later, she would sit in her favorite chair and listen quietly as he played her favorites.

Grossee, reflecting on the meaning of life, 1968.

From time to time, we would press Grossee for family memories. While nibbling Tato Skins chips (a favorite of hers), she would talk about the little store her family operated in Springfield, Mass., in the early years of the 20th century; or about Otto Baab, a piano dealer and tuner she’d known decades before, also in Springfield. She would sometimes be tickled by the notion that his name was spelled the same way backwards or forwards.

Circa 1986. With my brother and a bag of Tato Skins.

My grandfather, the keeper of the calendar, was her only living child. She had been pregnant with a second son when her husband died in 1923, but the child, named Edwin, lived less than a month.

This was not a subject brought up in the family recollection sessions, and I was only dimly aware of it as a kid. I can only imagine how devastating it must have been to lose both a husband and a child in the same year, while still being responsible for raising a teenage son. The soft-spoken, shawl-clad, cookie-baking woman of my childhood must have had an inner strength I never knew; I share her personal travails only as a way to fully acknowledge that.

Grossee could also, on occasion, be firm in her opinions. In my teenage years, when I grew my hair long, she once appraised my new look by calling me a “haarich azel” — German for “hairy asshole.”

I got very little flak in general society for wearing my hair long, presumably because the young men of the ’60s and ’70s had paved the way. But one centenarian lady made it crystal-clear that she had no use for the fashion. I’ll always remember that — with a smile, I might add.

My grandparents took care of Grossee as long as they could, with admirable dedication. But by the early ’90s, they were both elderly themselves, and my grandpa had had two heart attacks. Reluctantly, they found a place for Grossee in a local nursing home, and visited as often as they could.

Early in the Rochester ice storm of March 1991. My 104-year-old great-grandma, still living at home, and my grandparents try to soldier through.

Some people mentally check out as soon as they move to a nursing home; but my memory is that Grossee remained pretty well with it for a year or so until her age inevitably began catching up with her.

I don’t remember if she had a secret to long life, except to take things one day at a time and not worry too much. On one wall of my grandparents’ house hung a stitched German proverb: “Take life as it happens, but try to make it happen the way you want to take it.” I’m not sure that was exactly my great-grandmother’s mantra, but it always reminds me of her when it crosses my mind.

I have been remiss in not specifically mentioning Grossee in my earlier blog entries. Wherever my grandparents went, I imagine Grossee went with them, and she was present at many, if not all, of the events I’ve written about.

It just seemed difficult to work her into the narrative without fully introducing her. And to fully introduce her, I realized I would need a post devoted entirely to her, because God knows she was no footnote.

So, we welcome Pauline “Grossee” Blumenau in earnest to 5,478 Days. Late? Maybe. But now that she’s here, I expect she’ll stay around a while.

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Yesterday (Aug. 13) would have been my grandfather’s 101st birthday. This did occur to me yesterday, and I thought about mentioning it, but the thought went in one side of my brain and out the other.

I’m throwing up a quick post today because a day late and a dollar short seems better than nothing.

Today’s calendar entry focuses on what might have been one of my grandfather’s more memorable birthdays, and not because it ended with a zero or a five.

It is Aug. 13, 1971, and my grandfather is celebrating his first birthday after his heart attack three-and-a-half months earlier (the one referenced in last Monday’s post.) My parents and my infant older brother are in Stamford to join the celebration.

Aug. 13, 1971. 58 additional candles not shown.

Teutonic stoicism tends to dominate the proceedings in my family. Cards get kept close to the vest. In keeping with that, it’s possible that this birthday celebration was no more outwardly emotional than any other.

Still, I imagine that everyone around the table was especially grateful that year to have the guest of honor present, even if they might not have come out and said so.

The real celebration that year was not about a single birthday, but about the gift of continuing life. And that’s pretty much the best gift you can have, any day of the year.

Tune in tomorrow for our regularly scheduled post.

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