It is hard to find a sane person who doesn’t mark the progress of time through either nostalgia or birthdays. Nostalgia, of course, is the wistful longing for some long-since-mutated characteristic of the past. Birthdays, plural only, refers to somebody besides yourself getting older.
Not just a not-you aging, though, but a person to whom you’re surprised is suddenly 30 and not, say, 15. This special “birthday human” is different for everybody, and can be more than one person. Generally, though, people who have spawned tend to confer the birthday clock onto their children: “I can’t believe how old you are,” “Just look at you,” “You’ve gotten so big,” and other insights designed to induce alcoholism and other suicidal tendencies in their targets.
Which is a shame, because there’s nothing sadder than a 7-year-old desirous of a drink, but hardly even knowing what tequila is.
Anyway, I’ve been fortunate enough to have lived far, far, far, far, away from my family for most of my twenties. No doubt, they felt the same way. Perhaps more so. So although this distance in time and space has forced me to concentrate to remember that my Parental Units have, in fact, gotten older since I left for college, their personalities have changed only incrementally. Which makes me nostalgic for that well-worn Simpsons episode where everybody’s favorite yellow-skinned, four-fingered family uses electroshock therapy to give each other what they deserve.
The point being is that I’ve found myself surprised that my siblings are no longer the ages that they were when I left San Francisco a few days before my 18th birthday. In some part of my brain, there’s always a slight recalculation to remember that my sister is no longer 12. And when my the opportunity arose to visit my brother as he turned 30 last weekend, my initial reaction was, “Who’s turning 30?”
Of course he’s 30. I’m 32 – and a half, if we’re being picky – and so therefore basic mathematics dictate that he should be 30. But in my head? There was that initial reaction brain-scratching moment where I assumed he couldn’t be 30, because he’s not even 16 yet.
When we take our leave of certain friends and close relations, any repeat encounters seem to mentally reference our last engagement until we see them regularly enough to forget about that “last” encounter. At least personally, I’ve seen it occur with close friends, too. One friend whose wife is due with their first child next month will always be hunched over his computer in my head, coding or Warcrafting as a rum-and-Coke sweats a small puddle next to the keyboard. Or another friend, who had a significant other who was particularly memorable, will always be dating that person for just a moment more before I remember that their relationship has long since run its course. The specifics aren’t important, just the vague, burning memories of ghosts long past.
Even ghosts of the living. So it goes.
So we use the birthdays of others close to us to remember times past. Some involve these nostalgic instigators, and some don’t. With my brother on the Vermont-New Hampshire border, it’s imperative that I visit my Boston friends. Almost to a person, I find my martial arts buddies stronger and tougher, my non-fighting friends wiser and even better looking than before, and a tsunami of memories crushing me in the best way possible at every corner.
Here’s where I used to see Bela Fleck and the Flecktones: now my employer has an office there. Harvard Square is where I used to carouse for books: now I avoid it like I used to avoid the fancier parts of Newbury St. Here’s where I used to stumble, bleary eyed and on too little sleep, for Saturday morning beatings: well, that hasn’t changed, at least. And Redbones is still around, and a dear friend who had a spate of horribly short rentals has been in the same place for years now.
Everything changes, and nothing is truly lost.