My parents took care of me. I lacked for nothing. But Birthdays? They just weren’t a big deal in our house when I was growing up. My early years were a time of family crisis. My mom died when I was only three. I lived with my dad’s sister after that, until I was 7 and my dad remarried.
Sometimes I felt like my stepmom just didn’t have the same interest in me as if she had given birth to me. Once when I was mad I confronted her. “You show more affection to your dog than you show me!” I said. Then I walked away and went to my bedroom. She didn’t come knocking at my door. That emotional link was missing for her. And my dad was not interested in that way, sad from the loss of his wife and feeling the pressures of supporting his family in the midst of the depression. I just don’t remember birthday gifts or parties where family came over from my childhood.
My Best Birthday Ever.
That doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed wonderful birthdays as an adult. Margaret and I would celebrate our birthdays with the kids. But I have to say, my most memorable birthday celebration was my 90th at the Chicago Botanic Garden. I was in my favorite place surrounded by my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Long-time friends were there. People made speeches and shared stories. My granddaughter Katie helped plan the delicious meal and details. Michael, my son, made creative centerpieces that hearkened different stages of my life. My colleague Deanna made a book with articles I’ve written for Grand Magazine and letters my grandchildren had written about what they learned from me. (See the book, here.)
And, You can read all about my 90th birthday, here. Now that you mention it, 89 wasn’t too bad either. That’s when the Mayor proclaimed Jerry Witkovsky Day in the Village of Deerfield.
Making Birthdays Special for Others
When I was Director of Camp Chi, a residential camp now in Lake Delton, I created a birthday celebration whereby the camper whose birthday it was would walk around the dining hall as all 300 campers sang a special birthday song. From what I understand, the camp still carries on that tradition today. I imagine a therapist might say I was compensating. But I’ll just say I know birthdays are special and can feel especially lonely when you are away from home.
Still Making, Searching for Meaning.
Birthdays give me pause to reflect on life, what I’ve accomplished and contributed to the world over the past year. I’ve come to realize that my sense of self-worth comes from helping others. I dedicated my professional career to Jewish communal service. Today I continue to write and work to create programs to help grandparents connect more deeply with their grandchildren. My daughter Ellen challenged me about this recently “When will you accept that you are a very fine man, whether you are helping someone or not?
At 92, the answer is “I don’t know.” Perhaps I’ll ponder it on my next birthday.
*This post is part of the Grandparent Connection Write Your Stories Program currently underway with the JCC’s of Chicago, whereby grandparents signed up to receive writing prompts twice a week from Mother’s Day to Father’s Day.