16 July 2009

A Birthday Memory

I knew something was up, because she called two or three times that morning. “HAW-nee! Are you home?” she would ask in that strange low groan she calls her speaking voice; and then she’d phone back to make sure I was still there. Something in her tone made it clear that I’d disappoint us both if I wandered away; I didn’t dare budge from my living room. At last, the buzzer sounded downstairs, and I let her in. As she climbed toward my apartment, she began to sing the words of Mimì’s entrance in La Bohème: “Scusi! Di grazia, mi s’è spento il lume!”

She was wearing her little Chairman Mao cap, and she craned upward to kiss me on the cheek. In her arms, she bore a bouquet of roses, one for every year of my life, plus one more to grow on. I didn’t own a vase big enough to hold them all, so we placed them in the toilet bowl. It was a sort of improvised Pop Art installation. She contemplated this for a long moment and declared it good.

“Maybe I should get you a few more, though,” she said, “to put in the tank.”

She took me out for oysters and Champagne, because she knew without my telling her that these were my favorite things. That afternoon, we wandered all over the Upper West Side of Manhattan, talking of many things, of my grandmother who had died a few weeks before, but most especially of time and its lessons. I wanted to know what the city was like to her, when she was young and alone, as I was, and whether life would get less mysterious as I grew older. But she was too wise for me, and I am still trying to understand many of the answers she gave.

When we arrived back at her apartment, she lent me a vase for the flowers she’d given me. Because, when all is said and done, the toilet is no place for a bouquet from a diva.

I knew there would never be another birthday quite like this one, and I saved as many of the roses as I could, drying them, pressing them between the pages of old books, cherishing them even now, when they are long since crumbled.

That was twenty years ago today.

1 comment:

Mikebench said...

What a lovely memory! And so typical of the generosity of spirit of that great Lady! Happy, happy birthday, Bill!