My birthday is Aug. 1 and every year I reflect a lot around this time. Last year’s thoughts were particularly intense. It was because my older granddaughter, Hannah, turned seven. My birth date falls in a small cluster with other family members. My sister Paula’s is July 29 and Hannah’s is July 27. In my mind, these dates and people are connected in a collection of moments and memories.
The summer I turned seven was a defining time for me. It was 1945 and World War II was ending. My recollections of preceding years are of war preparedness – air raid drills, soldiers, sailors, rationing, and blackened headlights. But that year when the world was consumed by news of wars in Europe and the Pacific my main concern was the impending birth of a sibling.
My mother wanted this new baby and me to have the same birthday – maybe for economy of celebration. In any event, she knew that she wouldn’t be home on Aug. 1. In those days, women spent about a week in the hospital after delivery so she planned ahead. First, she made sure I had a present. The two of us took the bus into downtown, climbed the stairs of a seedy building to a second-floor jeweler to pick out a Star of David for a necklace. I remember sensing that having this symbol was a step towards being grown up – old enough to take on responsibility. She made it clear that it was my choice and I selected a small gold one with raised edges. I felt proud of my decision. Over subsequent years I wore it a lot and have it tucked away in my old jewelry pouch. From time to time I take it out and look at it – especially during the summer round of birthdays.
The second thing was that my parents sent my older brother to a camp for a week (he was not happy about this) so as not to have two kids to worry about while my dad was at work. A neighbor watched over me during the day but I didn’t like her, and tried to avoid her as much as possible. But mostly, I was insulted because I believed I was capable of taking care of myself. I could play with friends in the playground, go inside and make a sandwich, or rest if I got tired. I was annoyed that no one saw how competent I was. After all, my mother trusted me to pick out my own gift.
Often, I take long walks to figure out what I am trying to get at in my writings. This time, as I probed my spirit, I realized that my ramblings were not about sentimental longing or nostalgia for a simpler time. Nor were they about sadness for everything that has been lost between then and now, or even pleasure in all the good things that have happened. Most assuredly, they were about shaping my concept of who I am at my core.
I am always surprised when I recall my strong sense of competence at age seven, particularly because it took many years for this impression to re-emerge in my adulthood after being hidden for decades. Why it became concealed, I don’t know. Someday I will explore this but for now I only acknowledge that it faded away without a clear explanation.
More important is how I can use this memory to consider who I want to be as a mature adult. I don’t have any memories of caring what my sister was experiencing when she turned seven, probably because I was 14 and immersed in school, friends, and parties. I don’t think I was purposely callous. It was probably just that Paula and I were in vastly dissimilar worlds. Only now do I see that I missed really knowing who she was in her growing-up years.
This brings me back to Hannah. Because memories of my sense of myself are so powerful I wondered what she thought about herself at seven (and now eight). Does she have a good idea of who she is at this young age? I can watch and observe how she confronts the world but how much do I really understand her inner core? Right now, I cannot fully grasp her most intimate feelings. However, I do know that, whatever its shape, there is a depth of understanding and awareness within her. And, I comprehend how significant it is to respect it. When I am with her, I try to encourage a sense of self-worth, wanting her to sustain it, unbroken, over time. That is my gift to her for the past, for now, and for the future.
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