"Is this Carol?" said the voice with the familiar Bucks County twang. "You used to write for the Courier?" It was a man named Dave Marturana, of Newtown, Pa. He remembered me from my years writing a weekly column for the BucksCounty Courier Times. He found me, long distance, in Manchester, NH, where I've been living and working for the past decade.
He had a story to tell me, and I'm still a sucker for a good story.
"Do you remember writing something called 'Happy Birthday, my Beloved"?
I still had one eye on the TV as I sifted through my unreliable memory banks.
"Well, I wrote a lot of stories in my life, Dave," I said. "Can you give me a little more to go on?"
He said it was something I'd written on the occasion of my daughter's 21st birthday.
"That makes sense, because I have a daughter named Aimee, and Aimee means 'beloved' in French, so yeah, I'm sure I did write something like that," I said, moving into the kitchen for a quiet space.
"Right. I know that because I also have a daughter, Amy, only we spelled it differently," Dave said. "When you wrote that story it really touched my wife. She cut it out and saved it so she could give it to our daughter on her 21st birthday. She said it really captured everything she felt about motherhood, and expressed all the things she wanted to say to our daughter when she turned 21."
I was really starting to like Dave.
"Aw, that's so cool," I said, still wondering why someonewould travel across 10 years and 350 miles of airwaves to remind me that I have a way with words. "In fact, our Amy is going to be 21 on Thursday," and as Dave went on, I did the mental math, concluding that I must have written that column back in 1997.
"My wife actually has the same birthday as our daughter. Unfortunately, she died a few months ago," said Dave, collapsing my ability to subtract in my head or wallow in the glory of my lingering fame as a memorable columnist for my hometown paper.
"Oh Dave, I'm so sorry," I heard myself saying, still not sure where we were going.
Then he explained how he'd come across the yellowed newspaper clipping in a box of stuff he had been sifting through, things left behind by the woman he'd married not long after meeting her back in 1981, on the job at Betz Laboratories. She was a lab technicianand he was an engineer.
"I was going to throw it away. My wife was a real collector. But then I started reading it, and it was like, 'Oh my god, I remember when she cut this out, and why she cut it out. I have got to give it to Amy for her birthday. I've got to do what her mother intended to do with it ."
At this point Dave didn't really need to finish his story. My mind had already raced ahead. I knew exactly why he'd called me.
"My wife had also bought a birthday card ahead of time -- that was Joan -- and it was in the box, next to the clipping," said Dave. I couldn't say anything. My heart was in my throat and tears were taking me over.
"Anyway, the reason I'm calling is just because I wanted you to know how much it meant to my wife, how much it means to me that, even though Joan can't be here for Amy's birthday, I have this to give her, a last gift from her mother."
Dave told me that in a couple days he was going to drive to Syracuse University, where his daughter is a journalism student, and hand deliver the card. I learned that Joan Marturana was only 55 when she died on Valentine's Day, just two years after her cancer diagnosis. She also left behind a son, 23.
I thanked Dave again for finding me, and we hung up.
Now, I needed to know what it was that I had written about motherhood that was so important. My own four kids are mostly grown now. Yet, after 34 years in the trenches, I still find myself questioning my ability to get it right. I knew my old Courier Times clips were in a shoebox in the basement. Despite my disorganized attitude toward most everything, I had filed the little manila envelopes chronologically before stashing them, which made it easy to find the one marked September 1997. I unfolded my own yellowed copy of the column that, turns out, was a letter to myself. I read it and cried again -- not just for Joan, but for all the moms still in the trenches, who are never quite sure if they're getting it right.
And so, with permission from my former editor, Pat Walker, I'm sharing Dave's story -- and that old column, which seems like a fitting Mother's Day tribute for Joan Marturana, who couldn't be here this year to soak up the love and gratitude from the family that must somehow find the strength to go on, without her.
Happy Birthday, My Beloved
If only I'd known then what I know now, I could've written myself this letter 21 years ago and saved myself a lot of guesswork, not to mention guilt:
September 12, 1976
Dear Carol: It's a girl! But then, you knew she would be, somehow, didn't you?
First things first: Stop looking, because there's no owner's manual, no deposit, no return and no money-back guarantee. But don't worry: You'll soon learn by experience that everyone else has advice for improving your mothering skills -- from how often you hold and feed her, to when to start solid food and introduce her to Mr. Potty.
Ignore most of it.
Remember, you're her one and only mother. In the end, you're the one she will thank or blame, no matter who steered you right or wrong.
Pick a name that seems to suit her. It should be meaningful and, hopefully, pay tribute to someone special in your life. Something like Aimee Jeanne -- Aimee because it means 'beloved;' Jeanne, for your sister who, with any luck, she will grow up to favor.
Now, let the fun begin with your first bonding moment. Take her gently, apprehensively into your arms and size her up. Make sure you hold her firmly by her fragile pink blanketed body and kiss her no less than 10 times, covering cheeks, mouth, nose and forehead thoroughly. She will instinctively root around for anything that feels like a food source. It's OK -- let her gorge herself on your chin. It's a phase that won't last long enough.
When no one's looking, check for digits -- 10 extraordinarily long fingers, 10 incredible toes. Then, take off all that hospital garb and open up that diaper. See for yourself what a full-bodied miracle looks like at close range. This would be a good time to thank God for your perfect, wondrous child -- and let Him know He's officially on call until further notice.
The next year will be hectic. You'll spend most of your spare time informing your friends and relatives of how truly gifted she is. They'll want to know about all her firsts. First burp, first smile, first solid food, first saliva bubble, first unintelligible babble. Write everything down in her baby book. Believe it or not, you'll forget the particulars.
Also, you'll need no less than one roll of camera film per week. It's an expensive habit, but there's just no other way for you to capture every average, expressionless moment for posterity.
In two short years you'll learn the difference between spirited and spoiled. The definition of discipline will become suddenly, strangely ambiguous. She'll destroy every theory on child rearing you subscribed to in your childless years. Fasten your seatbelt.
At 5 she'll impress you with her maturity on the first day of kindergarten. She'll baffle you a week later when she buries her head in your lap, begging you not to make her go back.
Make her go.
You'll cry through her first band concert, the melody of "Hot Cross Buns" barely recognizable above the din of squeaks, toots and misplaced quarter notes. But that's not what prompts your tears. It's the way she's straining to find your face in the sea of parents. It's the self-satisfied smile she flashes during the roar of the crowd. it's the indelible song she's given you that will resonate on your heart strings for life.
And just when you think you're handling things pretty well, puberty strikes. For the next five years nothing will look familiar, from her hairstyle to her bedroom decor. Though you swore things would be different between your daughter and you, suddenly uncomfortably familiar one-liners are spilling forth from your gut. Once you catch your breath, you'll despise the sound of your words as much as you did the first time you heard them -- when your mother spoke them to adolescent you.
But you'll survive.
Go ahead -- enjoy her youthful spirit. Marvel as she overcomes the pain of growing -- her first romantic heartbreak, her bad hair days, her bad decision days, the days you wonder if she'll ever straighten up and fly right.
Then comes graduation. As your daughter walks the walk, clutching a delicate rosebud, you'll have trouble holding back your tears. It's everything -- the road you've traveled, the road ahead. It's more a beginning than an end -- and yet, it's not easy to watch her so ready to sprout wings and fly off, direction unknown.
All it not lost, though, because at 18 she's still your woman-child. Out more than in, her phone messages pile up faster than her laundry. Don't take it personally. Shes' just preparing you for adulthood. Hers.
And 21 will come with no mercy. Now, your job is done. It's time for the final, selfless act of motherhood: Accept her for who she is. Forgive yourself for the things you could've donebetter. Love herunconditionally. Find thestrength to gently, apprehensively, let her go.
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