Each year for as long as I can remember, I would receive a birthday card from my Aunt Charlotte.
It didn’t matter where I was in the world – that card always came.
While other aunts lived in nice suburban houses with picket fences and bay windows, Aunt Charlotte lived in the city – New York City to be more specific. My first memory of visiting her was when, at four years old, my parents took me to the World’s Fair. At that time Aunt Charlotte lived in the heart of the Bronx, a place as foreign to me as Pakistan was to her.
In early years of living overseas, when we would travel by boat, Aunt Charlotte and Uncle Les would accompany our family to the New York City Harbor. Aunt Charlotte would bring goody bags for each of us kids – a treat to open each day of the journey. It was magical. There were hugs and kisses and more hugs and more kisses. Then, under the watchful eye of Lady Liberty, they would stand and wave goodbye. We would watch until they were only small specks against a massive horizon.
It was during a hot summer in July that I first got to experience city life with Aunt Charlotte. At this point, she had moved to Brooklyn and my cousin Judi and I were invited to spend two weeks in the city. I was sixteen years old, in the midst of the angst of adolesence made more difficult because of a strong personality and trying to unsuccessfully negotiate a life lived between.
While my aunt and uncle worked during the day, Judi and I explored the neighborhood by timidly venturing to a local McDonalds, only to come quickly back and sit on a rooftop eating burgers and drinking milkshakes, trying not to be overwhelmed. We walked on streets steaming with the smell of hot tar to a city pool, cooling ourselves in sparkling blue water that was crowded with kids, all on summer break. We ate icecream and red jello, and Aunt Charlotte spoiled us with treats.
Aunt Charlotte was and is a city girl through and through. Nothing scares her about the city. She traverses subways and streets – going to work, shopping, meeting friends, exploring. Though raised in the small Massachusetts town of Winchendon, she has a city savvy that I envied when I was younger, and emulated when I was older. Though small towns can be wonderful, Winchendon was too small for Aunt Charlotte – she needed a city.
And through all those years, those years where she lived on busy New York streets, and I lived in cities around the world, those birthday cards would come. I would open our mailbox and smile, knowing immediately who the card was from as I saw her characteristic handwriting on the envelope.
Perhaps it is only as we age that we realize the worth of these simple acts. For it is now that I realize the great gift of those birthday cards. They were never fancy, that wasn’t the point. They were more than cardstock and picture, more than sweet sentiment. They were the gift of recognition; the acknowledgement of a person’s worth. Simple cards that radiated the sentiment “I’m glad you were born. I’m glad you exist.”
Today is my Aunt Charlotte’s birthday and I did not send her a card. I wish I had. I wish I had taken a fraction of the time that she took all those years, writing out those simple words “Happy Birthday,” licking a stamp, walking to a city mailbox that says “Pick-up – 1:00 pm” and dropping it inside. It is my daughter Stefanie who seems to have inherited this gift, who has the ability to create cards and send them, letting people know she is glad they exist.
As for me? Instead I write, thinking and hoping that perhaps this can serve as my birthday card to her, my acknowledgement of her worth.
So Aunt Charlotte, I wish you a Happy Birthday. I’m glad you were born. I’m glad you exist. And thank you – thank you for all those cards, your love letter to your nieces and nephews.