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My 60th birthday: a celebration in three acts

I guess the time has finally come to give the birthday festivities a rest. Who knew that turning 60 is like eating dessert in a Burgundian shrine to gastronomy—first the buttery, beautiful avant-dessert, compliments of the chef; then the impossibly exquisite confection you ordered (for which a team of sous-chefs have been sifting, sieving, hulling, beating and hovering since dawn), then the apres-dessert,petits-fours borne on a platter that would not be out of place at Versailles? Just when you think you can’t ingest another bite, along come the cookies, so ethereally pretty you’d swear they’d been created with an artist’s brush. And chocolates (house-made, bien sur), to sweeten the bill for all this thrilling decadence.

I’ve been bracing myself for the shock of turning 60 since…well, since I turned 59. I was going to let the day pass unremarked, to be followed by a quiet dinner a deux at which my husband and I would wear jeans and skip dessert. Then I learned that my birthday, October 20, more or less coincided with my sister Joyce’s visit to Toronto, where she’d be promoting her new novel Labor Day at the International Festival of Authors. A party seemed beshert, as our Yiddish-speaking grandmother would say (although we’ll have to hold it on October 22 to give Joyce time to arrive). “Leave the details to me,” my husband urged. Okay, dear, you’re on.

At my last birthday party, my mother was in charge and we dutifully played pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. Forty-nine years later, my husband and I started talking guest list, menu, flowers, music and venue (our downsized quarters would never hold this group, so we’d have to rent someplace airy and stylish). This was going to cost us as much as a wedding—only fair, since we took our vows at City Hall on October 20, 1970. My twenty-first birthday. Which means that my 60th birthday is also our 39th wedding anniversary. My husband quipped about a theme: “The 39 steps! Twelve were not enough!” And so, after a flurry of urgent consultations, the curtain rose on three days of merriment…

Act I: The look

Ditch skinflint notion of shopping in my closet for the big night. Pop into Accessity for something slinky and shiny to dress up silk pants I already own. Bond with Janice, who guides me to Miyake-esque sculptural topper and looks to be somewhere in her 60s but reassuringly cool in bold glasses, skin-tight top and leggings. Janice, you’re my fashion role model! Dress me! Out comes a wide cinch belt I can actually breathe in and a killer pair of black velvet jeans. “Let me pin those for you,” says Janice, instantly at my feet. Sudden yelp of agony: “O–o–ow! My arthritis!” Grab the stricken sales clerk under her arms, as if she were a broken life-size doll; picture her on a chiropractor’s table as we hunch in the change room, entwined. Enlist another pair of arms to get Janice, now pale and winded, to her feet. Hmmm…guess there is a downside to 60 after all.

Off to cosmetics counter for new lipstick and liner, plus bag of free goodies. Marvel at my cleverness in never paying for eye-makeup remover, which always comes with the freebies from a certain luxury brand. Oh, the secrets I’ve learned at 60! Reach for my credit card; realize I’ve left it at Accessity in a moment of mid-life distraction (please let me call it “mid-life” for just a titch longer). On my dash uptown to reclaim card, spot amazing sale at Kumari’s. Stock up on cashmere sweat pants the colour of spring tulips, birthday present from me to me. All told, a fine way to spend October 20.

Act II: The spirit

Lucky me: have ticket to IFOA gala featuring two splendid women, both undeniably old—Alice Munro, 78, and Diana Athill, almost 92. More good fortune: I’m going with Joyce, whose plane arrived in Toronto just in time for pre-gala dinner, and my friend Yvonne (with whom I danced in the aisles at a Dylan concertlast year). After much wine and laughter, claim seats high at the back where we look down on the stage like blissed-out goddesses as the two writers ponder the question “Does age bring wisdom?” No, they say. Then both add that in old age they worry less about what other people think. If that doesn’t qualify as wisdom, what does? Back at the bar, we drink to it.

Act III: The party

Breeze in at my most glamorous (thank you, Janice), feeling cheeky and fun-loving after exploring Leslieville’s funkier shops with Joyce (best way to get to know your city: share it with an out-of-towner). Inhale fragrance of roasting beef tenderloin and wild-rice-stuffed chicken cooked by hands more skilled than mine. Only task: greet family and friends from every phase of my life, all gathered tonight in this room. Grandbaby Cameron, beaming and chortling at six months, seems to think it’s his party! Well, why not?

Most surprising entrance: one guest, just returned from Britain, arrives straight from the airport (that’s loyalty). Most disarming moment: two people who’ve been at odds for years decide to put the rift behind them. Best gift, since I have said, “No presents:” the funny and heartfelt speeches by people who have known me for decades. Hey, I could get used to this!

How can three hours fly by so fast? How can it take so little time to strip the bar, pack up leftovers, dismantle tables? One final surprise: Joyce has ignored the “no presents” rule. Hands me a package creased from being schlepped all day in a corner of her tote bag. What’s this? The pink terry-cloth pig I admired at a children’s store in Leslieville. Those floppy striped limbs! That quizzical expression! I love this guy! No wonder Joyce has bought his twin for herself. He comes with strict instructions: “You are not to give this to Cameron.” Not a chance! Just because I’m 60 doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten how to play.

Epilogue: The recovery

Too buzzed to sleep. Get up twice in the night to read a few more pages of The Children’s Book. Decide insomnia isn’t so bad if I get to commune with A.S. Byatt. Nod off eventually only to stagger out of bed at the usual time, thinking of deadlines and projects. The hell with all that! It’s still my birthday, almost. Might as well take another day off.


Posted by Rona

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