Cedar and Pearl


By John Piotti | Mar 01, 2016

I recently turned 55.

I don't generally think much about birthdays, but I had been anticipating this one for years.

The reason had nothing to do with how I will always think of 55 as the federal highway speed. (Susan repeatedly joked that, with this birthday, I had reached the speed limit.) Nor was this birthday important because I'm now eligible to be a member of the American Association of Retired Persons. (My AARP card arrived in the mail a few days before the big event: I’ve not yet paid the fee and activated the card — and doubt that I will.)

No, for me, the date was important because of my father, who lived from 1917 to 1972. At 55, I would be the same age as my father when he died — or, to be blunt, the same age as when he was murdered. In 1972, my father’s shop was held up, and he was stabbed to death — leaving being a wife and five kids. I was the youngest, and the only boy.

My father’s sudden death when I was 11 was a turning point in my life. It is also the point from which I measure where I now stand. How much have I grown since then? How you much have I changed?

At age 11, I was a pudgy and shy, observant and smart. In some ways, I haven't changed much. I’m still 15 pounds overweight — but today, for a man my age, that’s practically unnoticed. And though I’m still naturally shy, few people see it, because I’ve learned to work through that, learned to show up and speak up, even where I’m uncomfortable, because I’ve seen how our world rewards those who do.

And in that lies a primary way that I have changed.

A few years after my father’s death, I was still far from healed. I still thought of him constantly, and the thoughts generally saddened me. Yet about the time I entered high school, I made a conscious decision that I was no longer going to be so sad or so quiet. I decided I’d make a concerted effort to make my own happiness, to rise above my sorrow and my solitude.

It was hard to do. But by and large, the strategy worked.

I look at my life and I see that I've been incredibly fortunate in so many ways. I’m blessed with a loving family, great friends, fine health, a sharp mind, a successful career, and so much more. It will sound odd to some readers, but I can’t even separate my feelings of good fortune from my father’s death. That’s because I feel that I have a wonderful life, and yet my dad’s death in many ways defines my life.

All these years later, I still think of my father every day. Yet now, the memories are all good. Even the memories of the day he died are good, because they are memories of him.

For ages, I thought it would be a big deal to finally be the same age as my dad when he died. In my youth, I think it was all about telling myself that, by then, I would finally be grown-up, and maybe, finally over his death. Now I know I'll never be over my father’s death and that's fine, maybe even good. What isn't good is that, in recent years, I think I’ve come to view my 55th birthday as a time when I would truly be old, because I would have outlived my father.

Yet I messed up. Completely! For over 40 years now, for some reason, I had 55 in my head. Yet my father was born in November 1917 and died in May 1972. He died at age 54, not 55.

I become 54 over a year ago. And six months after that, I had reached the exact same age he was on the day he died (which I’ve now calculated accurately, at 54 years, 174 days).

So, here was a milestone I had been anticipating for years — and I sped by it without even noticing. I only ran the numbers in my head on my recent birthday. I can’t say why I hadn't done so years before; but I never did.

Yet in a way, I'm glad I missed this milestone. Though I was focused on it for years, I now see how I conceived it at a time when I was profoundly sad and couldn’t even think clearly enough to do simple math, and then I continued to focus on it for years later for no good reason.

Unlike my 55th birthday, there is an important family milestone that’s fast approaching: my mother is about to turn 96 years old. Now, there is a birthday worth celebrating!

My mother is an amazing woman on many levels, including how she has lived with such courage and compassion. At 96, she has good days and bad, but she is seldom in poor spirits.

The family will soon gather at our house at the corner of Cedar and Pearl Streets, for a party that I suspect will be remembered, at least in part, by the number of birthday pies — including one variety of pie that is new to many of us.

My sister Kathryn is attempting to make a lemon sponge pie. Lemon sponge is not part of the Piotti Family’s pie repertoire, but it was a favorite of my mother's in her youth. Kathryn found an old recipe and is giving it a try.

The youngest celebrant at the party will be my great-nephew, Isaac, who I expect to see covered in pie. In a few weeks it will be his first birthday, and at that party, I expect he’ll be covered in ice cream.

Isaac’s parents have just recently moved back to Maine after several years on the West Coast, and this will be the first time my mother (or Susan and I) will have seen them since last summer.

How cool, to have my mother and Isaac there together, separated in age by 95 years.

That seems to be a far greater reason to celebrate than receiving my AARP card or reflecting in some perverse way about how my life is running its course. My mother and Isaac clearly demonstrate that although I've come a long way, I have much further to go.

John Piotti of Unity runs Maine Farmland Trust. His column “Cedar and Pearl” appears every other week.

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