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Friday, November 21 2014 11:22

How often have you been to a birthday party where the gifts were given by the person whose birthday it was? That had never happened to me until last week.

All of us guests, some thirty in number, had gathered in the clubhouse of a Boston-area apartment building.

Most of us were in later life, me especially. (I’ve gotten used to that age dominance by now.)

  Like the other guests, my wife Susan and I each came home with a present. And we did so after hearing ourselves praised by Rachelle, the person we had come to celebrate.   

We had been told in advance not to bring any presents. To do so would have violated our friend’s main purpose.

But we were allowed to bring poems, pictures, and memories.  One woman brought down the house early on by her lively reading of Lewis Carroll’s “Father William.” Another guest, a law school professor, was persuaded to sing a hilarious and highly technical ditty that he had composed to make fun of Wall Street entrepreneurs.

Another friend brought a collection of writings Rachelle had done for the Catholic Worker, a publication dear to her from way back.

Rachelle gave gifts to each of her guests by presenting to each one something that reminded her of us. Most of the gifts were books judged appropriate by the giver.

She went around the room and introduced each friend, recalling what that person had meant to her. When spouses were present, she celebrated them as individuals. Susan and I loved our books.

But not all the gifts were books.  One was a valued plate which had belonged to Rachelle’s grandmother long ago. Another was a shawl, a gift received from one dear friend and later given to another.

Each gift seemed to be a natural choice, offered thoughtfully and accepted with delight.

 Spirits were high throughout. But neither wine nor beer made us joyful.  Instead, our hostess embraced each of us more than once, hugs that felt better than strong drinks.

Though all of us were friends of Rachelle, we did not all know one another.  But her gifts, as the dear friend to everyone there, provided for easy conversation.  Faith was a recurring theme. I admired the close rapport she created between Jewish people, Christians, and those of other faiths or none.

 My motive, behind sharing this one birthday party, is to celebrate the value of friendship among people of various ages. Rachelle was celebrating her sixty-five years with creative distinction. 

Her tactics are beautiful: she reaches out to people of all ages and carefully brings them into her varied circles of friendship. Her actions during the party demonstrated to me how effectively she celebrates the lives of others.

That’s what this gathering meant to me.  I came away spiritually enlivened.  Whatever inner problems are mine, this helped relieve them.

Soon after learning this way of observing a birthday, I discovered that America is not the only place it may be done. My friend Jerry Russo has told me about once celebrating his birthday on a small Greek island. 

There he was expecting to be feted by his neighbors.  To his surprise, however, he discovered that they were prepared to be treated by him. So he invited them to a local  “taverna” and everyone had a memorable time of it.

 It’s too bad, Jerry, a fine photographer, could not now display celebrating, with himself as leader. I would enjoy seeing the folks of a far-off place enjoying the special day of a welcomed visitor.

Perhaps I should look toward to my next birthday differently. August is far enough away to let me plan for gifts given to family, friends, and neighbors.