Happy Birthday, Barb
By: Casey Gauntt and Brittany and Ryan Kirby
On Saturday, July 28, 2012, I was in the garage of our house in Solana Beach sifting through boxes of some of my mother’s things we had recently brought over from her house in Encinitas. I was specifically looking for some photographs of my mother to display the next day at a small gathering of family and friends at the beach in Del Mar to celebrate my Mom’s life and her 91st birthday. Mom had made it very clear before she began her next journey on June 11 what she didn’t want.
“I don’t want a funeral or any sort of memorial service. I want to be cremated and no fuss over the ashes. I’d prefer that you do nothing.” And she punctuated all that with ‘the look’ that meant she was absolutely serious.
Now that might seem a little strange or cold, but not for her family. When her mother, Henrietta, literally dropped dead from a heart attack at the age of 78, and her dad, Vern, joined his wife 18 months later after a brief and futile fight with pancreatic cancer, there was nothing—no services, no gatherings of family or celebrations of life, as they are now popularly referred to—no toasts. Nothing. Moving on. The bookends on that particular shelf of my mother’s life were the pathetically sad assembly of those few lost souls who showed up on December 24, 1970 at the Presbyterian Church in Itasca, Illinois in search of something—anything—that might erase some of the pain or provide a handhold in the aftermath of her husband Grover’s suicide three days earlier—it didn’t—and, 38 years later, as the 1,000 crushed and shattered assembled inside the Mandeville Auditorium on the UCSD campus in La Jolla, California to mourn the death of her 24 year old grandson, Jimmy.
I contemplated a compromise. We had thrown her a party at the Del Mar Turf Club last year for her 90th birthday. Mom loved the ponies and she had an absolute blast. After her first fall in December, we had floated the prospect of having a reprise of that celebration for her 91st birthday, and hoped that might be a carrot for her and us. Although she fought mightily, by the beginning of June, a few days before she died, she knew that, unfortunately, she was not going to finish that race. That’s when I asked her.
“What if we have a birthday party for you? Laura and her family are already planning to be here from Switzerland. Just a few friends and family. Would that be OK?”
She thought about it for a few seconds and then, with a wry smile, said “I suppose that would be alright.”
Mom passed away peacefully in the late afternoon of June 11. Hilary and I were by her side, holding her hands and talking to her as she began her next journey.
On my second pass through the boxes, I stumbled upon a 5” by 7” brightly colored cloth frame sitting on top of some photo albums. Behind a smudged pane of glass was something that had been written with one of the old-style ribbon typewriters. I briefly wondered how I had previously missed it. I began reading and was crying before I finished.
For Barbara———-July 29, 1955
We have a daughter fair and good
Who acts as every daughter should
A joy she’s been in every way
To us her parents old and gray.
We wouldn’t trade our interest there
For gold or fame or jewels rare
Her birthdays now are thirty-four
She has our love forevermore.
Now buy some shoes with this small check
Have fun be gay so what-the-heck
Life is for living says your mother
Your Dad your mate your sons your brother.
A great big kiss a great big hug
While parents’ hearts do feel a tug
To bring you near on this birthday
A fortune we would gladly pay.
Though you are there and we are here
We know you well and have no fear
For love does triumph over miles
A joyous day dear Barb with Smiles.
—Mother and Daddy
Barb’s mother, Henrietta, had written this birthday wish for her daughter’s 34th birthday—57 years earlier. She and Vern were living in the Chicago suburb of Keeneyville, Illinois where they had recently relocated themselves and Case Foundation Company from Los Angeles. In July of 1955 Barb and her brood—my brother G.G. and me—were living in the Los Angeles suburb of West Covina where Dad was trying to make a go of it on his own in the housing business. Within a few months he would pull up stakes, move us to Itasca and, with hat in hand, go back to work for Vern Case and Case Foundation.
Henrietta was a talented and prolific writer of poems, short stories and even a book that Mom told me “she threw away before she would let anyone read.” I had seen alot of my grandmother’s work, but I’d never laid eyes on this piece. Not only was I struck by the shear serendipity of discovering this nugget on the eve of Mom’s 91st birthday, I was absolutely transfixed by the way Henrietta, particularly in her last verse, seems to be speaking in the present, right now, to her daughter and to those of us “there” who will be celebrating her daughter’s birthday. Henrietta was a philosopher and a profoundly deep thinker and her words “have no fear for love does triumph over miles” struck me as conveying so much more than simply the distance between Chicago and Los Angeles.
When I finished reading Henrietta’s poem, goose bumps coursed through my body—just as they had done after I got the call from Emily Sue Buckberry and she told me about the letter from my Dad she’d been safekeeping the last 40 years.
I read Henrietta’s birthday poem to the 35 family and friends assembled on Sunday afternoon at the beach house in Del Mar that our dear friends, Dana and Steve Gabriel, once again, so graciously let us use. My reading was punctuated with sobs of joy and wonder—mine and those of others—of what had been shared with us, and the timing of it all. A mother, here, sending a birthday wish to her daughter, there, as loving, affectionate and caring right now as it was 57 years ago. Here. There. I tried to express what has become an ever more clear reality for our family that there seems to be little difference or distinction between the two. “We are here and Mom, Jimmy, Dad, Henrietta, Vern and others close to us who have passed are there” as I pointed to a place inches from where I was standing. “They are right there. They are right there and with us here.”
Another message turned up two days before Mom’s birthday celebration. This one via the regular old U.S. mail from Pat Nottke who lives in Barrington, Illinois just a few miles from Itasca. Pat was a neighbor and one of the first people Barb met when we moved to Itasca in 1956, and they became and remained deeply close friends for the next 56 years. Pat is 92 and, although she could not attend Barb’s memorial in person—sorry, I meant birthday—she asked if I would read something that she enclosed. It was another poem, this one by A. K. Rowswell, entitled Should You Go First. I shared the last stanza.
Should you go first and I remain
One thing I’d have you do
Walk slowly down that long, lone path
For soon I’ll follow you
I’ll want to know each step you take
That I may walk the same
For some day down that lonely road
You’ll hear me call your name.
I also didn’t make it through this reading without breaking down. The image of Pat longing and calling for her old friend tugged hard at our hearts. However, there was one thing that didn’t sound right to me. I told the gathered revelers I didn’t believe my Mom’s road was lonely. “In fact, I don’t think she is on a road at all.”
I told them about a dream I had of my Mom three years ago—a dream about her after she died. I know—but remember Henrietta’s words “love does triumph over miles”—and perhaps time, too. Anyway, in my dream I’m with my spirit guide, Indian George, a real life 60s something weathered Yaqui Indian Hilary and I had met in Sedona in 2009 a couple of days before the dream. In the dream George had taken me through a portal of some sort—a razor thin pane of heavy shimmering air. On the other side were deeply forested mountains and at the top of one of them was a low slung resort made of the finest redwood logs. I entered alone and walked through a dark lobby into a neighboring brightly lit room. Inside were several women lounging on sofas and overstuffed chairs playing cards around an equally fine and glossy finished redwood table. There was quite a buzz in the room. Everyone was talking, laughing and having a grand time. As I entered the room one of the women, an immaculately coiffed redhead with a cigarette nestled between the fingers of her right hand, cards in her left, and seated with her back to me, turned around and met my eyes with instant recognition and love. It was my mother. She was young—in her forties—elegantly dressed and impeccably coiffed. She gave me a warm, knowing, smile and, without saying a word to me, turned around and went back to talking and playing cards with her friends.
‘A joyous day dear Barb with Smiles.
And I have no doubt Mom is keeping a seat at the table warm for her good friend, Pat.
The birthday party broke up shortly after a spectacular sunset, the kind where the sun expands and morphs into a huge blood-red atomic bomb-like mushroom cloud as it refracts, explodes and melts heavily below the horizon. As Brittany, Ryan and Wyatt were saying goodbye, Brittany, somewhat jokingly, said to me:
“It is so bizarre that only yesterday you found that poem Barb’s mom wrote for her on her birthday all those years ago—sitting in a box. Maybe when I get home I’ll rummage around and see if anything pops out.”
I laughed, knowing exactly what she meant. It was almost four years ago, now. I said something like, “Yeah, you do that—you never know,” and didn’t give it another thought.
That is, until two days later.
The next evening, a Monday, the Buties, Kirbys and my brother, Grover (fka G.G.), came over to our house for dinner. We talked about Mom, the birthday celebration and how wonderful the whole day had been. Brittany took Wyatt home to put him to bed around 8, and Ryan, who had driven separately straight from work left about an hour later.
I’ll now turn the story over to Ryan as for what happened next.
Happy Birthday, Barb
By: Ryan Kirby
When I got home Monday evening from dinner at the Gauntts, Britt was in bed watching TV looking really sleepy. She was wearing one of Barb’s pajama gowns—honest—and she looked so pretty, I even said so! Anyhow, we talked a lot about Barb, and about Hilary and Casey and the Buties, and how nice these past two days have been, to see everyone and all. But how strange too—Jimmy four years ago—like deja vu all over again in weird ways, and sad obviously, but better too. Then we talked about what a great event Sunday was and how much wonderful effort went into and how it was pure Barb. We talked about what Hilary and Casey, Grover and Laura said and how proud Barb must of been.
I walked over to the kitchen and fished out a bunch of documents I had to read before bed in preparation for a meeting in the morning. I always grab my trusty Torrey Pines Lodge pen for this task, but tonight I didn’t, and I consciously didn’t, but didn’t know why. I then went over to the bed and pulled the wrong drawer on my nightstand. It’s kind of a secret drawer, or supposed to be discreet—I don’t know. The point is it was the wrong drawer; one I never open. I found one pen in there but it was busted. I saw another, and when I pulled the drawer open further to get at it— right at the moment Britt was talking about her dear old Dad and how wonderful a son he is, and how she hopes one of our boys will love her for 62 years and take care of her like her Dad did for his mom, Grandma Barbie—that darn thin drawer fell out right onto the floor from my pulling.
I picked up what little was in there, and lo, there were about ten pictures. They were mostly of little baby Wyatt, infant Wyatt, but the one staring back at me was of Casey holding his three month old grandson feeding him his bottle. I took the photo and toss it at Britt, and say, “are you ready for this again?”
Of course I’m referring to six months pregnant Brittany, another baby boy on the way and a bottle. She laughs. Says how cute little Wy is, how small he is, particularly in his Pa’s arms. I put the drawer back in, get in bed with my legal papers and a working pen.
On the back of the photo, in Barb’s writing, with her ubiquitous red pen, is the date: July 29, 2010.
The picture was taken by Barb—her view—this precious snap shot with one of those classic Kodak disposable cameras she always toted around—a photo of her son and her great-grandson taken on her, matriarch Barb’s, birthday two years ago.
Her son Casey sitting on the couch with his grandson in his arms in his house where we were celebrating Barb that night—a very spry and vibrant Barb on her 89th birthday. In the window behind Casey and Wyatt is the ocean at dusk, and imposed on it in a single solitary flash of light, positioned right on the horizon like a star or setting sun, is the flash bulb pop that is the reflection of Barb—an orb of brilliant white light.
And to think, in all this modern digital mess, no one our age gets prints anymore, or at least rarely prints them—but not Barb! She would always send along her disposable camera work with a loving note of thanks and gratitude for including her in the festivities, even when it was her own birthday. And lo of all the ones we kept, to find this one, now!—two years later on the dot. Here, she still is. Very cool indeed.
Another message waiting patiently in a box for so many years turns up just in time for one more birthday celebration for a recently departed—this time Barb—and Brittany and Ryan rummage around their house only to uncover, yet again, a birthday gift from the guest of honor.
And Brittany called it!
I won’t even try to explain this.
I’ll just smile.