for my father’s 90th birthday and why it mattered

July 24, 2014

… was a black cocktail dress with spaghetti straps, a chiffon shrug, my mother’s gold bling and a sixties updo.

The party was in a function room at the Sheraton in Weehawken, New Jersey, where the Hudson River laps gently against the edge of the parking lot. The birthday boy himself drove us there from the Hoboken apartment. It was a six minute trip in his Toyota people mover but all told it had taken a lot longer than that for me. There was a transatlantic flight. There was the task of packing for a multi-faceted trip, one that encompassed festivity, work and the pea soup heat of a New York summer. The pug and all her meds had to be temporarily disposed of, there was that to do, and all those zero hour chores — bills, calls, lists –to check off before double locking the front door of the Cambridge house and climbing into a waiting cab.

You’d think I’d have the whole business down to a science by now.

The problem, of course, the self-imposed stress factor, is in the packing. My friend Claire — another American based in Britain – says I pack like a Victorian spinster on the brink of a perilous sea voyage.

She may be right. It’s not as if I seal the lid of my perfume bottles with wax or sew my money into the stays of a corset, but I do approach each trip as if it’s my last, a journey into the unknown and exotic.

And we’re talking flying over to New Jersey.

Even so, and even now, 20 years after moving to Britain, two decades of going back and forth, each trip seems terribly important, the distance vast, the differences even vaster. The process of readying myself for these visits is an acknowledgement of how important they are, these occasions that bring me back to what was once my home. And, the last ten years or so, the particulars behind these jaunts, the defining elements, have been momentous, tied in with all the big stuff: illness, death, marriage. (I can’t remember a time I came over just to bop around.) Given that, the weight and attention I accord to packing, the time spent pondering what to wear when, makes a certain amount of sense: I’m suiting up for ritual and ceremony, a process that demands more than just tossing a cardie and a pair of jeans into a carry-on bag.

This trip the occasion was joyful. My father’s 90th. There were close to 120 of us in the Sheraton function room and the dance floor was packed. The D.J., a sedate middle-aged man, played dreamy standards from the 30’s and 40’s, jazzing it up every now and then with a little something from The Platters. There were toasts and a master of ceremonies. The mood was mellow and affectionate, the average age 70. I drank far too much vodka and discovered my friend Tom was a wonderful dancer. It was the nicest party I’d attended in years and the black cocktail dress and chiffon shrug were absolutely right. I had packed well.

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7 Responses to “for my father’s 90th birthday and why it mattered”

  1. Dennis Hagler Says:

    Likewise, the packing is the most stressful part of the trip for me. Just came back from a two week trip to Pittsburg to visit Kendall and Raymond. After 48 years of friendship the love we have for each other, and for you, and the others who have played a part in out lives, is precious and palpable. (Blue jeans and a black top from Lahinch, Ireland.)


  2. michelle i so so relate to this – as you know Im sure… wonderful – tiny typo in the para re pondering what to ‘where’ when….
    think you should turn these into a book…its time.

  3. Megan Says:

    Great post! I’m totally with you on the extensive packing required for the trips to the U.S. Although my packing is still mostly focused on how-much-British-stuff-can-I-bring-back-to-the-U.S. and how-much-American-stuff-can-I-bring-back-to-England. 🙂

  4. Nancy Says:

    At this very minute, as I read your latest entry, I’m avoiding packing my own suitcase. I hate to pack, and usually stay up the whole night before a trip worrying about what to bring. I tumble onto the plane, needlessly exhausted from lack of sleep. Hope you read this, Michelle, because tomorrow night you’ll be able to see my bathroom light on when we’re back in Cambridge.

  5. Tay Says:

    It was great to read about packing woes. We are in salt lake to visit Sydney Andy her tribe. I had everything ready to pack but several things I thought I had did not make it into the suitcase. I need to sound a bit more time on the packing.

  6. linda Says:

    Sounds more fun than my Mum’s 100th. But she wasn’t sure who anyone was, and of course had no one of her own generation there – all dead which is rather grim. Very much enjoyed your justification for taking so much trouble over the packing – the ‘big stuff’ trips..
    Great read
    Linda F

  7. Tabitha Says:

    Sounds like the best kind of ritual/ceremony – glad it was so joyful

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