My father was 30 when I was born, a nice round number that should make it easy to say where he was and what I was doing when he was my present age. Yet I struggle with the math and have to do it anew every time I compare us. And the past is murky. Mine is clear enough, but my father at my present age is mysterious. I wasn’t paying attention, though wish I had been.
This week, on Halloween, my son turned 21, a number that sneaked up on me and might have sneaked up on my father as well, though he had seen three children hit 21 before I arrived at that milestone. By the time I turned 21, my father had watched five children leave home for college. Three were already working, financially independent and well gone. I understand now what relief he might have felt, and how empty the house must have seemed, and how it must have felt to be nearing the end of that part of his life.
His father, my grandfather, was my present age—54—when my father was born. My grandfather and his wife started late, and my father arrived as the last of five brothers. The first died in the flu epidemic of 1917, one dropped from the sky in World War II, and only three lived when my father reached my present age. I don’t know if they were close, whether they talked, whether they shared the sense of time fleeing, whether they missed their father or barely thought of him.
I didn’t really talk to my son on his birthday. I sent him a text: “Welcome to your majority, Mr. Marshall.” He sent a couple of confused texts back, and I had to explain the legal meaning of “majority” (one who’s no longer a minor, eligible for inheritance and full legal rights) and why he was “Mister” instead of “Master.” The exchange was much too complicated, and I’m sure he didn’t care much. I understand.
My father would have been my last thought at 21. With so much ahead, I barely looked back, and, though I felt considerable affection for my father, I barely knew him. I sometimes wonder if my son feels he knows me. I wonder if he wants to know me more, as I wish I might know my father more. My son’s life is so exciting, and mine not, really. Just as, when I was in college, I groaned inwardly when my mother passed the phone. What could my father have to say—what really changed in his life?
My grandfather, 84 the year I was born, hardly seems real at all except that my younger brother requested his records from college, and I’ve seen his immaculate handwriting clinging to the lines of his college application. He graduated in 1898.
My son will graduate in 2014, 116 years after my grandfather. Sometimes our generations seem to swim in different dimensions, my grandfather, my father, my son, and me. We meet in shadowy overlaps, layers of future and past that seldom accommodate the present. I often feel the urge to tell my son about his future, but then it seems as futile as telling my father, dead since 1993, about his past. We only understand where we are. Maybe that’s right.
This weekend I intend to call my son, ask about his birthday celebration and bridge gaping time and place again. I remember my own 21st birthday, not as though it were yesterday, but as though it still matters, and I hope I’ll be able to tell my son so. We do so much these days that reaching birthdays hardly counts, but they do count. They are more time together, and, even if we are not exactly together, years layer like pages of a book bigger than any of us.
They are the lives all of us have, do, and will lead. They are all of us, even if in our own time, living.