See, today would have been her sixty-second birthday. She passed away a year ago last September after a valiant battle with cancer. It was a tragic end to a great woman. But this great woman loved her birthdays like not too many people I know.
December fifteenth was always a big day in the Johnson household. My aunt was the third of three children, which meant that she always had to share almost everything growing up ...
Everything except her birthday.
For many years I had renewed her subscription to Cat Fancy magazine. She was known in certain circles as "Catlady J." and it seemed only appropriate that if I got Guitar Player Magazine being a guitar player, that she get her interest-appropriate magazine every month. Some people are hard to buy for; my aunt, not so much.
My mother would always find something nice for her, as well as taking her out for a semi-expensive meal (made extra delicious by way of a 2-for-one coupon, per her wishes). Her cats would inadvertently get added into the mix and get a small present or two, being an extension of herself.
All in all it was a grand time for Ms. Lynda J. Johnson. And for a woman who seemed to have a few too many worries on a regular basis this day was an exception.
Two years ago on this day, I was on tour with the Young at Heart Chorus. We were in France for three weeks with a return date of December 16th. This, of course, was one day after my aunt's sixtieth birthday. It wasn't the most ideal of circumstances but a job is a job and we decided to celebrate when I got back.
My responsibilities were simple back then. All I had to do was make sure that she got a card on time--handmade, of course--as well as a few selected chocolates. My aunt loved chocolate. So, I stayed up late one night with a pad of hotel paper, some magic markers I had brought along, and an active imagination and drew her up a nice one. I spent half a day trying to find some unique chocolate for this very particular woman. Surprisingly, it wasn't too hard to do, and so my next task was to put it all together and get it in the mail.
Sounds easy, right?
Not in France. No sirree.
I found the post office. I found a clerk. And then I found myself at a complete loss for words--French words, that is. And I stood there pantomiming that I had a card and a bunch of chocolate for my aunt and could he please help me find the right box that would get it to the USA on time for her birthday.
Luckily, my mom must have been listening because as I was about to just turn around and walk out disgraced a woman turned my way who had been listening and said, "would you like me to help you?"
Would I? Heavens! Within a matter of ten minutes we had the right box picked out and I was putting the addresses in the right places. I found some newspaper to ball up so that the chocolate wouldn't get broken in transit. I thanked the nice French lady, and then I stood in line with my number--you have to take a number there--and waited, watching the big digital display above me, hoping I could piece together which teller had called out "85."
It's not that they make you feel stupid in France if you don't speak the language. It just happens, regardless.
So I brought my package up and gave it to the nice French postal employee. He smirked and stamped it and put it in a big box in the middle of the row of tellers. He swiped my debit card and gave me a receipt, another smirk, and then he called out some other number loudly as I walked away triumphant.
And I almost got halfway down the stairs before I realized I had used the wrong god damned zip code!
Holy crap! This can't be. It won't get to her on time for the 15th if it gets to her at all. All I could picture was some French postal office back room with four or five employees breaking off big hunks of my aunt's birthday chocolate, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, sipping espresso, and swearing in French about the stupid American who doesn't even know his own zip code. Sacre bleu!
So I swung around and ran back in. I raced to the ticket dispenser and took another ticket. Then I took my place in line again. Again! And I stood like I do sometimes when I know I'm going to be called by someone in an official position, but I don't want to go to them--I want to go to the other person who looks nicer, or better yet, knows me. I stood slightly outside of the line without being in the line--without giving up my spot--and craned my head towards the person I wanted to see, and I hoped for the best. Kind of like when I'm in a wicked rush and am in traffic and I sit forward a few inches almost as if it gives me an edge ... inside my car!
I ended up in front of the man who had taken the package the first time and somehow I managed to convey that I needed that box back--I had made a mistake. Now, this probably would never happen in the U.S., but he walked over, dug into the big postal laundry cart-type container and fished out my package ... the one for the Catlady, and he let me do my thing.
Then he smirked at me again--this time somewhat more relieved than superior--he put the box in the cart again, and then he called out another number as I walked out the door triumphant.
And I called Catlady J. up on December 15th and sang her Happy Birthday, then Stolat (the Polish birthday song), and we chatted on the phone for a while about how excited she was to get a package from France of all places. She loved the chocolate, she loved the gaudy little cat figurine that I had picked up for her at a French truck stop, and she absolutely loved the card I had made for her with hotel paper, some magic markers I had brought along, and an active imagination wishing her a "Happy Sixtieth Birthday" in 5 or 6 languages (I had even called down to the front desk to ask how to write it in French).
And as I hung up the black hotel phone receiver I felt like I had done what she wanted. All she wanted was to get a card on time, a phone call, and a couple of short, happy songs.
It was a great birthday.
So today, two years later, I woke up and I came downstairs and lit a candle under a picture of her. I sang a couple of short, happy songs into the air. I wrote out a check to her two favorite animal charities (Habitat For Cats, and A Helping Paw). And I used a coupon for two dollars off any meal at one of my favorite restaurants. I even brought back something that didn't work to the store where I bought it and I got my money back, no questions asked.
And these are all things she would appreciate.
These are all things that she valued.
Celebration, generosity, thrift, and recompense.
And I absolutely know she's smiling down upon me right now.
Because in addition to those thing that she loved ... she loved a good story with a happy ending most of all.
Happy Birthday, Aunt Lynda.
I love you, I miss you, and I thank you.
PS: thanks for reading.
I would be remiss not to give further information on my aunt's favorite charities:
Habitat For Cats
P.O. Box 79571
North Dartmouth, MA
A Helping Paw
P.O. Box 387
Buzzards Bay, MA