A Birthday Competition Derek Alger From the Editor

perm_identity A Birthday Competition

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 201 ~ February, 2014

My father was an only child, while I was the oldest of four, which I liked, though there were consequences in my relationship with my father, lots of conflict, but not necessarily intentional. My father desperately wanted a first born son, however, he had no idea how to deal with simple sibling rivalry, an inevitable occurrence with four kids so close in age. He was obsessed with ensuring that I would have a close to perfect childhood, something that no one can guarantee.

My parents grew up in Ontario, met at the University of Toronto, got married shortly after graduation. and then moved to New York City where my father completed medical school, becoming a psychiatrist. Before he could start a private practice, though, he was contacted by the government. He was given a choice, either serve two years in the United States Army or return to Canada and never return.

It wasn’t much of a choice. I remember a photo of my father in his Army uniform, where he was a lieutenant, in the living room in the house where we lived in Flushing, Queens when I was four. He looked so young, but also projected authority, an officer, someone who commands others, and that was without the extra advantage of being a psychiatrist and supposedly understanding human behavior.

While in the military service, my father was stationed at Army Letterman Hospital in San Francisco, where both my younger sister and I were born, a year apart.  Of course I don’t recall my time there — we moved to the east coast when I was three –, except for a few instances which I’m not sure were actual events or merely dreams.

A major part of my parents decision to initially move to New York City, one that was rarely mentioned, was to escape from my father’s mother who lived in a town thirty miles east of Toronto, known as the home of General Motors of Canada. My grandmother had great visions of my father interacting with the upper crust of society in the town, though not as a psychiatrist, a general practitioner would be better, or a surgeon best of all.  I think my father’s decision to become a psychiatrist was definitely influenced by my grandmother’s state of mind, and how he perceived her. I won’t say she was psychotic, but she was somewhat petty, overly paranoid, excessively critical, and completely self-centered, with a faulty view of the world and the people in it, leading to a rather parochial outlook.

My father was born suffering from spina bifada, where he had a crooked spine and one foot a couple sizes larger than the other, causing him to amble when he walked, almost as if his body was lopsided, though his broad shoulders prevented it from being that noticeable. I’m not sure exactly what his parents, my grandparents, thought of my father’s handicap, but it was clear they considered his disability a flaw, one for which my father was responsible for and should be blamed.

I know from talks with my father when I was young, most of the conversation coming from him, that he didn’t have much of a childhood, or at least a semblance of a normal childhood, spending a lot of time undergoing and recovering from several operations on his back. He also spent much of his childhood wearing metal braces on his legs as he struggled to walk without crutches. I suspect the only thing that prevented him from becoming a victim of ridicule at school was his extreme intelligence and his determination to succeed.

When my mother was pregnant with me I would have thought her parents would have come out to San Francisco for the birth of her first child, though I wasn’t their first grandchild, my mother’s brother becoming a father two years before, but it was my father’s parents who came instead. I know my mother was less than thrilled, though she was too polite and positive a person to admit how she really felt. Her parents were loving and principled, while my father’s parents were limited and rather simple. In fact, my father’s mother, my grandmother, started a competition with my other grandmother and my mother over what the date of my birth would be, and what that would mean.

Both my grandmothers were born in November, my maternal grandmother, Nana Bessie, on Nov. 11th, and my paternal grandmother, Grandma, on Nov. 24th. I was due to be born in November and that’s what started the competition, the one initiated by Grandma, where she actually believed my mother and I would be intentionally insulting her if I was not born closer to her birthday. Nana Bessie could care less. Quite simply, Grandma believed, and was obsessed with the idea, that if I was born closer to Nana Bessie’s birthday than hers that somehow meant my mother and I loved Nana Bessie more than her.

The early days of November must have been extremely difficult, with Grandma tormenting my father as the days moved toward the 11th. “How do you feel today?” Grandma would ask my mother, though secretly hoping no baby would be delivered until later in the month, closer to her birthday.

The days continued to pass, with Nana Bessie and Gramp in Toronto, and Grandma and Grandpa staying with my parents in San Francisco, making their presence absolutely impossible not to notice, and creating much unwanted tension.

Not that I remember, or was conscious of anything to do with my birth, but I must say I think I handled the situation pretty well, giving no one cause for complaint, meaning Grandma, the only one who would complain, and Grandpa, who would support her, because he didn’t want to be subjected to her wrath.

My birth, on Nov. 18th, more or less split the middle, about as well as one could given what was at stake. I was born seven days after Nana Bessie’s birthday, but Grandma could claim victory because I was born six days before her birthday, and six beats seven, so everyone could be pleased, whether they cared or not, with the final results of the competition.

Years later, I felt sad when my father told me what his father said about the birth of me, the first grandchild. “You were lucky this time,” Grandpa said to my father, “He wasn’t like you,” meaning I didn’t have any disabilities, no deformed back, no problem walking or running, as if somehow any of this was hereditary.

I wish my father and I could have been closer, but that was not to be. I’m not sure either of us was responsible, we simply had different experiences and different temperaments, and fortunately, I benefitted from the influence of my mother, who provided unconditional live, whereas my father was forced to struggle to overcome the constant criticism of his mother.

  • Jennifer Piovanetti

    Another insightful glimpse into your childhood, although I think you’ve topped yourself this time, you can’t go much further back than in the womb! Human behavior has always fascinated me, not that I claim to understand much of it, and even if I had studied psychology I can’t imagine I would ever understand how a grandmother could take a grandchild’s birthdate personally. It’s very sad when a child feels the need to escape from their parent, and hard to imagine a parent who would act in such a way as to drive their child away. I hug and kiss my son as much as possible now because I know, inevitably, there will come a day when he will be completely embarrassed by my presence. However, I hope that feeling will not be due to any behavior on my part, but simply the normal teenage desire to be “cool,” and once that passes, I will once again be received with loving and open arms.