My grandmother had two birthdays. For most of her life she celebrated on August 26th, the birthday she’d known since childhood. Then, sometime during the late 1960s, her husband found a box on the upper shelf of a closet in their Bronx apartment. Among the important papers it contained was Rachel’s birth certificate, something that had been there for decades but apparently never actually read. Surprise! My grandmother’s birthday wasn’t August 26th, and she hadn’t been born in 1908. The verified date of birth was June 26, 1907.
If my grandmother had been into astrology–which she wasn’t–maybe she’d have been annoyed to discover that after spending her life reading Virgo’s horoscope, her real sun sign was Cancer. If she’d been prone to pondering her personal history (again, not too useful in my grandmother’s world), it might have been a little disappointing to realize that all the childhood milestones she’d accomplished so precociously ahead of her peers were actually right on schedule given her true age. Even basic facts, like the age gaps between Rachel and her siblings, shifted just because my grandfather decided to root through the closet. At the very least, it had to to tweak her perspective a bit to realize that a fundamental fact she’d believed all her life was wrong.
But Rachel being Rachel, she plowed through my grandfather’s “older woman” jokes and came out with the solution she liked best: she would now celebrate both birthdays each year. The change-the-date notice didn’t rock her world at all, and maybe she was right. Other than a potential paperwork nightmare, what was different?
The stats on my grandmother’s birth certificate offer a snapshot of the beginning of her life. They give us her (correct) birthdate, her family’s address at her birth, her parents’ names, ages, country of origin, and the number of siblings awaiting her arrival. The facts remain constant, but they take on more depth as my grandmother defines her world with the pieces life gives her. Both names on her birth certificate — Rachael Levy — change, the second name through two marriages and the spelling of the first for a reason known only to the reborn “Rachel.” The Lower East side address gets swapped out for locations in the Bronx, Florida, and finally Annapolis. Her parents get older, then pass from her grasp; the number of siblings at home increases, then wanes as everyone leaves home for individual paths. The birth certificate can’t show what my grandmother made of her life. It can’t show her lifelong devotion to her mother, her bond with her sisters, the resilience she somehow found in her early forties when her husband died suddenly, leaving her with four children to support and continue raising.
Palmists read both palms when giving readings, believing that the nondominant hand shows what a person was given at birth, while the dominant hand shows what has become of those attributes. I think of my grandmother’s birth certificate as her nondominant hand, her launching pad. But while the circumstances surrounding her birth certainly impacted her life, what she made of that life also added dimension to the facts preserved on the birth certificate. Who she became and the choices she made increased the meaning of otherwise static figures.
My grandmother’s decision to celebrate both birthdays each year meant that we could potentially get into trouble if we forgot either one. So, I’m not forgetting. Happy (sort of) Birthday, Grandma Rachel, wherever you may be. I hope you’re having a wonderful time defining yourself however you please!