Anyone who got to know me in the second half of my life can scarcely believe me when I admit to a lifelong case of shyness. At work I tend to be bossy, a natural at telling people what to do; in my private life I am opinionated, stubborn and foul-mouthed and I am that driver who will tailgate you for a couple of miles, cursing, if you happen to cut me off.
Yet, I was painfully shy as a kid and, to this day, I prefer intimate gatherings to loud and crowded parties which, in my book, are any get together comprising more than eight people.
The last time I celebrated a birthday with a large cast of characters was my 30th – my boyfriend at the time organized the dinner under a pergola, in a restaurant on the outskirt of Milan, followed by a jaunt at an old-fashioned amusement park. It was actually a lot of fun and I have happy Polaroids to prove it: me embracing a rifle, trying to win a rubber duck. With my 50th birthday approaching (which I am confessing now and then never ever mention again), I thought it might be fun to mark the occasion with another dinner under a pergola, this time on the hills outside my native town, surrounded by as many people I love as I could think of.
On the phone with my best friend and mistress of ceremonies, I ran through a tentative guest list that ended up including one night stands and every Tom, Dick and Anne we could think of. While it was a laugh to bring back to life those souls from our past that had left a mark, albeit not indelible, it was clearly not feasible or cost effective. So I sat down by myself, old-fashioned pen and paper in hand and started jotting down names. Besides the close friends and family that make up the fabric of my everyday life, I realized how many people I could think of that had touched me, really touched me along the different roads I travelled in the last five decades.
What suddenly came to mind was a black and white photo I haven’t seen in years, no doubt buried in the mess in one of my mother’s drawers, of a little boy of six, holding the hand of a grinning five-year old girl dressed in tartan pants that itched like a bitch and a stupid looking Tyrolean jacket, black hair cropped short and a teddy bear dangling from her other hand. His thin legs were swallowed by hiking boots and left bare by a pair of lederhosen that no parent should inflict on an unsuspecting offspring. We were standing on the side of a mountain somewhere in Austria, during one of those Summer vacations our parents dragged us on. I am now convinced that this attire we had no part in choosing contributed to our eventual breaking free of conventions and leading lives outside the parameters of the expected. He went on to become a professional photographer and writer and I, well, here I am.
I felt a sudden urge to have my childhood buddy, whom I haven’t seen or spoken to in nearly 20 years, near me again. Which, in turn, led me to thinking about how many people, in the course of a life, contribute to making us who we are. All these life fragments are neatly glued together inside us and, far too often, we don’t give them the credit they are due.
Either that or I am getting incredibly sentimental in my old age.
PS And yes, he will be coming to my party. And, 20 years later, he has the same identical photograph tacked to his kitchen wall.
Photo courtesy of bavarianspecialty.com where you can buy the lederhosen