by John Howard Farmer
77 and counting
I was born on my cousin Sandra Lee Vaughan’s second birthday. What a present!
Sad, no home stands on Lawson Street (Richmond) to receive a bronze plaque as the boyhood home of John Howard Farmer. ‘Tis a shame, mind you.
Grandmother Lida kept house and tended the grandchildren. It is her kitchen in which I remember spending my earliest birthdays. Some of the big folks who lived in our house worked shift-work. Can you imagine singing “Happy Birthday” in a hush? But there is an up side to all this. Due to the fact that the guys were on opposing shifts I got to celebrate more than once on any early occasion.
My cakes were either from Davis Bakery or Thalhimers: Scrumptious offerings, all covered with lard and sugar icing piped around the margins.
Years later I stood in the mess hall (with other January celebrants) at Fork Union Military Academy while Capt. Maturo led the corps. Detractors nudged up behind me throughout the day to hum a less melodious ditty. Fannie Farmer was a popular candy company then. Sure enough some lad had labeled me thus. “Happy birthday Fannie Farmer, happy birthday to you.” Doesn’t exactly warm you, does it?
A few decades more expired and after basic training (Paris Island) I was assigned to the Second Marine Division, Camp LeJeuene. I was mustered into the Marine Corps Choir. They really knew how to sing “Happy Birthday.” They belted out four-part harmony which turned into a round lasting some 20 minutes. It was again a monthly happening, to share with as many lads as possible. There was a catch though. One was expected to give presents to the rest of the men…or remember them when next in the NCO club. Odd training for a Baptist minister perhaps. Perhaps not.
Birthdays came and went. They tumbled home like water over Niagara Falls.
I was pastoring in Brookline, Mass., when I turned 40. I looked up from the pulpit. Forty lads and lasses marched forward, all with black balloons lashed to their wrists. It was the most people ever to walk the aisle of that staid old church at any one time in the history of Christendom. Afterwards we partied and laughed. Of course being wee lads and lasses they wanted to take my balloons home. They did.
Again I bounced, rolled and dawdled my way through similar and dissimilar events until a few years back. I was a bachelor chap, Birthday 1999. The men and women of Irvington treated me to a baked potato and taco supper. I was presented with nose and ear rings, iridescent hair spray and grand fellowship.
Years later a quartet fractious—Jim Johnson, Dorsey Ficklin, Wayne Nunnally and Bill McClintock—took over our sanctuary. They asked the new bride to “give’em an “R.” “R,” Hazel giggled? What key is that? Off on any key, they barged on. How thoughtful it was of them to so present themselves. It brought new meaning to the Biblical transcription to “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” How awful it sounded! Oh, I know, it’s the thought that counts. They erased over a century of good sound with one song. It truly brought pain to our ears.
I mused it impossible to provide a more memorable melody to my birthday chart. That’s what I thought. On another Holy Sunday, Deacon Jimmy Robertson presented himself mid-aisle and asked to be recognized. I knew I was in trouble, right then and there. The flock has scrimped, saved and gathered together a dollar. That’s right $1. It was stuffed into a card with such personal comments as to singe the hair of a modern man, much less an old goat like me.
Owing them a good laugh I carefully opened the card and read aloud the scribblings that were public enough.
All of a sudden Gloria Jones fired up the organ. I thought this will be fine. They’re all going to sing, how nice. Wrong. From back under the balcony a prominent rotund ex-Norfolk attorney in the person of the gentrified Wayne Nunnally arose. He foisted upon us such sounds, as the organ could not cover up. It would take a slide rule to measure the spread of Wayne’s range. It was utmost and foremost LOUD. The congregation roared in appreciation that they had “got me!” Applause rang out. My ears reverberated from the cacophony. I should think that mating elk bellow more melodiously.
Well, I thought—exercising my Calvinistic tendencies—glad that’s over. We had visitors in church too.
My wife and I will in moments of inspiration announce our lunch plans and invite such as are in hearing to the table of choice. Three other couples decided to join us at the Golden Eagle. Lunch went especially well. The Caesar salad with fried oysters was simply yummy. Dessert time arrived. After all it was my birthday, right? So I ordered a low-cal, no fat praline ice cream sundae with cherries. It arrived with a candle stabbed through the whipped cream.
Then with no warning Wayne Nunnally flung himself from his chair banging his spoon against a glass. He demanded the attention of the rest of the innocent diners, explaining to them that it was my birthday and enlisted them in song. He brought forth notes heretofore never sung. The giggling throng rolled with laughter.
I suppose that’s what I think most important about another birthday. Laughter truly is the best medicine. The book does say a merry heart doeth good.