All details rendered below might be slightly off due to the age of the writer and her sometimes tenuous grasp on the act of recall.
I grew up in a small town, with limited retail options. There wasn’t a Walmart there until I was almost gone. If you needed a new school outfit then you went to this little shop named Sycamore where you tried to find an outfit that had that most elusive quality – simultaneously unique and indistinguishable from everyone else’s clothes. If you needed to rent a movie then you went to the hardware store – its name is escaping me at the moment. This hardware store had everything – including a section devoted to kids’ bikes. The bikes were hanging from thick chains and hooks from the ceiling, suspended far above the more practical everyday items, and beyond any sort of reasonable child-touching distance. A retail store these days would never employ those tactics. The more little hands that touch it, the better chance some big hands will hand over money for it. But there was something so positively delightful about those out-of-touch, out-of reach bicycles up there. We were content to just stand there and stare, while our parents bought things like fertilizer and batteries. They eventually carved out a corner of the shop and added some narrow strip shelves to the wall to hold VCR tapes. We learned quickly to focus our attention on the correct half of the display, selecting Betamax flicks over VHS. If you were invited to a birthday party, and you happened to be a girl between the ages of, say, five and fourteen, then you went to the Hallmark store right next to the hardware store and selected a birthday present for the lucky girl. There were years when girls opened up a dozen packages full of miniature smurfs, and years when they opened up new puffy sticker books and Lisa Frank sticker packs. There was the year of the little click beads – tiny letters and objects that clicked into larger items like purple plastic heart shaped treasure boxes and pink plastic bracelets. You would carefully select the right number of letters – to spell a name, or initials, or clever words like LOVE or UNICORN, and you’d get your gift wrapped at the counter in the same paper that all the other girls’ presents were wrapped in.
I could tell you that I was born and grew up in the time period between Smurf figurines and Trapper Keepers, owning one of the first Cabbage Patch Kids on the shelf but not a single Beanie Baby, and that every middle school slumber party included the obligatory screening of “Dirty Dancing” and you would know exactly how old I am.
I can remember the details of that Hallmark store more clearly than any other store from my childhood. I haven’t been in a Hallmark store in ages, but I’m imagining that it looks both the same and different. I remember where each section of greeting cards / trinkets / gift wrap were located. Some sections were there year round, some were seasonal. There was a big section for birthdays, for weddings, for anniversaries and new babies. The sympathy card section never moved. I remember shopping for graduation cards each May, and looking at the annual Christmas ornament display in late November. My best friend had a Christmas tree with entire collections of Hallmark ornaments which felt both extravagant and over-coordinated to me. I’m fairly certain the seasonal sections were pretty focused on Christian holidays and celebrations – I suppose Jewish families (if there were any in our town) shopped elsewhere for their greeting card needs. Heck, I only knew one Lutheran and no Catholics, so there probably wasn’t a First Communion section either.
Hallmark always had this overtone of pastel-ness in it. There was music playing from a speaker somewhere, and the floors were carpeted and quiet. It was sort of like a library – people standing in front of shelves, slowly picking up cards to read, and then return. You could orient yourself fairly easily to where you wanted to go from a quick front door scan of the long, narrow space – pink-and-blue-baby, hot-pink-and-purple-girls, satin-white-and-ivory-wedding. The sore thumb that always stuck out in the store was the Over the Hill section – predominantly black, and full of cards with questionable humor, and far more party supplies than the other sections. This was pre-Internet-pre-Pinterest era, where every single little life occasion was not celebrated in full-blown party style. Birthday parties were the most common form of crepe paper streamer and latex balloon festooned events. If you judged the importance of various milestone birthdays by the linear foot devoted space in Hallmark you’d be right to assume that forty was the most significant, far outweighing the sweet sixteen, the first birthday, the golden fifty or the non-existent twenty-first in this bible-belt border town. I can remember attending fortieth birthday parties that were hosted in the fellowship hall of our church, the lucky celebrant pushed over to the cake in a borrowed wheelchair. The balloons were black, the streamers were black, and sometimes the icing was black (blech) which always stained your mouth and lips an eerie purple. The imagery of a roller coaster plunging you headlong into death was rendered in cartoon bubbles across half the cards. The other half of the cards had Far Side cartoons.
I’ve often marveled at the differences between then and now, particularly when it comes to age. When my parents and their friends started celebrating forty, well, they seemed so old. Old enough to have children graduating and going off to college, old enough to laugh at black-icing cakes and packages of Depends and Metamucil on the gift table. And now we meet forty with babies and toddlers (or no kids at all) and we would slap anyone that even tried to wheel us up to a cake that suggests it’s all down here from this point. There are still huge hills to climb, and we’re in better shape than we were ten years ago, smarter and hipper and more self-assured as well. We aren’t anticipating a decline in anything in the near or distant future, not while we’re still juggling crazy schedules and writing day care checks and working on the house and flying down roller coasters of our own choosing, not the cartoon variety on Hallmark cards.
M turned forty yesterday, and I can’t really speak to his own personal feelings about this particular milestone. But it feels a bit like a shared milestone to me, as he straddles the side of another decade that I haven’t quite reached. He didn’t get any Over the Hill cards last week, but most of the cards did subtly reference age that he shrugged off as insignificant. We celebrated Saturday by hanging out all day and evening together with the girls. We ate out at good restaurants and rode water slides for the hours in between. Sunday was a low key day at home, capped off with a birthday dinner that might have been like any other dinner, minus the gigantic dessert in the middle of the table. The girls bickered, as usual, and E picked at everything green on her plate. There was a brief moment when I looked at the table and the counter top and sink full of dishes and the overtired girls and wished M and I had taken the party elsewhere, a fancy restaurant, adult conversation.
But this is forty, this is where we are now. And it’s okay, in fact, it’s really good. I loved that twenty-five year old guy. A lot. But I’ll take the forty year old one, hands down.