Tuesday, August 12, 2008

One Hundred Years of Laughter

Today I had the pleasure of witnessing a joyous birthday celebration.

Held at the inner-city senior center where my wife is the director, the party was held outdoors under a threat of rain that was controlled through Caribbean rituals used to ward off foul weather. Despite low-lying clouds almost bursting with moisture, no rain came. The women preparing the festivities had taken time for ritual, drawing crosses of salt on the ground and filling a cup with water, covering the cup with a plate, and then turning the cup and plate upside down and setting it on the table with the food. As we spread plastic table-cloths and stacked plates and napkins, one woman looked at me and said with confidence, "It no rain now."

The man of the hour---a dignified and jovial Hispanic man known for his infectious laughter and almost constant smile---was marking his 100th birthday. As the hectic preparations came to a close, he emerged from the center at the end of a long line of family members---not unlike a wedding procession. With straw fedora atop his balding head, his smiling countenance greeted his loving community as we burst into applause and Spanish songs. At that moment, the sun streamed down upon him like a spotlight and the cheers erupted further still.

It was a very happy occasion, and well-wishers filed by his table to shake his hand in hopes of receiving some intangible essence that might confer longevity and robust health. Salsa and merengue streamed from a homemade car that is daily driven around the neighborhood like a roving sound system. At the appropriate time, the music was quieted as blessings and spontaneous old Latino songs were belted out by smiling guests, some dancing together between the tables. Even the stalwart cook, a handsome sixty-year-old who always stations himself at the grill, let the hot dogs and hamburgers cook on their own as he gracefully danced with the ladies who approached him.

As an outsider with an insider's view of this very festive occasion, I was struck how certain ethnic communities work so hard to maintain their culture, their songs, their folkways and practices, even in the midst of America. I felt pleased for my friends and acquaintances, and so very pleased that this elderly gentleman's distant family who could not be present will see hundreds of photographs of the festivities, the miles of land and ocean bridged to some extent by the record made of a momentous event.

As I turn 44 this week, I can only hope that I would be surrounded and celebrated so vibrantly if I were lucky enough to complete my very own century. I was so very happy to be a part of this special day, and feel blessed to have been welcomed to experience such a moving celebration. After one hundred years of love and laughter, may the man we celebrated today be blessed with the knowledge of being so dearly and unconditionally loved.

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