The Birth-day Card
A dusty garage, a poem typed on a 3x5 card, and a message from a dead man.
For most of my life, and probably most of his, my late father was the master of items that he called “unsorted but significant” — slivers of serendipity that were both highly meaningful and extremely, assertively miscellaneous, and tended to turn up in the most unexpected of places.
Which is what happened to me today.
Going through some final cartons of my mother’s ephemera on Memorial Day weekend in the dusty garage of the house where I grew up, I came upon a single 3x5 card — a favored canvas of my father’s.
Typed upon it was a whimsical poem about language, my parents’ specialty and profession, written by Christopher Morley, a newspaperman, essayist and sometime editor of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, another favorite of my father’s.
I am not lying when I say it is about language. But drill down a bit, and it’s about a human activity even older than that. It is called “Inscription for a Grammar,” and it goes like this:
There were two cheerful pronouns
And nought did them disturb:
Until they met out walking,
A conjugative verb.
The pronouns, child, were you and I,
We might as well confess
But, oh, the mischief-making verb
I leave to you to guess.
Morley, and writers like him — Bennett Cerf, H. Allen Smith, Dorothy Parker, the often libating, typewriter-wielding, stiletto-witted American literary caste of the 1920s and 1930s — were rocket fuel for my father’s approach to language, humor, overall demeanor and life in general.
It does not surprise me in the least that this writing captured his attention; like him, its genius is not in what is said but in what is not. It is smart and suggestive, audacious and mellifluous — a drive-by shooting of a poem whose impact is not in its recitation but in the echo it leaves in its wake.
As you read it and reread it, one thing becomes clear: This is a poem addressed to an offspring from its parents. Which is why, right there in that dusty garage north of Pittsburgh on a damp afternoon in May 2019, the signoff that was typed below the poem made me stop breathing:
Ed III 4–17–68
(At this point, there are three things you should know:
- My full name is Edward Mason Anthony IV.
- My father, then, was in fact Edward Mason Anthony III (though he also went by Jr.).
- And I was born on the morning of April 16, 1968, a day before the 3x5 card was typed and, presumably, handed over to my mother postpartum. At the time of my birth, my father was 45 and my mother 43, so I was an unexpected accident — presumably the product of some “mischief-making verb.”)
This afternoon, though, it resurfaced as a gift: sitting quietly, lurking among other papers in a box of my mother’s for months, years, decades, and finally presented to me today, nearly four years after he breathed his last labored breath at age almost-93.
A very tardy birthday card, if you will, from a dead man whose intellect was decimated by dementia yet who manages to still have little conversations with me now and then, at the most unexpected of moments.
Unsorted. But, still, always, significant.
Ted Anthony, a writer based in Pittsburgh and New York who recently moved back from four years living in Thailand, is a Baby Boomer by generation and a Gen-Xer by age. He has been dissecting and musing about American culture since Guns N’ Roses was on the charts and “Rain Man” was in the theaters. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects various fragmentary images and thoughts on Tumblr here.
Read the author’s 2015 eulogy to his father here:
To Think. To Laugh. To Understand.
Edward Mason Anthony Jr., Sept. 1, 1922 — July 12, 2015
Read about a significant burrito here:
©2019 |Ted Anthony