A Merry, Merry Missive
I almost didn't need to blow out the candles on my birthday cake this year: all my wishes had already come true.
All I want for Christmas is all that I already have.
Friendship, for me, is the greatest gift I received for my birthday this year, from my husband, my children, and all my friends and family around the world. I received it in droves, my favorite lifetime gift, when friends showed up for a quick minute to wish me a happy birthday at a milestone moment.
This missive is dedicated to all my amazing friends all over the world. It is an expression of my profound gratitude for all those friends who made me feel younger the day I grew slightly older.
In early December, I turned 50, and my husband threw a magical party for me in Rome. All I had to do was show up — I knew the party was happening but he had kept all its details a secret. When we walked into the room in which we would dance until 2am, our roles reversed: he was ecstatic to show me the flowers, the stemware, the bar, the lighting, and the music. He sought my approval like the chef he becomes when he proudly pulls out our Thanksgiving turkey from the oven.
We invited friends from the four countries we have lived in over the past 25 years, and those from my high school and college years, not expecting many to show up as it was a big ask. Who has time to travel to Rome for a one-night party in between Thanksgiving and Christmas?
As it turns out, everyone. And that’s what makes my friends extraordinary: they show up when I call them.
They came from San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Maine, Delaware, Washington, DC, London, Berlin, Milan, Varese, Torino, Florence, Todi, Paris, Scotland, Tel Aviv, Brussels, Geneva, Denver, Cleveland, Columbus, and Rome. Some of them I hadn’t seen in twenty years. Some knew me when I was 13 with braces. Some knew me when I was 17 and sang in an a cappella group. Some knew me when I lived in Manhattan after college, and ate burritos and drank beer. Some knew me when I struggled to find my voice in journalism in Italy. Some knew me when I found my voice in California. Some were with me the first night I met my husband, ice-skating in Rome. Some knew me as a new mother in Brussels and then again in Tel Aviv. Some had been with me on my 21st birthday in Ohio, my 30th in Rome, and my 40th in Tel Aviv. Most of them knew me when I barely spoke Italian. My nicknames returned with all the voices of my past: Sheils, Dsh, Spritzi, Sheileebus, Sheil, and I turned my head like a traffic cop at every violation of my name and laughed. And then there was the one who has known me since I was two: my beloved brother. He carried the family flag and led the cousin pack of six. Someone snapped a photo of us dancing and laughing together, sharing the same smile, and we resembled our parents.
Friendship is something we earn, we give and take from, and, in hurtful moments of misunderstandings, we can lose. It takes time, patience, and perseverance to maintain friendships, especially from a distance. For me, it is one of life’s greatest rewards. In moving around, my friendships ground me. My friends often remind me who I am, what I believe in, and where I came from, especially in moments when I question life’s hardships and downfalls.
Without deep friendships, I couldn’t unwind, weep, laugh or sob. I wouldn’t be able to write. I would feel empty and alone. At the end of my birthday weekend this year, I felt full, bursting at the seams with love and gratitude for all the friends that flocked to surround me. I’m still whirling in the memories of their presence, how they still make me laugh, how they still know how to tease me, and to support me, no matter what. Only now am I finding time and space to digest all the love I felt in those 24 hours.
At a certain point, midway through the party, I felt dizzy. As I looked around at everyone who had come to celebrate me (me?!), I thought I might faint. I looked at all the faces, and each one held a tenderness that gave me cramps. In that room, I saw friends who had married and then divorced. Some had birthed children, and some had lost them. Some had adopted others, and many had given birth through IVF. Some had come out of the closet, and introduced their partners to me. Some had battled cancer and beat it. Others were still fighting it. Some had lost body parts to it. Some had lost parents. Others had lost siblings. Or a husband or wife. Some had given up one religion for another. Others had lost faith entirely. Some had taken on another citizenship. Others had learned new languages or switched professions. Some lived on a shoe string. Others had made a fortune. No matter what had happened in their life, or was still happening, they were there. For me. On that one night when I called for them.
That night, we celebrated life, laughter, and the joy of feeling we would all go on until the music stopped. We checked Covid at the coat closet, and danced without masks. We celebrated not only my birthday but also all those milestone birthdays that were missed because of this damn pandemic. We sang until we had sore throats. We danced until our middle-aged foot arches ached. The DJ who resembled Prince Harry set the vibe, and said he’d never seen so many middle-aged party-goers dance until the waiters had to send them home. We kicked off our shoes and danced barefoot or slipped out of our heels into sneakers. All my friends befriended each other.
One friend came for one night, from San Francisco. Some stayed for a week thereafter. Some arrived a week later and stayed for one weekend. One couple had left their kids for the first time in seven years, and came to Rome for two nights from Berkeley. Most came for only two or three nights, and everyone had to juggle jobs, kids, spouses, aging parents, and flights to show up.
One friend, who is normally quiet and shy, danced by herself in an aura of happiness, without her shoes, and closed her eyes as she let the music take her away. Her husband smiled at her from afar, and eventually took her in his arms to swing her in a circle of love. His hair had grown back, and his scans were clear. It has been quite a few years for them. And, there they were, for me.
And that was just it — in that moment, we all danced as one. We celebrated life, however many years were relevant, and it felt like everyone’s birthday. The moon shined on the dance floor, and the pitter-patter of the rain outside added a coziness to the organized chaos.
Aside from my wedding, it was the most beautiful party I have ever attended. Some people called it The Super Party. Not because it was over the top. But because it was superlative in the excitement and enthusiasm that brimmed to a boiling point.
My hair dresser had obsessed over wanting to coif me with a wave. “L’onda fa figo,” he repeated, insisting a wave in my hair would look cool. We had written “50s dress code/Roman Holiday” on the invitation, so, in walked Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Dr. Seuss, and Elvis, among fabulous other pedal-pushers and poodle skirts. After three hours, and a few curlers and bobby pins, I had a wave which stayed with me for the night as I rode the wave of friendship.
My son Luca took the photographs, and, as he snapped every face possible, I saw myself in him as a budding photographer. He has been working on a photo album for me which is the only present I’ll hope to see under the tree.
My daughter Sofia played the guitar and sang me a song. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house after she played an acoustical version of Tina Turner’s “You’re Simply the Best.” It moved me that she chose to sing a love ballad to her own mother.
And, then, there’s my husband. My adorable husband, my silver fox, and my very best friend of all. Who has supported me, and endured me all these years. We were kids when we met and he’ll always keep me young. On the dance floor, he’s a cross between Fred Astaire and John Travolta. I fell in love with him as he spun me around a living-room-party twenty-five years ago. And, I fell in love with him again on my birthday this year when he spun me around until I was dizzy again. He had arranged for The World’s Largest Mont Blanc to be wheeled in after his lovely toast, and, there, I really thought I might faint. As I looked out at the crowd of faces smiling at me and said a few words, I felt blessed, and I felt bliss.
There were, of course, some who could not make it for a variety of logistical and health reasons. Although their RSVP regrets made me sad, they were with me that night. It was more than a night to remember: it has been a month to remember.
On December 1, 2005, Maya Angelou read a poem she wrote at the lighting of the National Christmas Tree in Washington, DC, and I excerpt here a relevant stanza:
“Into this climate of fear and apprehension,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.”
Thank you, dear friends and dear family, for turning fifty with me. You made my year.
A Merry Missive indeed! The 50's...the very best decade in my experience! You are certainly off to a very good start! So love those sequin leggins! You go girl! Missing you all and sending all the best to you in the New Year!
Wow! Wonderful writing, so heartfelt and bursting with love. And Happy Birthday! And Merry Christmas!
FYI, we have moved to Marin and love it here. Come visit next time you visit. Love to you all.