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Posts Tagged ‘birthday’

This weekend while thrifting, I found this little piece of American history: the moon landing. It made me think, as it always does, about the incredible bravery required to undertake a thing like that. I also laughed a little, remembering how I used to get rid of overly pushy guys at college parties by telling them I thought the moon landing was a hoax. This worked in the 80s. I think now you’d either find yourself in a debate or worse, talking to a true believer. (When the flat earth society is a real thing again, there seem to be more and more folks who truly believe in a lot of oddball conspiracy theories.)

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The Apollo 11 plate also made me think about a question I frequently get from readers of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things: how did I create Wavy? I always wish that I had a simple answer, or even a complex but straightforward answer. The truth is that my characters mainly create themselves out of the random detritus that fills my brain. For example, Wavy’s name is an amalgam of two real people. I had a great-great-aunt whose nickname was Wavy and a babysitter whose name was Wyvonna. Put those two things together in my head for 40 years, and when a strange little girl stepped out of hayfield to watch a man on a motorcycle ride past, her name was Wavy. I didn’t consciously give her the name. That was just her name, from the very first draft of the first scene I wrote. When Kellen wrecked his bike and sent this little girl to call for help, he asked for her name. Before I knew anything about her, her answer was Wavonna. I also knew that Kellen, concussed and bleeding, heard only the first syllable, and so misunderstood her name and subsequently gave her a nickname that stuck. I didn’t plan any of that or make any conscious decisions about it. It just was.

I know absolutely that Wavy’s grandmother had this plate in her house. Lots of people had this plate, but not many of them would have viewed it as magical. For Wavy, six years old, thrust into a new house again, living with another stranger, the discovery of this plate connected her to her old life.

She was born on July 19, 1969, so to find a plate that marked the day after and marked such an important milestone in space exploration, it seemed like a sign to her. Proof that this was going to be her home, that her grandmother was someone she could trust.

What of that old life? Where did Wavy’s original connection to the stars come from? Her neighbor Mr. Arsenikos, who first taught her the constellations. That connection is very much about the seemingly minor detail of Wavy’s birthday as well. That first day she met Mr. Arsenikos, she was a small girl, just four, and afraid to be at home while her parents fought. Imagine knowing it’s your birthday, but having no one in your life act like it’s important, until you stumble across the old man living next door, for whom that day is also special. As Wavy notes, Mr. Arsenikos was a sailor aboard the WWI-era USS San Diego which struck a German mine and sank on July 19, 1918. The day is important to them for different reasons, but all the same, it creates a bond that is the start of Wavy’s love of astronomy.

That connection is at the heart of why she forges a bond with Kellen, a stranger who wrecks his bike right in front of her. It’s another birthday, forgotten by all by Wavy, this time made special by the universe delivering an injured giant in conjunction with the rare planetary alignment that assisted the Voyager 1 and 2 launches that same summer. For someone like Wavy, it’s another sign that she’s supposed to make that great leap of trusting someone new. She doesn’t necessarily know why it’s important, but she feels it.

This is how characters come to life for me, out of bits and pieces that ultimately fit together and mean something to the character. Rarely do I know anything about a character until they’ve walked into a scene and spoken. (Or not spoken, as the case may be.) It’s part of the magic of writing for me.

(July 19th is also Lizzie Borden’s birthday and the day in 1595 when astronomer Johannes Kepler developed a geometrical theory to explain the movement of the planets.)

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In America, we tend to celebrate birthdays as a triumph over the sneaky, dark forces of mortality. One more year! I survived another year! As the saying goes, “Getting older is better than the alternative.”

When people die and stop getting older, often we keep celebrating their birthdays. Each year ceases to be a tick mark of longevity and becomes a tally of absence. So many years without a loved one. So many years since a celebrity departed. If you’re famous enough and dead long enough, eventually maybe we’ll turn your birthday into a national holiday. Later we’ll rearrange it to suit our schedule.

As you get older, the collection of ghost birthdays in your life grows larger and larger until you risk bumping into one at every turn. In October, I’ll observe my pop’s birthday for the first time without him, and my grandmother’s birthday after more than a decade without her. In November, my granddad’s birthday, two decades gone now, a thing unfathomable to me when that first ghost birthday came.

Rilya Wilson

The birthday girl

Today, the 29th of September, I observe the ghost birthday of Rilya Wilson. Today is her 18th birthday, the 14th since she went missing. I never met her, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about her, since I first read about her disappearance from a Florida foster home. At the time, I was working at a domestic violence shelter in Tampa, and my day-to-day interactions with victims of abuse gave me little hope that Rilya was alive. I’d seen how a flash of anger could break a child’s arm, or black her eye, or permanently damage his spine. I could imagine the ease with which an adult could purposefully or negligently kill a child. A kick, a punch, a “punishment” that went to far.

In some ways, it is this ghost birthday that clings to me more fiercely than any other. My grandparents are safely buried after long lives. My pop is still a fresh grief, but I keep part of him in a little jar on my kitchen window sill. Rilya is lost, her life cut short, and I want to be sure someone thinks about her on her birthday. Thanks for reading this and helping me do that.

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