A Birthday Gift


This week, just as I was preparing to celebrate my 82nd birthday, another “first” walked into my life. For the first time ever, to the best of my knowledge, I met a genuine Turk. A man born in Turkey. In Anatolia, he tells me.

In a hasty effort to compensate for my ignorance of the area and its history,  I rush to Wikipedia where I am greeted by a sea of names and cultures of which I know virtually nothing.

I do know a bit about languages, a lifelong passion that led to a Ph.D and beyond. Still, I am stymied by what I read.  Major Anatolian languages spoken by Galatians, Hurrians, Assyrians, Hattians,  and Cimmerians, included Hittite, Luwian, and Lydian among other more poorly attested relatives. Various non-Turkic languages continue to be spoken in Anatolia today, including Kurdish, Neo-Aramaic, Armenian, Arabic, Laz, Georgian and Greek

The word “Galatians” at least rings a faint bell, but I am astounded to learn that these were a Gallic people who, in their origin were a part of a great Celtic migration that came through Thrace  c. 278 BC. I can at least speculate that the Assyrians were ancestors of modern Syrians, and assert that the Kurds are a currently vilified minority seeking freedom from Islamic decrees. The word “Armenian” I immediately associate with “Massacre,” and “Aramaic” I recognize as the ancient language of the Kaddish that I intone along with Jews everywhere as we remember and commemorate the loved ones  who so greatly shaped our present moments. But the others? Those names are indeed Greek to me. And when did we start saying “It’s all Greek to me” as an expression of our ignorance?

Probably Shakespeare, I tell myself, while musing upon how speedily one question leads only to another. But that too is among the glorious joys of aging, as I have written elsewhere.[1] How fantastically freeing it feels to let my mind wander where it will! How I love the sheer joy of wondering!  So much of adulthood has involved knowing for sure, or at least putting on a show of certainty while trying to avoid any appearance of being a know-it-all.

But I stray from my topic- the opportunity to meet a man from Anatolia where he spent the first six years of life in rural poverty with his loving but totally uneducated grandparents. His own parents had escaped the life to which they were pre-ordained by following the path laid down by other impoverished Turks, the route to Germany where they were in demand as “Gastarbeiter” – guest-workers willing to do the hard labour and unpleasant tasks scorned by Germans and other Europeans. Tasks scorned also by white men in North America who first imported slaves and then brought in others of “foreign” origin to plant and pick produce, or to dig and drill through mountains in order to transport other whites and their goods with speed and efficiency. Today, the tasks allotted to newcomers tend to be “menial labour” or such “custodial” jobs as white men still scorn to do. Meanwhile, their female counterparts are in much demand as nannies to look after the very young, or as caregivers to the very old whose bums may also need to be wiped.

At the insistence of his father, my man from Anatolia was whisked to Germany in time to begin school. To my shock and surprise, but also my subsequent understanding, his mother was initially opposed to severing the ties with his grandparents. He now believes that for the first time ever, his mother had experienced the taste of freedom. In Germany, she was earning actual money of her own, a heretofore unimagined luxury. Moreover, she had a small measure of freedom to interact with Westerners, and to see that other possibilities existed beyond the world to which she had been confined. She did not wish to give up what she had in order to assume once again the mantle of motherhood and the accompanying servitude likely to be expected by an assertive and authoritarian husband.

I thought wistfully of my own mother whose education culminated in Töchterschule – a school for daughters destined to become brides. There, my mother learned to do fine needlework and embroidery, and to oversee the running of a household.  Neither she nor her parents had the slightest inkling of what lay ahead. It took but a handful of years for her world to come crashing down, and for those delicate fingers to learn to squeeze and tug at the teats of smelly cows that constituted our Canadian livelihood.[2]

It’s a mighty leap from there to here, to the circumstances that plucked a child from its roots and allowed that evolving person to master new languages and to integrate new ways of being. Although our circumstances were  – and are so wildly different, we share a history, this man and I. He is now a highly regarded professional, and I’m supposedly “over the hill.” Still, improbably, his path has intersected with my own journey.

Here in Canada, we met, we bonded, and we spent hours in deep conversation, exploring topics and trading thoughts that linger. Thoughts that feel new, freshly unwrapped, like some special birthday gift chosen just for me. Perhaps that is how best to view our encounter:

Happy Birthday to you
Lift high your glass
Drink L’chaim to life
Happy Birthday to you
Come marvel at the wonder
The absolute wonder
Of being eighty-two.

[1] Wilkes, “The Care of Feeding of Curiosity,” The Aging of Aquarius, pp.63-68.

[2] Wilkes, “Starting Over,” Letters from the Lost, pp.45-63.