As a child my folks gave me the everlasting gobstopper of birthday gifts: They forgot what day was I was born.
I didn’t find out until I was 17, when I was getting my first driver’s license, that my birthday is actually December 3rd and not the 4th, as I grew up believing and celebrating. Why, on the Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman set there were several of us who had the same birthday and we all called each other December 4th, like a club. Now, I was finding out that it was all a lie?
I’d sent away to get my birth certificate, which took forever (turns out when you ask for the wrong day it takes oodles more time to get the damn thing). But, it finally arrived in the mail. I grabbed it without glancing at it (who the hell checks to see what day they’re born?) and snatched up the paperwork as well, and begged my mother to take me down to get the coveted and all-powerful driver’s license
The place was packed, and it seemed to take forever to get to the front of the line. I gave my paperwork to the overworked DMV employee and waited for him to hand me my written test. It seemed to take too long as he stared at my paperwork. Finally, he looked over his bifocals and asked, “Why do you have December 4th as your birthday on all these forms?”
“Because, that’s my birthday,” I answered, confused.
“No it’s not. Says right here it’s December 3rd.”
I stopped for a moment. Then I became was certain this was a regular joke he must play on teenagers getting their license for the first time. I laughed.
He spun my birth certificate around on the counter, with his finger on Date of Birth.
Stunned, I stared at the paper and could only say, “Mom?”
She looked over my shoulder and muttered, “What the hell?”
But, there it was in official purple ink with the raised seal: December 3, 1963.
“Mom?!” I asked again. “You got my birthday wrong?” I demanded.
There was a beat, just enough time to see the people in line breathlessly leaning in to hear the answer, like the old EF Hutton commercials. (link for those not a fossil, like me)
“Well,” she shrugged, “there were so many of you I lost track!” she said with a ‘what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it?’ chuckle and a splay of her fingers.
I was positively floored. I took the written test in a stunned fog. Somehow I managed to pass the driving portion without ploughing into a curb. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I felt like I didn’t really know who I was.
Later that night, and ever after until the day she died, my mother vehemently insisted that my birth certificate was wrong, and that what she said at the DMV was a joke, waving off any questions. I was born so close to midnight, she said, they must not have changed the date on the birth certificate stamp. The 4th, she insisted, was my birthday, and that was the day my family continued to celebrate it. My father, uncharacteristically, kept his own council. My parents washed their hands of it and that was that.
Everybody else, though, needed my legal birthday. A fact I didn’t know. Hell, at that age I had no idea how it all worked. I was on my own in that department, and my parents pronouncement that my birth certificate was wrong was enough for them. Which meant that I over the next few years I had to change the information on file with the Social Security Administration, the IRS, Screen Actors Guild, AFTRA, both schools I was attending and just about everything else that uses your birth date for registration or as an identifier. Up until last year the AFTRA retirement department (for some unknown reason) STILL hadn’t changed my birth date. It was one of dozens of such changes I’ve made over the years.
The first and hardest change to make was with Social Security. I finally got around to it after my 18th birthday, when I could put it off no longer. I waited for hours in an uncomfortable plastic chair, to find myself sitting in front of a surly clerk trying to explain my situation.
“I have to change the birth date on my Social Security card.”
“I got a copy of my birth certificate to get my driver’s license and it turns out that my birth certificate was wrong.” At her confused look I continued, “See, my birthday’s really the 4th , but the hospital put the wrong day on my birth certificate because they forgot to put the stamp forward. So now I have to change my birthday on my social security card, even though they made a mistake.”
After a long, expressionless look she said, “The hospital got your birthday wrong?”
“Yeah, so even though my birthday’s on the 4th I have to change everything because the stupid hospital made a mistake.”
She held her hand up to stop my inane chattering and got to work. The instant she opened my file and saw the 2 pages single spaced of jobs I had done she sputtered, “When did you get your card?”
“When I was 5”
Instantly I became a novelty. She was happy to help, and interested in my story. Now, remember that it was almost unheard of at that time to have your social security card at that age. For my part I was amazed that they knew how much money I made each year. I wanted to know if I could see how much money I had made. I clarified: I wanted to know if I could see, but my parents couldn’t find out. She raised an eyebrow, and said, “Sweetheart you have the right to see this. They don’t, anymore.” I was floored.
I knew I’d made a lot of money, in a vague sort of way. I knew I worked more than any of my immediate peers, and had done so since I was a toddler. But I was never allowed to know how much. That was strictly forbidden. I was in the dark about everything to do with the money I rightfully earned, and it was a beating offense to ask where my money was. The notion that some stranger could print this up for me was dizzying. Simply dizzying.
An hour later when the paper work was done, I stood thanking the woman. I left clutching a 2 page print-out of the work I’d done since I was a toddler – it was a list of how much money I’d earned. I sat in my car, opened the envelope and gasped. My hand was shaking so hard I could barely hold the pen as I added up the columns. The heat was monstrous, but the sweat that ran down my back was cold. I remember the sick feeling I had looking at the total. More than three-quarters-of-a-million in today’s dollars. I added the figures again, and then again. They were the same every time.
That day, in those moments, sitting there in the blistering heat staring at those 2 sheets and all those zeros changed everything. I was 18 years old, but I finally had irrefutable proof in black and white (from the government no less!) that I was being robbed by my own parents.
Sitting in the shitty car my parents forced me to buy, roasting in the Southern California heat and looking at the figures my parents had forbidden me to see, I began to get angry. Really angry. A deep rage began that day that came calling for years afterward.
It was the beginning of the end of their hold on me, and a major catalyst for my quitting television and leaving Los Angeles.
In the years to come I found that even these figures were false. I had made more than a million dollars, and my parents lied not just to me, but to the IRS, Social Security, The Unions and my agents. You can read about it here if you want to know the gory details. (link)
The irrefutable facts are this: Their birthday fuck up had the unintended consequence of giving me my freedom.
And it was a fuck up, to be sure.
Although I wanted to believe that my parents hadn’t forgotten which day I was born, the evidence began to pile up.
I wasn’t born in a log cabin in the Appalachians and recorded in the family bible. I was born in one of the biggest hospitals in Los Angeles.
I wasn’t born anywhere near midnight, when there would be some plausibility of the hospital not changing the date.
In the 37 years since I found out from a public servant that my birthday wasn’t really my birthday, I’ve never met one person who had a hospital get their birth date wrong. Not one. I’ve never even met someone who knew a guy’s uncle’s cousin that it happened to. I never met a doctor who had heard of such a thing.
But, it wasn’t until after my mother died that I discovered the truth, hidden in the mountains of boxes in her home I was going through.
In a box of pictures and mementos I found a pile of paperwork and magazines from the hospital. There was a certificate of live birth from the hospital for a girl, dated December 3rd. I have an official looking piece of paper from the hospital with a gold seal and stamp, dated and signed in Sister Christine’s copperplate handwriting, welcoming said baby girl to the world on December 3rd, 1963. My mother kept these, yet never told me about them. All this paperwork she kept says I’m born on the third and she insisted to the bitter end that she was right. The hospital, the nurses, the doctors, the priests and nuns were all wrong. Everybody was wrong; everyone but her and my dad. For a guy who didn’t know when to stop talking he positively channeled Harpo Marx on this issue.
So, the truth is, I just never did enough to differentiate myself from the rest of the crowd and that my parents cared so little about me as an individual that they just lost track. No matter how many fortunes I made they couldn’t remember who I was. They really DID lose track.
My birthday and that craptastic tale was always part of the Ho-Ho-Horrible Christmas that was my youth. As a young adult it pissed me off to no end that EVERY YEAR I would have to explain this screwed up story to anyone who knew me before I turned 17.
Friends made after 1981 call me on the 3rd, to this day my brothers only ever call me on the 4th, and childhood friends are always confused.
This afternoon I fielded my first query of the year: Is it the 3rd or the 4th?
I have one friend I’ve known since I was 11 who – without fail – EVERY year asks the same question. Every. Year.
“Now WHAT day do you celebrate your birthday?”
Then it hit me: How lucky am I that people give enough of a damn about me that they would ask – that they would care enough about me to want to wish me a happy birthday WHENEVER it may be.
The date isn’t important: I’d been carrying around this anger baggage about my parent’s lack of parenting and was missing the love sent my way.
So, I made the decision to change the whole dynamic, and grabbed that bull by the party horns, and made it my own.
My birthday? It’s December 3rd AND December 4th – and the 7th, too, if you want. It makes not a whit of a difference when I celebrate another ride around the sun. What matters is that I made it, I’m still kicking, and I have people who love me.
THESE are the Everlasting Gobstopper gifts and promises I gave myself:
To move beyond the realization that I wasn’t anything but a paycheck to them
To never treat my son as a revenue stream or inanimate object with no voice
To break the cycle of their abuse, and let it end with their death
To speak up when I see abuse – wherever I see it
And – most important –
To accept the love I am deserving of from the wonderful people in my life
Two birthdays used to be SO grating – now it’s just great!
This weekend as I’m lounging on the beach in Mexico I will tell them it’s my birthday on Sunday and then again on Monday. Hell, yeah – I’ll admit it: I’ll start milking that cow tomorrow at the airport, and be trying to use it on Richard as we’re driving home from the airport when we get back.
I plan to be here this time next year, writing about how 365 days and nights reveal their treasures and sorrows.
I will feel all my feelings deeply and keenly – It’s my life, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to waste a minute of it.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more around the sun.