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VOL. 39 | NO. 1 | Friday, January 2, 2015

Surprises difficult for Christmas birthdays

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A repeating scene in “Breaking Bad,” which I’ve now watched twice, involves the protagonist’s birthday. Skyler White (Anna Gunn) breaks up bacon strips on the plate of her husband Walter (Bryan Cranston), arranging them into the digits that indicate his age.

Picture a graphic 51 intermingled with two eggs, sunny-side up, and a side of hash browns. No one’s ever done that for me. Which is not to say I’ve not been treated on my birthday – I have been, many times, to a variety of surprises.

I was born Dec. 26, 1951, in St. Dominic’s Hospital, Jackson, Mississippi, where the beautiful Cranford sisters were sharing a room. Norfleet Fleming, 34, and her younger sister, Lucille Batte, delivered babies 12 hours apart that day. The later child was I, arriving at 6 p.m., I’m told. Fashionably late.

My “twin cousin,” Martha O’Shella “Shellie” Batte, and I were featured on page one of Jackson’s Clarion Ledger., along with our mothers, naturally. If this were a novel, the author would describe the photo in detail, predicting certain character flaws, perhaps, from this or that feature of the photo of a child’s face.

The novelist might throw in a mysterious detail or two, portending the heart attack that would come 50 years, three months, and 26 days later. Yes, a creditable writer of fiction would cleverly invite readers into the puzzle she expects them to solve over the course of the book.

But this is no novel. I’m no fiction writer, although I did write a novel once, years ago. I read the rejection slip, agreed with the publisher that my fiction was pretty bad and dedicated my sideline to nonfiction. But I digress.

With a Christmas-season birthday, I’ve had the joy of being surprised at odd times of the year. Usually, my wife is the perpetrator.

She started the insanity in July 1975, surprising me with a beach party. We were spending a week at Pawley’s Island, S.C., with another couple, so the gathering was modest in size. I was puzzled when nothing similar happened a year later. What, no tradition?

But law school had begun by then. We’d moved, Susan and I, from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to Little Rock. Our biorhythms were firing differently.

A few years after law school, though, five days after a perfunctory birthday nod on the actual date, Susan sprung a surprise party on me New Year’s Eve. Aha! So this will happen when I least expect it?

The most surprising birthday of all came in the late 1980s. On Susan’s actual birthday in mid-April, I was taking her to dinner and had invited a handful of folks to join us. I should have suspected something when she chose Slick Willy’s, a restaurant-game parlor venue hardly known for its cuisine.

Meeting her there, I arrived after work and was greeted by dozens yelling “Surprise!” as they paused from playing “Pac-Man” and air hockey.

Ironically, we humans remember nothing of our actual birth. Yet we strive mightily to fashion birthday-anniversary occasions that will be unforgettable.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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