From David Maughan Brown in York: Not just another Birthday


29th November

Yesterday saw yet another lockdown birthday come and go.  This time it was my own.  In many respects the contrast from one year to the next could hardly have been be starker.  Last year I spent the day with my younger son, Brendan’s, family in Cape Town, enjoying the already significant warmth of early summer two days before we flew back for Christmas in York.  The last week of November in South Africa always saw the first lychees coming into the shops and one of my annual birthday rituals, which was duly observed, was to enjoy our first lychees of the season.  Yesterday the temperature in York didn’t rise above two degrees Celsius at any point during a murky winter’s day.  Not only did it not feel like lychee weather but I didn’t set foot outside the house all day.  Being all too well aware that I wouldn’t really get to see, never mind hug, my York and Sheffield grandchildren or their parents, and that the day would see us feeling very isolated, I hadn’t been looking forward to it with any great enthusiasm.  But I hadn’t been taking due consideration of my wife and family’s determination to make sure it was a memorably enjoyable, and paradoxically social, day.

It started with breakfast/brunch shared with the family in Cape Town.  Brendan had organised a globalised breakfast for us with Anthony doing the buying and Zoom overseeing the sharing.  The main component was a nostalgic fruit salad consisting of mango, grapes, strawberries and passion fruit.   During the course of the breakfast, I unwrapped presents intended, according to the accompanying card, for ‘a relaxed afternoon’, consisting of a 1kg bag of dry roasted peanuts, four assorted bottles of craft cider and perry, and a copy of Barack Obama’s 750 page long memoir A Promised Land.  Not being a speed-reader, never mind a speed eater or drinker, the relaxed afternoon will extend into very many more than the single one envisaged.  I’ve already dipped very fleetingly into the Obama memoir – humane, articulate and elegantly written – which will keep me going for several weeks and raises, again, the question of how on earth the same country could elect two such polar opposite Presidents within four years.

Breakfast was followed by morning tea, again courtesy of Zoom, with Sarah’s family in Sheffield, with the opening of more presents, some exquisitely crafted birthday cards and a copy of a strikingly mature poem about winter written by the eight-year old younger of my two granddaughters.  I was told to expect a similar Zoom call with Sheffield in the afternoon, but when Susan called me over to her laptop at tea-time I was surprised to find the screen filled with an even more globalised gallery-view of all my siblings and their partners as well as Anthony and Sarah’s families: Johannesburg, Washington DC, Exeter and Swakopmund in Namibia being represented, as well as Sheffield and York.  Last year our interactions consisted of brief phone-calls and/or WhatsApp messages; yesterday we spent a very pleasant  hour catching-up, and agreed to do the same at Christmas.  Over the course of the day a couple of phone-calls had come in from friends and 10 greetings messages had come in for me on the extended family WhatsApp group from various nephews and nieces.

Dinner was again shared on Zoom, scheduled to allow the Cape Town contingent to get home from the party that had kept them from being included in the afternoon’s gathering.  Anthony had circulated a menu in advance (see illustration), I had made my choices which he had prepared, in the case of the excellent Irish chowder with our eldest grandson, twelve-year old James, as leading chef.  Anthony had sent the same menu, with recipes, to Brendan and Sarah so that they could prepare their own choices.  We all dressed as we would to go out, enjoyed a great meal, and spent two hours in each other’s company.  It didn’t take long before one simply stopped noticing that the company was ‘virtual’.   

The day was, on reflection, a testament to people’s capacity to adapt to changed circumstances.   I saw members of our children’s families in person for perhaps five minutes during the day when Kate and two of the children came round to give birthday wishes from a safe distance in person, and Anthony and James came to deliver the dinner.   But far from its being an isolated-feeling lockdown birthday it was probably the most sociable and, where members of the extended family are concerned, inclusive birthday of my adult life – thanks to the good offices of Zoom and WhatsApp, and the love, care and thoughtfulness of close family and friends.

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