On the morning of my ninetieth birthday I awoke very early and to a rather strange experience. The moment I opened my eyes I was blinded by a curtain of dancing, dazzling spots of light of different colors and shapes. They sometimes merged into one another, forming new shapes and sizes and colors, and never remained still. It was like looking through a kaleidoscope, and not at all unpleasant, and so I remained still for a while, looking into this magic, surrounded by a deep silence that was broken only by the sound of birds singing outside in the garden.
And as I did so, a curious thought ran through my head: that this was how the world was at the very beginning, before people came, just these colors and this deep silence, and nothing else.
Then I shifted my head slightly on the pillow, and the phenomenon vanished instantly. It was, after all, only the sun bursting through the window and stabbing right into my eyes. I could now lie with everything quite normal, and I was careful not to shift about too much lest I disturb my wife, who was sleeping quietly at my side, her still-dark hair tumbled about her head on the pillow, her breathing light and barely audible.
I lay there listening to the sound of the birds singing outside, one bird seeming to dominate all the others with its sweet, trilling notes-a mockingbird, I have no doubt. It was altogether a pleasant spring day, and I could not have wanted anything better for my birthday. Yet as my thoughts came awake, I was conscious of a certain heaviness growing inside me.
I was suddenly becoming aware of the fact that I was ninety years old that day, and that in turn gave my mind a morbid twist, for ninety was old, it was very old. At one time I would have considered anyone of that age as good as dead. Certainly it was the end of things. And what had I done in all those years to justify my existence? I had wanted to be a writer. But the best I had done so far were some short stories published in little magazines that few people read, some freelance writing for newspaper Sunday supplement magazines, and a short novel published by a small press that nobody had read except myself and the publisher, who went bankrupt right after he published my book. True, I had written dozens of other novels, but none of them had ever been published.
I thought of all that as I lay there that morning, and gloom swept over me. It was too late now. I could never be the writer I had wanted to be. There was nothing really to celebrate about this birthday.
Then I heard a faint stirring at my side. I turned my head a little. It was my wife. She was still sleeping, but was evidently in the process of beginning to awaken. As I looked at her and listened to her quiet breathing, I thought, Well, here's some compensation for all the things I haven't done. I had married her in 1935, during the Depression, and I'd had a wonderful life with her.
I remembered something of those early days, and a smile came to my face. Our first home was a furnished room in a brownstone on West 68th Street, and it was there one day, while we were still in the passionate throes of our honeymoon, that I led Ruby to the mirror that hung over the dresser.
I told her to look into it, and I stepped behind her, took both her cheeks between my fingers, and pulled, distorting the lovely features.
"When you are older, maybe sixty or seventy"-who could get older than that?-"you may look like this," I said, "but I'll love you as much then as I do now."
Well, I had kept my promise: I did love her as much now as I had then. But she never looked the way I had predicted. In my eyes, she was as beautiful now as the day I had met her, at a dance in Webster Hall in New York. She was only a year younger than I, and yet her features showed only the slightest wrinkling, and her hair was still mostly dark, with only a few touches of gray here and there.
Then I realized that she was awake and was looking up at me with her large, dark eyes, and she was smiling.
"Happy birthday, darling," she whispered, and I bent and kissed her.
Yes, I had a lot to be thankful for, and it took some of the gloom away. Besides, it was truly a lovely day, just perfect for a celebration, bright and sunny and gently warm. And at this time of the year the retirement community in New Jersey in which we lived was at its best, the streets decorated with rows of ornamental trees in full bloom, row after row of dazzling white blossoms. The flowers were out everywhere, the tulips, the daffodils, the irises, and wherever you went, you caught the rich fragrance of lilacs.
Our garden was at its best too, with our cherry tree a mass of pink, the dogwood delicately white, and the mock orange pure white also and giving off its orange-like fragrance so deep and rich it made you hold your breath. But it was our golden willow that held your attention, giant in the center of the garden with its long, thin branches billowing out into the shape of an old-fashioned ball gown, with some of the branches trailing along the ground gracefully.
The golden willow was the first tree we had planted when we came here to live, and Ruby and I had good reason for doing that, only it was a secret that we kept to ourselves. A mere thin sapling when we put it in the ground, it had grown to a tremendous size, outstripping all the other trees in the garden, standing big and beautiful in the center of them all, a shining gold centerpiece. It attracted immediate attention as we led our guests out onto the lawn that day to loll in the sun on the lawn chairs we'd set out and to sip drinks before dinner.
When our grandchildren were younger, they used to play hide-and-seek in the willow tree, and Ruby and I, watching them, would cast amused glances at each other, knowing well the hiding places in that tree. It was part of our secret. But the grandchildren were older now, too old to play, old enough to be able to join us for drinks.
Well, everybody was older that day, and there were fewer guests than there had been at previous birthdays. They had been dwindling for several years now, our relatives and friends dropping off one by one. Our son, Charles, and his wife were there with their adult children, as were our daughter, Adraenne, and her husband, and two or three still surviving friends, a relatively small number compared to what there used to be at previous gatherings.
Dinner was held as usual at the Harvest, a favorite restaurant of ours, and the Polish proprietress, a tall, thin, bony woman with a pronounced accent, whom we knew well from years of dining there, had insisted on making it a special early Thanksgiving dinner, complete with turkey and all the trimmings.
"For you," she had said to me when we were ordering the dinner, "it must be a Thanksgiving party. You are ninety. Not many people come to be ninety. So we give thanks to God."
It was an extraordinarily good dinner, a regular feast, and jolly enough, but not as jolly as previous birthday parties, and I missed two of our good friends who had died the past year, Ann and Pete Warth, with whom we had gone to Europe once, and whom we'd seen almost every day-both of them in that same year gone. And another was my younger brother, Sidney. All my other brothers and sisters had died in the past few years, and I had fully expected that Sidney, who was ten years younger than I, would outlive me. But no, he too had gone, and I was the only one left in my family.
I thought of that in the midst of all the jollity at the dinner table, and I felt a heaviness inside me, but was careful not to show it to Ruby or any of our guests.
The highlight of the party came with their serving of the birthday cake. The proprietress herself carried the cake in, leading a procession of waiters all singing "Happy Birthday." She placed it in front of me, while those at our table and the other tables around us all cheered. There were nine tall candles burning in the top of the mountainous multilayered cake, each one representing a decade, and I was to blow them out-if possible, in one breath. That was my intention, and it would show them that I still had strength enough to do the job. I bent down over the cake and blew as hard as I could, but all that happened was that the flames on the candles flickered to one side but remained lit. I blew again, and the same thing happened. There were encouraging shouts, and I tried but failed once more. Amidst all the shouting and laughter, one of my younger grandchildren, Pete, slipped over to my side, saying, "Let me help you, Grandpa."
He bent down beside me, pursed his lips, and blew, and all the candles went out. Cheers went up, and more laughter, and I had to laugh with them. I thanked Pete, hiding the mortification I felt, and cut the first slice of cake. I tried to forget what had happened. But it was the first time in all my birthdays that I had failed to blow out the candles on a birthday cake, and it hurt.
We saw our guests off that evening. It had grown dark by then, but it was still early. We stood outside and waved to them as they drove off in their cars. Then we started to turn to go back into the house, but stopped. It was a lovely evening and there was a full moon out, big and bright in a sky filled with stars. I think it reminded us of something, another evening like that. But neither of us said anything about that.
"Would you like to go for a walk?" I asked.
"Yes." Ruby spoke instantly. She loved walking, as I did, especially on evenings like this when it was just too pleasant to be indoors. The weather, in fact, seemed to have grown warmer, and it was almost a summery warmth, so there'd be no need for me to go in and get her a wrap of some sort against any evening coolness.
Ordinarily, a walk would have meant going around the lake, which was at the foot of our street and had a path that was a little more than a mile in circumference, just long enough for an evening stroll. But instead of turning to the right toward the lake
I turned in the opposite direction and led her with me. She was puzzled.
"Where are we going?" she said.
"You'll see," I said.
It wasn't far. I led her to our garden at the back of the house, and there was the golden willow I had brought her to see, shining and more beautiful than ever in the moonlight, as I had expected it would be. And more than that: It was a duplicate of the one we had seen in Central Park so many years ago, which had inspired us to plant this one.
The feeling for that night was strong in me. It had been a long time ago, before Ruby and I were married. It was the summer we had met one hot night at a dance. I had no job then, and no money, so I couldn't take her to theaters or places where it cost money, and Central Park was free. Ruby didn't care so long as we were together, and she went with me gladly to the park almost every night. There were band concerts on some days, and outdoor dancing on others, and there was always the zoo, and perhaps best of all, the benches hidden in the shadow of trees.
That night we had gone to the band concert, and we sat listening for a while, then became restless. It was a night like tonight, a full moon in the sky, stars everywhere, and we slipped away and began strolling hand in hand along the path that borders the lake there, pausing now and then to kiss. Suddenly, we saw it from a distance, towering over all the other trees, its golden leaves shining in the moonlight. We had never seen one before, and its beauty took our breath away. We went up to it and stood looking at it closely for a while, then I parted some of the branches and we stepped inside. It was like entering some holy place. It made me think of a cathedral, with its high ceiling formed around the thick trunk. Ruby and I stood looking at each other in the dark, and then I put my arms around her and drew her to me, and then we were lying on a bed of soft, rotted branches that had formed around the base of the tree over the years, and we could hear the band playing in the distance, and it was there we had our first lovemaking.
Well, it all came back to me as I stood looking at our willow bathed in the moonlight in our garden, and I suddenly found myself parting the branches of the tree with one hand while holding Ruby's hand with the other.
"What are we doing?" Ruby whispered, looking around, fearful that some of our neighbors might be watching.
I didn't answer. I knew what I was doing. I tried to lead her in. "Come on," I whispered back.
"Are you crazy?" she said.
"No, I'm not," I said. "Please come in with me."
"Do you realize," she said, "you're ninety years old?"
"Yes. That's why I want to go in."
She came with me into the tree. Perhaps I had been thinking also of trying and failing to blow out those candles on the birthday cake. Perhaps some of the sting had remained. But I think it was more than that. It was the moonlight too, and the recollection of that night in Central Park. Our bed was as soft as the one there. Many years of rotted branches and leaves had accumulated, and the loamy smell was strong in our nostrils. We slept afterward, close together, our arms wrapped around each other.
Excerpted from The Golden Willow by Harry Bernstein. Copyright © 2009 by Harry Bernstein. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.