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Birthdays mark more than years

We were a family of nine children. Seven survived infancy. I was the youngest of four boys and my sister Laura the youngest of three girls. We were the runts of the litter and a few years apart in age. I was called Big Brother.

As grade school youngsters during the Great Depression the larder was lean, and spending on needless things was kept to a minimum. Birthday celebrations were rare and gifts rarer. There was an ache in all of this; particularly absent was the excitement of revealing the surprises enclosed in colorful birthday wrap.

We, brother and sister, found solace in sitting on our tenement stoop to talk, sharing each other's childhood disappointments and growing pains. This communication developed into a close relationship; each used the other as a sounding board for emotional relief as we vowed to honor future birthdays to compensate for all those that we missed as kids. Our mutual dependency, respect and love have never diminished or faltered.

Laura's 75th birthday coincided with the millennium and my recovery from an emergency triple bypass heart surgery. Laura and my wife, Liz, were my strength before, during and after the medical procedure. We decided that ushering in a new century was an event that neither one of us had expected to live long enough to witness. It was a new beginning, and thus a chronological milestone and a 75th birthday celebration were planned, a momentous occasion to be shared by 2,000 others.

We booked a cruise in the Caribbean. This landscape artist landlubber was headed for the high seas, and the very idea conjured up youthful images of swashbuckling adventures by my favorite English author Jeffrey Farnol. His Black Bartlemy's Treasure and Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island had helped me look beyond the dismal tenement buildings where sis and I grew up.

An itinerary switch took us to Nassau in the Bahamas to join an armada of cruise ships assembled to celebrate New Year's Eve and the arrival of the new century. Passengers assembled on the pool deck, where they were greeted by the Celebrity orchestra, singers and dancers. Women dressed in haute couture ensembles and joined by gentlemen in tuxedos raised their champagne glasses to kindness and embraced, like a scene out of a Fellini movie, uttering significant words to each other. The revelers sang in tune with the orchestra's nostalgic melodies, while the tremendous display of fireworks crackled like popcorn in a microwave and lit the dark sky with sparkling gems.

I saw my dear sister sitting in deep thought with a distant and nostalgic look on her beautiful face, framed in a silvery coif. For years Laura used to think, almost insisted, that the New Year's Eve fireworks, the traditional midnight pot and pan pounding with wooden kitchen spoons and incessant cheering were all meant to usher in her birthday on the first of January. I failed to hide the truth from her.

"A penny for your thoughts," I said.

"We've kept our promise, John."

"Yes, we have," I answered and reminded her that at least part of the celebration was in her honor. She smiled, took my hand and said above the cheers, whistles and trumpet sounds: "Of course it is, John."

"I knew it was," I answered and wished her a happy 75th birthday.

But the New Year's celebration took its toll. As I stood at the railing of our stateroom balcony high above the Fort Lauderdale dock, I saw ambulances, fire engines and police cars, their strobe lights turning wildly. Several stretchers entered the ship's lower deck.

Earlier on that first day of the new century, it was announced that five passengers had suffered heart attacks during the raucous New Year's Eve celebration, forcing us back to port. Fortunately, they all survived.

This tragic event reinforced our commitment to each other, reminding us to face this new age with courage and hope and dreams as we pledged to make and keep promises, but most of all, to make the most of each day and keep a spot in our hearts for birthday celebrations.

John M. Angelini, 82, is retired and lives in Hudson. He travels, paints, draws and writes.