Annoying enough to have to put up with a telemarketing survey, but when the woman asked, "How old are you?" I cringed and replied, "I'll be forty next week." "Sorry, you're too old," she said with a laugh. "For the survey, I mean." I'm the one who's sorry, I thought, hanging up the phone. It wasn't just that the woman had called me old, but that for the past few weeks I'd been feeling-I don't know-unaccomplished.
I'd always wanted to be someone glamorous, like an actress or singer. Maybe I'd become a star on Broadway or television. My father is Joe Garagiola. He played big-league baseball, and then went on to become a TV sports commentator, author and beloved storyteller. Everyone knew Dad. Then there were my big brothers, one a TV anchor and the other a general manager of a major league baseball team. It was bad enough growing up in one shadow, let alone three.
Of course I knew how blessed I was-two incredible kids and a terrific husband. Still, the prospect of turning 40 had put me in a definite funk. At dinner, right after the telemarketing call, my husband, Paul, asked, "So, hon, how do you want to spend your birthday?"
"Mommy's gonna be forty, Mommy's gonna be forty," my five-year-old, Maria, sang, while my son, Ross, rolled his eyes.
"Maybe we could do something nice and quiet on my birthday," I said. "Like ignore it." Paul laughed, but I was only half-kidding. "Anyway," I said, "Ross and I have a den meeting that night."
"Well, it's okay if you don't want a party," Paul said. "But you shouldn't feel bad about getting older. Take your dad... "
"Don't get me started on my dad. By the time he was forty, he'd finished a nine-year career in the major leagues, been on network TV, written a best-selling book-"
"Unpublished in my filing cabinet."
"You were a reporter on TV."
"Almost twenty years ago."
"Okay, okay." Paul finally gave up.
A couple of days later, I was sitting at the kitchen table in my mom and dad's house, trying to make a joke about the "big four-oh." Dad was opening his mail, lots of thank-you notes from all over the country. He looked up.
"What's so bad about turning forty?"
"I don't feel like I've done anything."
"What are you talking about?" my dad shot back in his no-nonsense way. "When we get to heaven, God doesn't ask for a list of achievements. He'll just ask if we've been working hard to help people."
"I know, Dad. That's what should matter. But look at all you accomplished by the time you were my age."
"Sure, I know God is happy that I used the gifts he gave me to make something of myself. But I have to believe that he's even happier when I use those gifts to help someone else." Dad picked up one of his letters. It was from an Indian mission school where he'd raised money to build a baseball field. "Now this makes me feel successful," he said.
"I'm never going to help build a baseball field," I said.
"Gina, the things you do with your kids, your church, the Cub Scouts-that's how you should measure success."
Planning Cub Scout meetings or figuring out what to make for dinner each night was not something anybody noticed. It would be easier just to let my birthday pass quietly.
"Probably on the playground. I'll go round them up." Mark walked out, leaving me alone in the church classroom. If this is how I measure my accomplishments, I'm in trouble. The boys don't even respect me enough to be on time. Forgive me, Lord, but what a way to spend my fortieth birthday.
Just then the door opened to the sound of high-pitched singing. "Happy birthday to you!" It was my entire Scout pack marching single file, each one of them handing me a card as he passed. Behind them was one of the den moms, carrying a big cake with candles. At the end of the line was Ross, holding the gift the boys had bought me: a paperweight that read Thank You. Then Paul and Maria came in. "Momma's forty! Momma's forty!" Maria cheered.
I opened each of the cards and read the messages from my troop: "Thanks for being our den leader." "We appreciate you, Mrs. Bridgeman." "Thanks for not getting mad at us when we couldn't learn Morse code." "You made our den the best in the pack."
As my hands sifted through the birthday cards in front of me, I suddenly flashed back to my father's kitchen table and the sea of thank-you notes in front of him. I could still hear Dad's words: "The things you do with your kids, the church, the Cub Scouts-that's how you should measure success." On my fortieth, I finally felt like a star.