It was while we were living in Greece that I acquired my now-battered copy of Kate Greenaway’s Birthday Book, in 1962 or 1963, when I was about eight years old. (The stamp on the inside back cover shows that it was purchased at Pantelides Bookshop which, when I looked it up on the Internet just now, is still in business, is still the largest English bookshop in Athens, and still has the same telephone number!)
I immediately set about asking everyone I knew when their birthday was so that I could enter their name in my new book, or asking them to write it in themselves. After we left Greece for India, I wrote our new address under the old one and began adding new names, first from friends in Kharagpur, then from classmates and teachers in Darjeeling. Five years later, as a teenager in England en route to the United States, I asked my English family and classmates from two different secondary schools to sign in as well.
By the time I arrived in the U.S., nearly sixteen, my ardor had cooled off, so that only a sprinkling of names have been entered since high school in Brookline. Besides, as the rate of my new entries slowed to a near standstill, the speed at which the years have rolled by seems to have increased exponentially. Now I know several people who share the same birthday, sometimes from three different generations. I wish I had thought to ask everyone to enter their birthdates as well their names, but as a child that didn’t even cross my mind.
My mother was always the one in our family who remembered and made sure to commemorate birthdays. Now that that task has fallen to my generation, I’m afraid that I’m not as consistent. I hadn’t consulted or updated the old birthday book for years, but this morning I was suddenly unsure of whether dear Uncle Ted’s 90th birthday was today or in a couple of days. Climbing precariously on a chair, I retrieved Kate Greenway from a top shelf in my book-crammed office, and confirmed the date. Coincidentally, I found my old Kharagpur friend Robin’s name entered on today’s date in my childish hand, and sent him birthday greetings in London via Facebook.
Kate Greenaway was a wildly popular illustrator of English children’s books in the late nineteenth century. Kate Greenaway’s Birthday Book was first published in 1880, with a different cover from that of my edition, but with identical illustrations (369 line illustrations and twelve color plates), format, and interior design. The University of Florida has digitized all her works, including her Birthday Book, online and fully searchable.
It is always heart-warming to receive birthday greetings, especially from friends and family far away, even if you know that they only remembered because they received a pop-up notification via Facebook. Last year I looked up and surprised a childhood friend from India with a Facebook message on his birthday, even though I had not had any contact with him for more than fifty years. How on earth had I remembered? It was in my birthday book. Recording birthdays in this way is clearly a fast-disappearing practice. It is perhaps for that very reason that I derive a special thrill from setting eyes on an old friend’s name, in her best handwriting or my untidy scrawl, and instantaneously being transported half a century back in time through the four-inch square portal of one little book.