Milestone Celebrations: How and Why We Make Special Birthdays or Anniversaries Life-Affirming Events
By Joy Elbaum


Some birthdays stand out as milestones along the paths of our lives. Whether it’s a 50th, 60th or even 70th birthday, many folks take the occasion to do something really special, something out of the ordinary – maybe even particularly challenging or life-affirming. What drives people to mark these occasions in a remarkable way? And what will you do on your next milestone birthday?

Challenging Yourself

Helpful Tips for
Arranging a Special Bash for a Milestone Event
Milestone birthdays are a good time to remind ourselves that the path ahead offers options: We can continue to grow, or we can grow old.

Eleanor Chin, an outreach manager for a media production company, opted for growth. In planning for her 50th birthday, she cast about for some activity that (1) she had never done before; (2) would push her own limits; and (3) she would always remember.

A non-swimmer with a fear of heights, Chin hit on the perfect activity. As always, her birthday fell during her family’s annual summer vacation at the beach – just the place for a parasailing outing! So Chin, with the support of her family, hooked up to a speedboat and sailed up into the air over the sandy dunes. She flew the highest among the participating family members.

Even several years later, the experience still lingers strongly in her memory. “It was really magical, like flying,” Chin recalls. “I always said if I could be granted a superpower, I’d want to fly. I loved seeing this incredible new view of the island.”

Not only magical, but self-affirming as well. “Fifty struck me as an important landmark,” says Chin. “My image of being 50 is of my parents being old. But I didn’t want to limit myself by that image; I know I’m not as old as they are in mind and in my body. So I chose to do something as risk-taking as I could to prove to myself that I could still – at my advanced age – do something like that.”


Filling in “What’s Missing”

Birthdays often bring regrets, as we lament the things we “coulda-woulda-shoulda” done, but somehow didn’t. There’s an alternative to the helplessness of regret: going back and filling in what’s missing.

Paul Ross seized on his 80th birthday, and coinciding retirement, to relive a period that he hadn’t enjoyed much the first time around. For 50 years, Ross had delighted in entertaining the youngest customers at his shoe store.

“How old are you?” he’d ask each newcomer, and whether the answer was 7 or 8 or 9, Ross would reply, “I was never (7 or 8 or 9).” A proven icebreaker, but with a hint of sincere regret.

As a Russian immigrant who’d worked in a sweatshop as a child, Ross’s early years had been nothing like those of his customers’. So, with retirement just ahead, Ross decided to launch himself into the carefree childhood he’d coveted. And he took his friends with him – to a Chuck E. Cheese pizza parlor/entertainment center, which was closed on this occasion to anyone below the age of 65. The festivities included arcade games, a sing-along with the “animatronic” birthday show, and such prizes as candy necklaces and rub-on tattoos. A great time was had by all!

Honoring the Past, and Oneself

Sometimes birthdays lead us to look deep into the past – our own, and that of our forebears. As Doris Ferrer Roach approached her milestone birthday, she felt a pull to research her Latina ethnic and religious roots. Among her findings: ancestors who’d practiced Santeria, a religion that arose among slaves in the Caribbean islands, combining elements of Catholicism with the ancestral African religion of the Yoruba.

Fascinated, she undertook an independent study of Santeria. While not a follower of Santeria’s religious beliefs, she was drawn to the strong feminine archetypes embodied in the religion’s orishas, its 1,000-plus deities.

Roach, who had left a promising law practice for the riskier path of a management and training consultant and life coach, sensed another major transformation coming, from a “work-in-progress” young woman into a fully realized, mature woman. And she wanted to honor this transition with a ritual.

Drawing from Santeria traditions, Roach decided to pay tribute, on her birthday, to three orishas – the female energy of Oshun, the transformative power of Oya, and the maternal spirit of Yemaya – all representing qualities that Roach prized and planned to exercise in the “next chapter” of her life.

On the morning of her birthday, Roach arose early and, accompanied by a close friend, proceeded to perform rituals identified for each of these orishas: for Yemaya, a trip to the ocean to experience the powerful pull of the tide; for Oshun, an offering at a river; and for Oya, a visit to a cemetery. At each stop, Roach and her friend sang and danced, and left treats that were the favorites of each orisha.

Did the former corporate lawyer feel silly doing these things? Not at all, she recalls; it was fun. And for whatever reason, during the course of the day, as she celebrated the qualities she prized, she went from regret over “everything I hadn’t done, hadn’t accomplished, and things I’d lost,” to an acceptance and embrace of the choices she’d made and the person she is.

Celebrating Relationships

“Roger and Laura are turning 100,” read the invitation. Actually, the twins were each hitting 50, self-described “semi-antiques.” Roger Blacklow, a labor organizer, and his sister Laura, an artist, decided to celebrate, with family and friends, both their shared milestone and their twinship.

Their venue was a ’60s-themed dance party, where period album covers decorated Laura’s art studio as the celebrants danced to Roger’s homemade mix tapes. Why the ’60s? Because, Laura explains, “those were our prime dancing years!”

The preparation itself was a major project, Roger recalls. Anticipating guests of varied ages, cultures and orientation, Roger painstakingly recorded a mix of Motown, “white music” (remember Perry Como?) and street-corner doo-wop, hoping to provide something for everyone.

“It all came together when we did the Stroll,” Roger says. “We were all so different – gay, straight, white, black, our kids, our 90-year-old father – but we were all the same.” Two high points in particular remain with Roger: seeing his sister dance with their father – for the last time, as it turned out; and meeting Laura’s friends. Long separated by geography, the twins proved themselves once again able to share experiences and friends, in this tribute to an enduring family relationship.

Rochelle Shusterman, too, focused on relationships in planning her 60th birthday celebration: a luncheon to which she invited a diverse group of women who had influenced, impressed and provided support to her throughout her life. The idea arose from Shusterman’s work, leading discussion groups of seniors with an average age of 85.

“These women in their 90s are my inspiration,” she says. “They know how to form relationships.”

So when, at age 59, she began to look back on her life and visualize her own senior years, her awareness of the nourishing power of women’s relationships kicked in.

“I’m struck with the power of women,” she explains. “I get a lot of sustenance from the women in my life. These women are my life, both professionally and personally.” How better to celebrate her life, than to celebrate these women – friends, family, co-workers, students – young and old?

With the help of her husband and grown son, Shusterman organized a gathering at which emotions and mutual admiration ran high. Some 40 women (and the two lone men) each spoke of their relationship with their hostess, and filled a memory book with their thoughts as well.

The memories of that day continue to remind Shusterman that in moving forward, she’ll be joining the company of those vital elders whose enduring friendships had so inspired her. And that she, in turn, is an inspiration to her own daughter (who flew in from medical school in Israel to attend the luncheon) and countless other women. What more could one hope for, in looking back and forward over a lifetime?


What Drives Us to Celebrate?

Human existence is made up of moments and stages of change: life cycle events – such as puberty, marriage, the arrival of children and grandchildren and, eventually, death – as well as seasonal events such as harvests and solstices. And, simply by virtue of our humanity, we may be hard-wired to create rituals to mark the boundaries between these moments and stages.

Anthropologists even have a word for the state of being that occurs in transitional moments: liminality, from the Latin word limen, meaning “threshold.” At liminal times, we are moving out of “here” but are not yet “there.” From Masai warriors marking a first hunt to American men at a stag party, when standing on a threshold we look back at the past as we prepare ourselves for an uncharted future. In the words of a proverb, “The most difficult mountain to cross is the threshold.” Ritual, observance and celebration provide the support we need to get over that threshold and on with life.


Time to Celebrate?

In his book From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives (Villard Books, 1995), Robert Fulghum notes, “rituals are timed by beats of the heart, not ticks of the clock.” The same goes for the milestones of a life: There is no set date for each. But we know in our hearts when that liminal time is upon us.

For Shusterman, it was the realization that, at 60, she had outlived many of her relatives. For Ross, it was retirement after a lifetime of work. For Chin, it was the memory of her parents, old at age 50, and a recognition of her own contrasting vitality and ability to keep on growing and meeting new challenges. So ignore the numbers; just listen to your heart. It’ll tell you when a threshold is approaching and will guide you to the right observance of that transition.

Joy Elbaum is a lawyer and a freelance writer who is facing her own milestone birthday in a few months.