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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Thoughtfulness defines who a person is

By David Shapiro

When I met my three siblings in Los Angeles to attend to family business, my sister from New York realized that our visit coincided with the second birthday of our grandnephew Tristan.

"I'm going to buy him a card," she said. "Would you like me to pick up one for you, too?"

Then, before I could answer, she added, "That's a stupid question. You never forget anybody's birthday."

I wasn't sure if she meant it as a compliment, but I had to admit it was true.

I had gotten off the plane with a card and check for Tristan packed in my bag. I also brought a card for a niece whose birthday was close at hand and a graduation gift for my nephew.

I've always lived far away from my sisters and brother, nieces and nephews, and sending them cards on their special occasions is a small way of staying in their lives.

It's something I picked up from my grandmother, who never missed birthdays and other special days in the lives of her loved ones.

It was so important to her that in her later years when her memory started to slip, Bubbie developed a system to help her remember.

At the beginning of each year, she'd buy all the cards she wanted to send during the year and fill them out.

Bubbie would pencil the date each was to be sent in the corner where the stamp goes, then stack them on the kitchen counter.

When a card came due, she'd slap a stamp over the date she'd written and mail it off.

I use computers to help me remember as I get older, but I still think of my grandmother every time I mail a card.

My wife has asked many times why I'm so obsessive about sending cards to relatives and their kids who don't often send cards to me or my kids.

I answer with something else I learned from Bubbie: It's not about them and what they do, but about what I do and the kind of person I want to be.

I suppose it goes to a desire to live on in the memories of those I care about.

When my name comes up many years from now, when I'm long gone, I'll be able to count on some niece or nephew to bring me back to life by saying, "Oh yeah, wasn't he the bald guy in the wheelchair who used to send us 25 bucks on our birthdays?"

Bubbie isn't just well-remembered; she's revered for the love, thoughtfulness and moral authority she left behind.

The late Honolulu police chief, Michael Nakamura, is remembered with the same kind of enduring affection, and one of the first things people recall about him is that he never forgot the birthdays of those who served under his command.

I wrote a column on Nakamura's passing before I left for Los Angeles to meet with my siblings and received an e-mail while I was gone from a retired police lieutenant who wanted to thank me for the good recollections my piece inspired for him.

I couldn't reply until I returned home and apologized for taking so long to e-mail him back.

"Your e-mail was not late, but more like heaven sent," he wrote back. "As you know, Chief Mike would visit or call his employees and wish them a Happy Birthday. Well, today is my birthday and because you evoked fond memories of Chief Mike, it made my day even more special."

Bubbie would say it was the most good I've done all year.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.