It’s a horrible feeling when you belong to nobody, and nobody belongs to you. When you don’t matter to a single soul—there is no worse feeling in the world. That feeling nagged Clem throughout much of his life. He used to walk around, wounded and broken inside. Though what he felt inside may never have shown on his tough armor that he wore in public, Clem often felt his life pretty much meant nothing. So how did he ever get to where he was today? How did he get to be so blessed? It amazed him.
Born in 1917, Clem Manning never thought he’d ever make it to one hundred years old, yet here he was. Today was his special day, though he didn’t want any fuss over it all. But he was living with his daughter, Violet, for the past few years, and she wouldn’t have it any other way but to put together a celebration to remember. With a houseful of people, some inside, some in the backyard, and some on the front porch, Clem could say that he no longer felt that he belonged to nobody and nobody belonged to him. It was a beautiful Arizona day, and the distant mountains were ablaze in a fiery purple. It was a day made for birthdays.
Seeing one make it to one hundred was rare and amazing sight to witness. To make it this long meant you beat the odds. Most of all, it was amazing to good, old Clem, himself. His parents died young, long before he could remember them. If others in his family lived longer, he never would have known. The only kin he knew of was his aunt and her husband. They may have taken him in, but he certainly never felt wanted. Both of them slapped him around, punished him by locking him in closets, and prevented him from eating meals when he was bad. They also neglected his needs of decent clothing and a good bed. He had a beat up mattress on the floor or nothing but the hard floor, itself, when he was being punished. Thankfully, somehow someone intervened, and he ended up in a boy’s home. That place wasn’t a whole lot better when it came to dodging a hard hand, but he was kept clean and with a full belly.
Clem ran away when he was fifteen from that place, and that was in the throes of the Depression. From there on, he fended for himself. His days of experiencing hunger from living at his aunt’s house helped him to be street smart. The petty thievery he learned to master—just to manage to stay alive—continued on beyond childhood. Like many men, down on their luck and traveling the country, he rode the rails illegally. Just how did Clem survive to be so old, anyway? In his hobo days, he’s been shot at, chased by police, and bitten by dogs. He also almost drowned once in a rapid river, and had a bout with double pneumonia that made him downright delusional and on Death’s door.
But when the second world war came about, life became easier for Clem. He found his sweetheart, Bess, married her and settled down out west. He wanted to fight in the war, but a hernia disqualified him from joining. His life was surely spared then, for many of his friends were drafted in the army, went overseas, but never made it back alive.
It sure has been one heck of a life. Resting in his easy chair, he was thankful he still had his wits about him—had a sound noggin—and that he could see and hear still alright—with the help of coke bottle glasses and a hearing aid. Everything that surrounded him was a grand sight to look at, knowing that he helped to create all this hustle and bustle of people in his presence, those here simply to honor him.
He and Bess had three of their own children, Hank, Violet and Daisy, and they also adopted two more, Ted and Sam. It was during those days in the home for boys that Clem saw some of the luckier ones go to good families, selected by potential parents that could give them the secure homes they desperately wanted. Clem was never picked but picked over. Because he never got that chance, he swore he’d help out those just like him, ones who felt unwanted or ignored, ones that belonged to nobody and nobody belonged to them. He did just that very thing and strove to become the best dad he could possibly be. This was a learning experience for him, and his mistakes were his teachers. Nobody showed him how to be a father, but Bess was his rock and his ally. How he longed to be with her, again.
Clem outlived all of his friends. He lost his sweet Bess fourteen years ago, and buried one of his children—his beloved firstborn child, and it wasn't easy to bury Hank. It should have been the other way around.. There were now thirteen grandchildren, and he never did remember how many great grandchildren that there were, but they were all here now. It was a miracle to have everyone under one roof, as there was family scattered all across the country. He smiled to himself as he thought about how everyone took the time out of their busy lives just for one, old geezer.
“You better matter to someone right now”, Clem once told a good friend, “Cuz one day you’ll be long gone, and you’ll be lucky if anyone knows your name. It doesn’t matter if you are loved by one hundred people—or one person. That’s how I see it, anyways”.
With his wife’s relations, and his children and their families, Clem knew the family tree had plenty of branches on it. His life did matter in this world. One of his grandchildren, Amber, mapped a tree out, and she made it all seem so spectacular, and put together like a royal family’s would be. Sketched around the details was a tree done in colored pencil—vivid greens and browns that were eye catching to even a old man with weak eyes—and today it was on display for everyone to inspect and talk about.
Clem knew very well that his days were waning, that soon he’d just be a memory in the minds of his children and his grandchildren—probably not his great grandchildren who would barely remember him, if at all. Someday, he’d just be a name in the family records of that famous family tree. Like he said to his friend, his name would barely matter to anyone some day. He was simply Clem Manning, a guy who got a break in life and dodged disaster. Maybe only the good did die young, or perhaps he was just too stubborn to die.
But this wasn’t a day for having a sourpuss or for dwelling on the hard things. This was a day to remember for everyone, more than just a birthday for a lucky, old guy that beat the odds. Clem couldn’t eat much of the food made for his birthday feast—too rich or not appealing to his declining appetite—but he promised to have a nice sized slice of cake. It was red velvet with cream cheese frosting, his favorite.
Happy Birthday to you…happy birthday to you…happy birthday, dear Cle-em
Happy Birthday to you!
There was lots of applause, cell phones out and cameras snapping for picture taking, as Clem tried to blow out the three candles—1-0-0. Thankfully, he had a bit of help from the little ones up close, for Clem wanted to still show nothing was going to beat him, especially three, little, measly candles. But those weren’t just measly candles. They represented so much of who he was.
He still couldn’t believe he made it to see this day. How on earth did he pull it off, anyway?