Jerry Della Femina
ON MY BIRTHDAY I ONCE AGAIN REVEAL THE SECRET OF LIFE
This is practically the same birthday column I write every year. Nothing has changed except I’m a year older and a lot crankier…
I want to thank Donald Trump and Bill de Blasio for keeping me alive. I do not intend to die while these two idiots are in office. I’m cranky because I’m watching the world in de Blasio land deteriorating right before my eyes. Every street in midtown Manhattan has a beggar sprawled out on the sidewalk. Many of them are junkies in their 20s and 30s.
Their signs are a hustle. “Help Me … Help Me … Help Me.”
My favorite is the young woman whose sign reads, “Pregnant. Hungry. Please help.” I’ve passed her on Madison Avenue and read that sign for over 2 years. She's going into her 23rd month. She still doesn’t show.
I walk past them all and realize how lucky I am. They will always be alone. They will never enjoy the secret of life. I think about it every day.
The secret of life can be revealed in one word: Family.
I’ve had two wonderful wives, I have five great kids – Donna, Michael, Jodi, Jessie and J.T. – and seven wonderful grandchildren: Zoey, Zach, Jack, William, Anabel, Charlie and Maggie. That’s the secret of life.
It all came to me at another birthday celebration for me that took place many years ago at a family beach bonfire. I was sitting cross-legged on the beach in the most uncomfortable position one could be in while one is contemplating his life.
I stared into the fire and this is what I thought:
I’m lucky. I’m so, so lucky.
I’m lucky because I grew up in Brooklyn and I live in New York City and in the Hamptons and it doesn’t get better anywhere else in the world.
I’ve lived and live in the best of times. The three greatest inventions in the history of mankind have come in my lifetime. Forget about penicillin and splitting the atom. Penicillin is about sickness and the atom is about death.
The three greatest inventions of my, and your, lifetime are:
The George Foreman Grill
Take it from the birthday boy. Eating, listening to great music on Pandora, and not waiting on tollbooth lines are what a good, superficial life is all about.
As the fire burned I thought about my birthday and how, somehow in my life, I got all the breaks.
I’m lucky because I was in advertising in the 1970s when it was wild and crazy and I was, some would say, the wildest and the craziest. It came naturally. I survived. I came into advertising in the 1960s as a messenger without much of an education. I was delivering packages for $24 a week.
By 1978 I co-owned a $600 million advertising agency. I also learned that money isn’t the end-all. I would go out to my fancy L.A. office and my agency-leased Hollywood Hills home and rent a convertible and ride the coast highway alone, obsessively playing the Neil Diamond song “I Am I Said” over and over.
The words of this part of the song were not lost on me:
“Did you ever read about a frog
Who dreamed of bein’ a king
And then became one
Well except for the names
And a few other changes
If you talk about me
The story’s the same one.”
Then, as I stared at the bonfire, I realized how my family and extended family have grown. There, sitting cross-legged with much more ease than me, were our good friends Michael and Nancy Hodin and Andy Saffir and Daniel Benedict. All five of my children and their spouses and their children were enjoying the fire under a blanket of stars and a world-class moon.
I sat and looked at my family and I thought about how small my family was when I was a kid. It was my brother Joe and me, my mom and dad, and my grandparents. My wife, the beautiful Judy Licht, who was an only child, grew up in a smaller family than mine.
We never talked about having a big family. It just happened.
Then I realized that when Connie and Michael Della Femina had their first child, they set off a chain that came together here around this beautiful bonfire.
In the end, it’s about family. It’s not about religion or money or power or any of the things we all grow up thinking that matters. It’s about family.
I looked at my family and watched as the light of the bonfire flickered and reflected on their faces. My sweet granddaughter Zoey Hart took her musically-talented dad Adam’s guitar from him and started to play and sing. Her sweet voice had its own orchestra of waves that were softly hitting the shore. She’s very talented. That’s just not grandfather talk, that’s the plain old truth.
My daughter, Donna, looking very much like her wonderful mother Barbara, proudly watched and kept a close eye on her son, Zach, who was toasting and consuming marshmallows at an alarming rate.
The firelight made everyone’s eyes sparkle. My daughter Jodi was holding Anabel, whom everyone calls Beany, the oldest of her now three beautiful children (Charlie and Maggie have been born since then). Beany, with her Asian/Italian looks, is so, so beautiful, she takes my breath away.
Next to her was my son Michael and his wife, the beautiful and sweet and stylish Laurie, and their two handsome sons, Jack and William.
Now my granddaughter passed her guitar to John Kim, my wonderful son-in-law. John is a born entertainer. He played his guitar and sang in the frat houses of Brown and Harvard, where he went to school. His singing voice is rich and husky and I hear a lot of Rod Stewart when he sings. John started to play the guitar.
He started singing the old Rolling Stones classic, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”:
“No, you can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime you just might find
You get what you need.”
I looked at the faces in the firelight: Judy … Jessie (who since then has married the wonderful Ben Gliklich) … J.T. … Beany … Donna … Michael … Laurie … Adam … William … Jack … John … Jodi … Zoey … Zach …
My family. My life.
John’s husky voice filled the soft night air.
“You can’t always get what you want.”
I smiled to myself.
“Oh yes you can,” I thought to myself. “Oh yes you can.”
I know I did.
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