Previously Owned: Many Happy Returns

MomMarch 14, 2006

I almost forgot that today was my mother’s 71st birthday.

I say almost because I finally remembered at 11:16 p.m. And I was presented with a dilemma.

My parents, objectively speaking, are old. They live in a retirement community in Port St. Lucie, Florida. And there’s not much to keep them up late at night, other than arthritis, Turner Classic Movies, or the occasional ambulance dispatching a soon-to-be-former neighbor. Do I call at 11:16 p.m. to wish my mom a happy birthday and run the risk of waking them up – or worse yet, giving them both heart attacks? Because in my parents’ world, any phone call received after 11 p.m. means somebody is dead, dying, or arrested. (Don’t ask me how I know about that last option.)

Or do I wait until tomorrow, when my birthday wishes would be tainted by belated – a word that practically shrieks, “I am self-involved and thoughtless.” (Both of which are true, but that’s beside the point.)

Cynics might think: “Will, you’re adopted. What do you care? It’s not like she’s your real mother.”

In fact, it’s just the opposite. While many woman can get pregnant and have a baby if they chose to, my mother could not, despite repeated efforts. And while conceiving (for some) is effortless (and fun, or so I’m told), adopting is not – especially in in the analog Dark Ages of 1969.

My parents had to fill out all manner of government paperwork, sit through countless interviews and inspections by social workers, and go through extensive background checks before they became my proud new owners. They even fostered kids, and had to fend off at least one troubled father who wanted his back. The process of acquiring the Smartass Who Became Known as William McKinley Jr. took years, and generated more than a few disappointments.

And why did they go to all this trouble? So they would have someone to call them on their 71st birthday.

It’s not really that much to ask. They took me in, fed me, clothed me, put up with my teenaged obsession with Dark Shadows, paid for me to go to private school and NYU, and continue to lend me money as I approach the age of 40. And I’m not even technically related to them. That’s a pretty sweet deal. And all they ask for in return is a phone call on their respective birthdays.

So I decided to call. Thankfully they were both still awake, probably watching something on TCM.

“I just got out of work,” I lied when my mother answered the phone. “Sorry I couldn’t call earlier.”

I wished my mom a happy birthday, told her what I had been up to, and asked what she was doing to celebrate.

“Talking to you,” she said.

Today would have been my mother’s 80th birthday. She died on December 28, 2007. An earlier version of this essay was originally published on March 14, 2006. She thought it was funny, but didn’t appreciate being called “old.” 


About willmckinley

I'm a New York City-based writer, producer, and digital marketing consultant. I've been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by Robert Osborne), NPR, Sirius Satellite Radio, and the official TCM podcast. I've written for, Game Show Network, getTV, Sony Movies, and NYC weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News. I'm also a contributor to four film-and-TV-related books: "Monster Serial," "Bride of Monster Serial," "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial," and "Remembering Jonathan Frid."
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7 Responses to Previously Owned: Many Happy Returns

  1. Peter Gong says:

    Happy Birthday, Mrs. McKinley, somewhere in heaven; I can see you still being a proud mother showing off Will to anyone and everyone. Your unconditional love and wisdom had produced a marvelous writer, lover of classic films, and doing well. Your legacy lives on. Will was and is a lucky boy to have you and Mr. McKinley–look what he’s become–you did well. I salute you. Being a Mother is the hardest job and you did better.

    See you in Hollywood, Will, you old softie! I had to dabb away a few tears while reading this.


  2. le0pard13 says:

    Your mother sounds like a grand one, Will. Blessings to you both.

  3. KC says:

    Really nice. Good advice too: always make the call.

  4. Kelly says:

    Your parents sound great actually is my father introduce to old movie and classic tv shows thanks to KTLA rerun Twilgiht Zone then ole Bette Davis movie would show up at Movies at Dawn which I only could watch in summer months
    This way before my parents score AC for the childhood house

  5. You are a lucky man to be chosen and I believe your parents were good influences on you. Happy Birthday to your dear mother.

  6. benderoni says:

    Due to the nature of my work, I travel a lot. I have missed birthdays, anniversaries and holidays too numerous to count. This entry was a lovely splash of cold water in the face. I’m calling my parents right now. I’m sorry for your loss and happy for your memories.

  7. Scout Paget says:

    Quite lovely and loving.

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