What most Americans can remember of their 21st birthday, if in fact they can remember it, does not include a particular emphasis on their birthday cake. I remember mine well, however. It was purple, and had a bible on it. It was specially made for the occasion and ordered by Dean Joe Maguire, a man who was legendary in his own right.
|Dean Joe Maguire|
Joe had been a Dean at Holy Cross for years, and lived in one of the residence halls. He wore purple, the school’s color, everyday. He had his own table at the local Chuck’s Steak House that they had painted a purple Holy Cross banner above, and was such a fixture at Holy Cross that alums from years before would stop in to visit with him all the time. He counted the local bishop and most of the local clergy among his friends. In so many wonderful ways Joe was larger than life, and it was his work that would establish an education department at Holy Cross, and guide many young people through the years to be excellent teachers.
The morning of my birthday, my phone rang, it was Dean Joe on the other end “Young Man.” the voice bellowed, “there is something here for you.” The night before my friend Kelly had taken me out for my first legal beer at midnight at Mahoney’s in Worcester, so I was still a little groggy when I picked up the phone. “Umm ok Joe, can I get it when we go out for dinner??” A loud laugh came over the other end of the phone “Enjoying our 21st last night… were we??”
Later that night my family drove up to Holy Cross from Connecticut and we went, along with Joe and my two friends Matt and another Joe, to O’Connors Restaurant in nearby west Boylston. I had the fish and chips and the beer sampler, which conveniently put 4 beers on one shamrock shaped tray for you to sample the various kinds that they had. Before, though, we picked up Joe from the house he was living in nearby in Auburn, and there on his coffee table was a large cake box.
|My 21st Birthday Cake.|
Joe was famous for his ordering of cakes. A friend of his was very talented at making them, so whenever one of us had a milestone coming up, Joe would order a cake that had some sort of significance for us, but they almost always were purple. The cake itself was chocolate, and melted in my mouth as soon as I took a bite. This was the sort of thing that Joe was famous for, unwarranted generosity and love and a desire to celebrate the very best things in life. When Joe died the following October, the Old Testament reading at his funeral was the vision of the Kingdom of God from Isaiah that included “choice wines and juicy meats,” and it was all too appropriate.
Sometimes we assume that the image of the saints is supposed to be of austere people, the ones who fast, who always look just a little discontented because they are here on earth and not in heaven. That does the saints a disservice. Sure there is time to fast, and certainly, as St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” but we need to pay attention to the moments in our lives where if we were just conscious enough of the world around us, we just might be able to rest in God in the here and now.
What we always knew about Joe was that, for no particular reason, he loved us. He would say it all the time, and it was so apparent that he was that way with the students who chose to befriend him that it often was uncomfortable to a world that didn’t want to believe that love could be genuine and without condition. These moments of joy that we shared with Joe proved the opposite to be true. All of this was rooted in Joe’s deep faith, and the simple truth is that is was his relationship with God that gave him the strength to love and that also gave him a joy to be able to celebrate.That purple birthday cake is the one detail that stands out from my 21st birthday, not because of its unique color, the bible painted on it, or even the amazing taste. What stands out most in my memory is the lesson that a great teacher taught me through it, that when we can love without condition, there is always something to celebrate.