Pam Benham

Pam Benham at Box Lake on her birthday.

Herb Benham / The Californian

I called my sister to wish her happy birthday. Pam was older but how much older I wasn’t sure. Better to let her bring it up, which she did before too long.

For years, we’d had a birthday routine. She’d send me a $20 bill in May and I’d send her one in August. Although the money evened out, the crisp $20 was always welcome, came in handy and seemed like manna from heaven when it arrived.

“Herb, I have to tell you,” Pam said. “This one feels strange.”

“Strange?” I knew what she meant. Since joining the "60 club" a few years ago, all subsequent birthdays have seemed odd, as if there had been some clerical mistake that could be cleared up later, if “later” didn’t involve getting older.

“It’s the disparity between your chronological age and your how-you-feel age,” I said.

This was a cliche, I knew it, but it fit. I would have liked to have used something else but the creative cupboard was bare.

“You feel good, and you’re doing what you always do but the actual number is disconcerting.”

I had nothing against six. Six is a nice number. Six as in “Now We Are Six,” by A.A. Milne. Six as in I used to be six feet tall. However, when you drop a two, three or, in Pam’s case, a five on its other side, six loses some of its freshness.

“Sixty-five is strange,” she said. “Half my friends are retired and not only don’t I have plans to retire but I feel like I am at the beginning.”

Pam has had a go of it and if you’re going to have a go of it, there may be no better place to do that than Idaho, where she has lived most of her adult life. Better yet, McCall, Idaho — 5,000 feet, near Payette Lake and a pine tree paradise.

From a marriage that would challenge all but the saintly came two great kids — Colin and Nicoya. Pam gets a ton of credit because she gave every ounce of energy and every penny she had to see them through, and blazing through they came educated, confident and possessors of her work ethic and never-say-die attitude.

“It’s been a good birthday,” Pam said. “I have a job today. I can make some money and buy myself a present.”

She could buy herself a present but probably won’t. She’d buy a present for somebody else, a lens for her photography business or a new set of tires for her present car, one in a series of late-model specials.

“We took a celebration hike, a birthday hike,” Pam said. “Six miles, 2,350 feet of elevation gain from the Lick Creek Drainage to Box Lake. One of my friends made the whole hike and the other didn’t.”

The one who didn’t was probably younger and retired.

“The hike went through alpine meadows filled with lupine, Indian paintbrush, purple asters, daisies, and monks head,” Pam said. “The area is spectacular even with the 1994 fire."

The friends started down the mountain exchanging stories when one of them, Michele, stopped and said, "Listen."

There was a low, soothing sound, a wind song, coming from the opposite north-facing slope. The sky was empty, cloudless but there was a constant soothing hum. The tonal range changed, going deeper, then slipping back into a medium range. It was full, strong and soothing. Gradually the landscape became quieter and there was silence. 

Michele turned to Pam and said, "It’s the Grandfathers speaking.”

Pam looked at her and with no hesitation said, “It’s my father.”

Michele asked, "What is he saying?”

Pam responded, “He’s saying he’s with me.”

“A birthday present to you,” Michele replied.

The friends began hiking.

"I thought of Dad, missing him deeply and I prayed and thanked him for finding me in a wild and scenic landscape," Pam said. "He always showed up. That was enough for me."

The phone went quiet. Her side. Mine too.

We tried to keep it together. We failed, but we failed together.

That’s how Pam spent her 65th birthday. Working, hiking and having her father, who was a pitch-perfect tenor, sing her a song for the ages.

Herb Benham is a columnist for the Bakersfield Californian and can be reached at hbenham@bakersfield.com or (661) 395-7279.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.