On December 25, 1950, my mother was at a Christmas party in Englewood at my father’s mother’s house. She was pregnant with me. And her water broke about 8 PM. My dad took her to Michael Reese Hospital in a snowstorm and I was born there at midnight. I was named Benita Carol, my first name commemorating my dad’s father, Benjamin, and my middle name commemorating the holiday on which I was born.
I was a Christmas baby. And along with any hoopla surrounding my big day, I had to share it. Mine was always overshadowed. I always got one present–albeit a big one–from my parents for my Christmas/birthday celebration. Everything that day was rolled into one.
Some people through the years have sent me a birthday card and a Christmas card. And I always appreciated that.
But an odd thing happened along the way: My birthday got changed.
A few months after getting my driver’s permit when I was 15–and from that day forward, my driver’s license has always said December 25–I applied for my social security card. I’d just turned 16 and got a couple of part-time jobs in the neighborhood–giving out visitors’ passes at a nursing home a few blocks away; and hostessing at the Holiday Inn motel restaurant across the street.
I had to bring my birth certificate with me to get the card. And I found out my birthday was actually December 26!
My mother blew it off. I’m not sure she ever looked at my birth certificate, although she pulled it out for me to take to get my card. When I told her the news, she explained that I was born at midnight on Christmas night–and she swore she never knew that was considered the next day.
Of course, it made no difference in terms of being a Christmas baby and being cheated out of half my presents. The 26th, being thisclose to Christmas leads to the same result.
In a piece written in 2014 by Kristen McQueary, now head of the Chicago Tribune editorial board, whose birthday has always been December 26, she explains why she decided to start celebrating her half-birthday on June 26 instead. Because everyone was too tired, partied out and sick of everything from the day before for her to have a decent birthday celebration.
Since my birthday changed to the 26th, I, too, have found the enormity of the holiday the day before gives people little energy for My Big Day the day after.
When my birthday changed, I also had to accept–at least technically–that I was no longer born on the most important day in Judeo-Christian history. And everyone I’ve known has always been confused as to when my birthday really is: Christmas day? Or not?
But having a birthday that suddenly changed from one day to the next caused other problems for me as my life went on. Although, some friends who sort of know what happened, but really don’t understand what happened, wish me a happy birthday on both days. To be on the safe side, my mother does, too.
When I applied for social security widow’s benefits, I brought every single document known to US citizens: my birth certificate, my daughter’s birth certificate, marriage licenses, divorce decrees, my law license, mail addressed to me, old press passes and museum membership cards. But in addition to my date of birth variation, I also found out my name was “wrong” on my social security card.
It had never been changed. (Who knew one had to? I thought they tracked you by number!) My “real” name, Benita, was still there. A name that I never used (nor did my parents). And my married names had never been officially added to the card. They may as well have called me a name and birthdate hoarder, I had so many that were unofficially cluttering up my life.
But I still had to prove who I was. Because of the unchanged names and the dual birth dates, all of which were cluttering up my records.
Proving the obvious is pretty hard, I learned first hand. Just ask Marcia Clark and Chris Darden, who failed at proving the obvious: that OJ killed his ex-wife and her friend. I think my social security intake person knew I was me, but she sort of liked doing what she was doing. Because she could.
“I won’t be able to sign off on your social security,” she said, “if you can’t prove who you really are.”
At 13, I didn’t know who I really was. But I was applying for social security benefits–not going through a tough adolescence. Nor had I gotten a full blown case of dementia either.
So I went home and thought. What do I have in this house that could prove who I am, without question. What do I have better than a birth certificate, a social security card, a driver’s license and the rest of the contents of the bag I already brought with me that proved my identity?
I decided to put my grammar school yearbooks in two shopping bags and I hustled back a couple of weeks later to meet my social security sadist.
I’d tagged every page in each yearbook that had my name and picture on it with a sticky note. Pictures of me in each grade, pictures of me in the school plays, pictures of me with those who made the honor roll, pictures of me wearing Halloween costumes and in the gym practicing various contortions, pictures of me horseback riding in Lincoln Park–and on field trips to Kungsholm.
In addition to Bonnie (and a few Bonnys), a few pictures even had the name Benita (and even “Bonita”), thank goodness. So I guess the school did have a copy of my birth certificate–because they knew that name. But they never picked up on my real birth date. I was always a Christmas baby to them, too. Not that it made much difference, since we were always on Christmas vacation when my birthday came.
The woman with the unrelenting unreasonable personality took the yearbooks away from me for a long time. And I sat in her office waiting for her verdict as to who I really was.
I sat there so long, even I was beginning to doubt who I was. Could I possibly be some foreigner with phony documents trying to scam the US government out of someone else’s social security benefits?
When she came back, she explained she’d photo-copied every single page of every single yearbook which had my likeness and name.
Pictures of me sitting in the school library–which was the real library in the historic Patterson-McCormick Mansion, designed by Stanford White in 1891, which had become the Bateman School–to eating lunch in the gilded age dining room. She had me everywhere in the school. (And still does, I guess, in a file somewhere.)
I was who I said I was, she decided and she was done with me. Seeing when I started school and that I looked like me, year after year, and that my maiden name was affixed to the pictures, albeit the first and last names were misspelled occasionally, I was me, she said. (I told her the kids with the learning disabilities often worked on the yearbook–thus, the misspellings).
I got what was coming to me: social security. But I always wondered what if my school hadn’t had yearbooks, or what if my parents hadn’t bought one every year, or what if I couldn’t find them when I needed them?
She never asked too much more about the one day off birthday discrepancy, although I did explain what happened when my mother was in the delivery room at midnight on Christmas when I was born. “Who knew midnight would be considered the next day,” she always said. “I arrived in the delivery room dressed for a Christmas party; it was still Christmas!”
But SS did have one last jab at me: “You know, when you start getting Medicare, the names and birthdays are going to cause all kinds of trouble.”
(There was no REAL ID then, or she would have mentioned that, too, I bet. And I do shudder when I think of what I will have to go though when I try to get one.)
And a time or two, there have been glitches. I explain–and they’re overridden. And when I’m in a doctor’s waiting room and they call me by the “wrong” name, I don’t respond. Until maybe the third time…when I realize it’s me.
And sometimes, the cable company, let’s say, asks me for personal information to make sure I’m not trying to cancel someone else’s HBO as a practical joke–or that I’m not getting back at a neighbor for letting their dog trample my flowers by adding all sorts of extras to their cable service. They ask for my birthday, among other things to make sure I’m really me.
I used to take a guess as to what date they probably had, the 25th or the 26th. And when I’m wrong, I give them the other date–imagining they’d understand because December 25th is a date you might say inadvertently at some point because of it’s importance. And sometimes I’ll tell them the whole story. The story of my two birthdays.
But no one has ever thwarted me like the Social Security lady. Or been so unnecessarily suspicious.
These days, I’m getting tired of telling the story, though, so I just say, “It will be either December 25th or 26th. Long story.”
They don’t seem to be interested in hearing a long story, so when they see one or the other, they move on and ask me why I’m calling.
They seem to know they’ve got the real me.
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