Relay: Happy Birthday, Dear Duvall

That first solo birthday is not actually an event you embrace or enjoy
Durell Godfrey photos

Last week was the first birthday of the rest of my life. 

Well it’s not like I just got over a disease and I now have a new lease on life. Nothing like that. This was the first “celebrated” birthday in my life that I had not been with one or both parents, or, as an adult, in the company of an important boyfriend, significant other, or spouse, a first celebration solo. 

Those of you freshly called “widows” and “widowers” know that the first birthday after the loved one is gone is a weird one. That first solo birthday is not actually an event you embrace or enjoy. Mostly you want it just gone (like the first Christmas: too many changes, too much missing). In my personal memory that first year was a blur, not fast, just blurry.

But, having passed all the firsts in the year after the death of my husband, I am now on to the next chapter. I find I am no longer thinking in the plurals of “ours” and “we.” This new chapter is called “My, Me, Mine.”

My birthday, thanks to an invitation from a wonderful pal, was spent in the Virgin Islands. (The irony of a widow in the Virgin Islands was not lost on me, by the way.) I was invited to hang out for a long weekend with her and mutual friends at her fabulous house on St Thomas. Or, was it a coincidence that it was my birthday. How lucky am I? 

The house is at the far east end of the island, overlooking the St. Thomas yacht club across the small and oddly named Cowpet Bay. Palm trees, turquoise water, and good buddies. What a treat to leave the East End winter for that east end.

I slept listening to the tropical tides lapping at the iron shore below the infinity pool, which was 10 steps away from my sliding door. I watched a rainbow during one of those crazy tropical storms that last minutes. I put on a mask and snorkeled and paddled off the beach at Magens Bay and watched two sea turtles having a lunch of seaweed about 10 feet under my tummy. I slathered on sunblock (near the Equator, you know) and stayed hydrated (ditto). And the clouds, well, the clouds are fantastic, and the sun kind of does go down like thunder, though there is a bit of dusk after it is gone, contrary to Kipling. 

Being a loosely knit group of three dames and sometimes four, and two guys but sometimes three, some of us did one thing, some did other things, all did some, and at times I was solo beside the pool, which, can I mention again, overlooked totally turquoise water, clear as a bell and dotted with boats I could wave to if I felt like it. 

My room faced the sunset, which bounced off that bay and off the infinity pool and gave me no end of pleasure as I took pictures of reflections. One afternoon, in the pool, I looked over the edge and down in the vegetation and palm trunks and there were iguanas in courting mode, bobbing heads and looking like Jurassic Park. My imagination was, at times, in overdrive. Where was my camera when I needed it?

St. Thomas is one hour earlier, so my island time was different from their island time, and while I was in a place where I could sleep as late as I wanted to, I was awake before dawn. Who knows why. 

I was aware of the moment when the night peepers outside my window shut up in favor of the early morning birds doing their vocal exercises. (Discretion being the better part of living another day, for the peepers.) I heard the tiny sounds of birds landing on a sugar-water feeder. Sneaking outside I tried to get a good picture of the many hummingbirds that were having their breakfasts. All this surrounded by flowers in colors that are so glorious they have no name and a tiny little lizard on the screen. 

My birthday dinner, surprise, was at a long table, beside the marina near the ferry to St. John. A band and a bunch of new friends and funny cards and gifts totally topped my special day. The singer with the band tried really hard to get my name right when she sang (to my total embarrassment) “Happy Birthday” to me, so I can say that a Doral, Duvall, Donnell, and Doowall was/were all serenaded along with me. My birthday cake was a slice of local pie with a candle. What could be better than this?

About 20 minutes from the house, in downtown Charlotte Amalie, there are nifty old warehouse buildings with wonderfully painted arched doors housing all the local color and duty-free stuff your heart could desire. The harbor is bustling. Gigantic cruise ships come in and disgorge countless thousands of sea-legged folks who want to spend their retirement savings on gemstones and designer luggage. The cruise ships look like the mother ship from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” when they cruise out, lights ablaze, much like a slice of pie with 72 candles, all lit up. What a sight — bedazzling and keeping the economy going, but also clogging the streets and venues so the locals stay home, if they can, on the days the ships come in. (We did that.) 

Two local friends drove us around, thus we were able to get to a beach that was too far to walk to (Magens Bay) before church let out, so as to get a good parking place. We got dropped off at the ferry to St. John without having to figure out where we were going to park, and we always took the scenic routes so I could take pictures. 

Now, pretty much everything is scenic in its own way, and while I would have walked around on my own, the roads terrified me. They drive on the wrong side of the road and they do it really fast. There are no shoulders along these narrow lanes, just bushes, views, oncoming cars, free-walking chickens, and, yes, East Enders; there are deer on this island, too, and there isn’t much room for one car much less one coming the wrong way around a bend. 

I was astounded that anyone could or would do this driving, but they do and they can, and that was also a birthday present: that I didn’t have to drive, anywhere. For that I am really, really thankful.

Durell Godfrey is a contributing photographer for The Star.