The Birthday Paradox

Charlotte was sixty-two years old and living at her parents’ house. Again. Forty or more years later, but the situation felt familiar. For instance, she found herself sneaking out of the house. Maximizing distance and minimizing the amount of time she had to hear their familiar stories and abide by the house rules, their house rules. When Charlotte was young, it was only a game she had to play until she breached adulthood; in ripe maturity, it just seemed silly.

Charlotte had nowhere to go to when her second husband threw her out. Burt and Charlotte had only been married for ten months and were living in his condo, so it appeared he had the right to ask her to be the one to leave. Unfortunately, she had given up her apartment and her job when she had met him on an Alaskan cruise and followed him and his retirement income to California. Now she had almost nothing. No furniture. No pots and pans. No source of income. She had to start over again and the only place she could think of to do it was where she started – with her parents.

But her parents hadn’t stayed put. Almost two decades ago when they were old but spry, they had moved from Maine to a small house in North Carolina. Now they were no longer spry and only able to stay in the house because there were two of them to spot for each other as their bodies crumbled and were continually and temporarily resurrected. There was no childhood bedroom for Charlotte – she slept on a daybed in a room where her father kept his Mac and her mother kept her Singer. The old folks were glad to have her – both were fretting silently about what would happen if they were left alone. Charlotte fretted too – she worried about getting stuck if one of them became ill or if she couldn’t come up with some sort of income. And, of course, watching her parents she was faced with a chronological mirror of where she would probably be in a couple of decades. But her parents had each other, and it looked like she would be alone – unless she still resided in their house, nursing one or two centenarians.

Escaping the house one breezy fall afternoon, Charlotte found herself on a walking track in a local park. Adjacent to the park was a cemetery – old but not large, and apparently still in use since the lichened illegible stones conversed with polished granite tablets, some even decorated with the latest in laser gravestone art. Charlotte had always loved to walk in cemeteries, so she left the path and wandered through the memorials, piecing together family histories from names and birth and death dates. And then she froze, for there on an old rose granite stone emblazoned with the family name Blaisedale was this:

Charlotte Blaisedale Wood

September 23, 1894 ⸞ October 12, 1955

Beloved Wife of Rufus

 Charlotte Wood. Her name. The maiden name she had gone back to after the second disastrous marriage, but her name. And this Charlotte apparently married a Wood rather than was born one, but she died on the day Charlotte was born. And she died at the same age Charlotte was now. Her head was spinning.

It was true, she tried to tell herself, Charlotte was not an unusual name in the south and Wood was common everywhere. And neither of her husbands had been named Rufus. But the dates? Charlotte had never really considered reincarnation, but she wasn’t sure anymore what she believed in. And as death crept closer it seemed imperative – or at least psychologically therapeutic – to believe in something.

Over the next few weeks, Charlotte started doing research about the lady in the cemetery. Why was she buried with the Blaisedales and not the Woods? Where was Rufus? Charlotte’s quest started slowly as she reviewed old yearbooks and newspapers in the local historical society, but picked up steam when she realized one of the Blaisedales had posted a detailed genealogy on the internet. Charlotte B. Wood had four children compared to her own two. She had only been married once and died a decade before her husband; no cause of death was noted in the obituary but neither were there any records of criminal cases involving her. Rufus was buried in the same plot, but no one had ever bothered to have his name engraved. Negligence or animosity?

Charlotte B. Wood had apparently never held a job, but served on the committee which helped raise the money so the county would build a library in town. There was a wedding picture and one of her with a group at the opening of the new library. Like Charlotte, she had brown hair and glasses. Unlike Charlotte, she was a little pudgy and wore her hair in a French twist. And she was called Lottie when she wasn’t referred to as Mrs. Rufus Wood. Charlotte had sometimes been called Charlie, but never, ever, Lottie.

The house where Lottie lived still existed, but it now served as both a residence and a home day care center. The chirpy woman who lived there had never heard of the Woods or the Blaisedales. The dead woman had belonged to the local Presbyterian Church, but the minister there was young and didn’t know anything either. He offered to look up marriage and christening dates, but Charlotte already had those from the local paper. And there was only one Blaisedale in the phone directory which belonged to a gruff man who insisted she just had the wrong number. Listings for Woods abounded and Charlotte gave up after aggravating several people and leaving a half-dozen unanswered messages.

All of this captured Charlotte’s imagination. She wondered if some kind of baton was being passed on that long-ago October when one not-so-old lady in North Caroline breathed her last and one new baby in Maine gasped for its first air. Was some kind of purpose inherited with the life force? Was there a deeper reason Charlotte had ended up staying with her parents in this North Carolina town? Charlotte visited the grave several more times, left flowers, wondered what it could all mean. She thought about trying to contact Lottie’s grandchildren – her children were surely dead already – but what would she say? What could they say?

Still, the mystery gave some direction to her days and even opened up the possibility of some larger purpose. If Lottie had to die to make room for her, surely Charlotte existed for some reason beyond wearing out two marriages and crawling back to her elderly parents? She thought about what to do next. Certainly she needed a job, a place of her own. Surely she should stay close by, which would work well as she could also keep an eye on her parents. She applied for jobs and signed up to volunteer at the library where she could sit at the circulation desk and stare at Lottie’s name on the list of founders. She spent a few Sunday mornings at the Presbyterian Church. Life was better.

Even her children noticed a change in her mood when she talked to them on the telephone. Her son supported her decision to stay in North Carolina (or maybe just glad Mom didn’t come to Oregon) and her daughter seemed pleased her mother was going to stick around and take care of the grandparents of whom Norah was fond. But her daughter was curious. Norah was curious about everything; she was a professor of mathematics and spent endless hours pushing numbers around to see what would happen. Finally, Charlotte told her daughter the story about the cemetery.

“So, you see, I might be a bit daft but it seems to me I have some kind of obligation to carry on here for this woman. It is too weird. It can’t just be a coincidence.”

There was a long silence before Norah answered. “Carry on what?” she asked, on the verge of exasperation.

Charlotte thought for a moment. “Life. Carry on life. Not give up.”

There was another long silence. “I’m glad that’s what you got out of it.” Norah was probably glad her mother wasn’t coming to Michigan and had certainly been pleased she seemed less sad on the phone.

“What would you have made of it?” her mother asked.

“Nothing,” answered her daughter. “Absolutely nothing.”

“You sound so sure of yourself.”

“Have you ever heard of the birthday paradox?” Norah asked. Her mother had not. She went on to explain.

“What is the chance someone you meet has the same birthday as you?”

“About one in three hundred and sixty-five, I assume.”

“How about if you are in a room of 25 people – how likely two people have the same birthday?”

“Very small, I would say.”

“Not really. About 50/50, actually. It has to do with pairing. In a room of 75, the odds go up to around 99%.” Norah went on to explain the math of the situation, but the end result is if her mother had haunted cemeteries all her life, she would come up with many people who were born – or died – on her birthday. The probability of this Charlotte Wood was just a cross set of that likelihood with the odds that the name was somewhat the same. Not highly probable, but not out of the realm of possibility.

After about five minutes of math, Charlotte interrupted her lecturing daughter. “So you’re saying you’d just assume it was coincidence, chance – and not all that miraculous?”

“Yup. Reasonably common name, lots of dead people – might never have happened but we’re not talking about a visitation of the weeping Madonna here. Just happened. Think of this. Jefferson and Adams died on the same day – and that day happened to be the Fourth of July. Forgot the year. Big coincidence, but I can’t think of any reason it would be divine – God stepping in to celebrate Independence Day in some macabre fashion?”

Norah seemed proud of her explanation and displayed no regret she might have taken something away from her mother. She’d whisked away the perception of purpose and exposed – randomness. Charlotte hung up the phone, picked up a bunch of grocery store pink carnations from the counter, and drove out to the cemetery. She stood looking at her birthdate and her name on the tombstone. She had wanted it to mean something – for both herself and for the moldering Lottie beneath her feet.

But as she stood there ruminating on statistics and coincidence, the living Charlotte suddenly felt lighter. Everything brightened as if the sun had come out from behind a glowering cloud. Suddenly even the thought of the skeleton under her feet seemed restful rather than tragic.

If so much was simply randomness – luck, fortune – maybe, just maybe, a lot of life was simply not her fault. Charlotte might have picked badly when she married, might have made the wrong choice – but, in any case, who knew? If she had known the results, of course she would have picked differently. If. The luck of the draw. The bets were made, the wheel twirled. It was not entirely on her tab. And while it was surely worth trying to do the right thing (she could not give up the idea you might have some control), in the end it really wasn’t up to you. It was your money on the table, and you paid the piper when you lost, but were you obliged to feel guilty too?

And maybe it didn’t even matter if the outcome was conventionally successful. Surely how the society around you defined success was fairly random too. Look at how much it changed since the 1950’s. Lottie hadn’t divorced the uninscribed Rufus, but that probably wasn’t even an option for a good southern Presbyterian woman of that time. If she had been born a half-century later she would have had some choice. So the wheel turns. And so Charlotte’s mind turned with the overwhelming randomness of existence.

Charlotte waved goodbye to Lottie, got back in her car, and headed to the library for her volunteer stint. She turned around at the gate, however, and went back after the flowers she left leaning on Lottie’s stone. They would look nice on the circulation desk.