Faced With a Birthday Alone, I Took Myself to Graceland

Faced With a Birthday Alone, I Took Myself to Graceland

But my light-hearted obsession with the King’s music and movies took on new significance for me a few years later, when my younger brother unexpectedly passed away at age six. He had shared my love of Elvis, albeit to a slightly lesser degree, and we’d spent many evenings singing and dancing to “Burning Love.” In the wake of his death, I found myself reaching for Elvis’s songs in a new way. I later realized that whenever I was faced with a challenge, I could turn to Elvis to get me through. I played “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” on repeat after my first heartbreak, and think of my brother whenever I hear “Lord Almighty, feel my temperature rising” blaring through speakers.

Inside the living room at Graceland

Gabby Shacknai

A collection of The King’s hundreds of bedazzled jumpsuits

Gabby Shacknai

It seemed only fitting that I would seek Elvis’s company on this new cornerstone of adulthood. 

Flash forward from a check-in at The Guest House at Graceland, to a shuttle past the estate’s famous gates loaded with messages for The King, and I was at Elvis’s front door in the dead of August—with a pair of headphones playing an audio tour narrated by massive Elvis fan John Stamos. 

I pushed past the overcrowded foyer, Stamos whispering into my ears, and began to absorb it all. In the living room, a gorgeous white grand piano flooded my imagination with images of Elvis serenading his friends and family. In the dining room, I saw Elvis and Priscilla’s wedding china, which still sits atop the table, before passing the famed staircase to Elvis’s private living quarters, which remain closed to visitors today as they were when he was alive. In the kitschy Jungle Room, with its eclectic, tropical furnishings inspired by Elvis’s time in Hawaii—like a built-in waterfall, and green shag carpet on both the floor and ceiling—I saw where the musician spent most of his time and even recorded the bulk of his last two albums.

As I wandered through Graceland’s other structures, like the trophy building which houses endless halls of Presley memorabilia, and the racquetball building, where Elvis added a custom court to the property in 1975, I was in genuine awe. First, of the sheer spectacle of how this man lived, but also the immense weight his life carried for so many others. I wasn’t unique in my unbridled love of the man. 

While gawking at hundreds of bedazzled jumpsuits, and indulging in photo opps I’d usually deride—including an AR-powered photo booth that placed me on Elvis’s iconic movie posters—I quickly befriended other visitors, some of whom were there for the 17th or 18th time.

By a stroke of luck, I was born a mere two days—and 19 years—after Elvis died, so going to Graceland for my birthday also meant overlapping with Elvis Week, a celebration held every year on the anniversary of his death. As I entered the hotel banquet room for the annual Farewell Party on the night of my birthday, feathers, sequins, and bright lights all around, I spotted a familiar face from earlier in the day: an Ohio woman named Tamara, who came to Elvis Week every year. I joined her for a hearty Southern meal and an animated performance by an Elvis Tribute Artist, before sojourning to the movie theater for a screening of “Viva Las Vegas.” As the crowd hooted and hollered when a young Elvis graced the big screen and sang along to his musical flirtations with Ann-Margret, I knew I was right to come to Graceland alone. I no longer felt the absence of my family and friends; I had certainly found my people, at least for the day. 

I had also, for the first time in a long time, done something completely and utterly for myself. I didn’t look to the people in my life to share my love of Elvis or even affirm it, and I didn’t feel disappointed when they, inevitably, didn’t get it. 

I may have arrived in Memphis alone, uncertain of what the day would hold, and worried that I’d made a terrible mistake, but I left with a renewed sense of self—not to mention a few Elvis t-shirts and some outrageous souvenir photos picked up along the way.

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