tampabay.com

For 90th, a birthday surprise

By PHILIP GAILEY
Published April 15, 2007


HOMER, Ga. - We had a surprise 90th birthday party for Aunt Thelma the day before Easter, and she's still telling people what a grand affair it was. And no wonder - it was, she told us, the first birthday party she had ever had. A few years ago we had a party to celebrate my mother's 90th birthday and, as far as I can remember, it was the only birthday party she ever had. Birthdays were never a big deal in our family, but it's a shame these two sisters, who lived together as widows for a dozen years, had to wait so long for a birthday party.

My late mother's party was not a surprise. As soon as Aunt Thelma found out what we were planning, she fired up the kitchen stove and took control. She dictated the menu, the guest list and about every other detail, including what dress my mother should wear for the occasion. That's why we decided Aunt Thelma's party had to be a surprise. Even though she has grown more feeble in body and gets around on a cane, she is as bossy and contrary as ever.

Somehow, we pulled it off. Aunt Thelma, who married late in life and has no children of her own, had no inkling of what we were up to until she stepped into her grandnephew's house where more than two dozen family members, neighbors and friends burst into song and shouts of "surprise!"

"This was the biggest shock of my life," I heard her telling someone on the phone after the party. "Why, you know it's enough to cause you to have a heart attack and die right there on the floor."

The trick was getting everything ready without arousing suspicion on her part. My sister the hairdresser did her hair and polished her nails, with the explanation that there was no telling who might drop by for a visit on Easter weekend. We were grateful she had not totally forsaken her vanity.

My job was to get her to the party. She doesn't get out of the house much anymore, especially on days when she takes a "water pill," but I knew she could not resist a trip to the cemetery. She always asks me to take her to the cemetery when I visit so she can walk among family graves, pulling up weeds and straightening up the flowers blown over by the wind. So off to the cemetery we went on a cold and blustery day to replace faded silk roses with silk Easter lilies. "If you spend a lot of money on flowers," she said, "people will steal them right off the graves. That's about as low-down as you can get."

On the way back to her house, I pulled the car into my nephew's driveway. She counted a dozen cars and didn't want to get out, saying she was not dressed appropriately to meet whoever the people were inside. I told her it was just a family barbecue and she finally relented. I had even more trouble getting her to leave. She didn't want the moment to end, which is understandable for someone enjoying her first birthday party. This woman who flees the room anytime someone gets out a camera announced that she wanted a group photo made. We looked at each other and wondered if the old girl had suffered a mild stroke.

At the end of the day, we sat around disagreeing over the usual stuff. She says drinking a glass of wine is a sin; I say good wine is divine. I say I'm going to be cremated; she says I'm not doing any such thing because it would disgrace the family. She says she hopes "to go to a better place" when she dies; I say Italy would suit me just fine.

Our biggest arguments, however, are over food - how much to cook, how much to eat and how much to haul back to Florida. I rarely prevail on these matters. This time, she wanted me to take four pound cakes. We compromised at three. She didn't bend on the other items she was digging out of her three freezers - fried apple pies, Brunswick stew and fried okra.

"This will be the last Brunswick stew I'll ever make," she said, as she always does.

My brother-in-law Keith probably hopes so. The night before I arrived, Aunt Thelma decided to make the stew and called Keith to come up and help her. It was 10:30 at night and he was in bed. But he answered the call and helped grind the chicken and pork and took his turn stirring the stew, which needs to simmer for at least six to seven hours.

Keith probably was grateful she only wanted help in the kitchen. Once, when she was suffering severe pain in one of her legs, she asked him to stop by and bring an ax.

"I want you to chop off my leg," she explained matter-of-factly.