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Family reunites to ensure 90th birthday sparkles

Nearly 70 relatives gather to help the family's matriarch celebrate the watershed event and recall old times, old friends.

By CAROL LOVE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Wisteria Champion spent 30 hours on a bus from Detroit to make it to her grandmother's 90th birthday party Saturday. Champion, who works as a mold injection operator, had the distinction of traveling the farthest to wish Isabell Evans a happy birthday at her home near Lake Maggiore.

She was hardly alone.

In all, nearly 70 family members and friends from near and far made their way to Ms. Evans' home Saturday afternoon. There were her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren and even her great-great-grandchildren. The scores of people stood in the front yard of her green Lake Maggiore bungalow -- clasping hands and singing a verse of Amazing Grace.

"I hadn't seen my grandmother in seven years," Champion said. "And with her being 90, I felt obligated to come. It's just such a blessing to have a family gathering."

Lula Evans, who along with her sister Hattie Greaves had organized this day for her mother, said, "I think every person who (is) a mother deserves something like this. You can't wait until they're dead to let them know that you care."

It was in December that Lula Evans decided to bring as many family members as possible home for her mother's birthday Monday. (The party was held Saturday to allow for weekend travel.)

She called her siblings and began to spread the word in early January. Then she spent late January confirming guests with more than 50 phone calls. The phone bill is still pending.

Lula Evans said the most challenging aspect of such a large family gathering was getting solid commitments on what food dishes or cash donations were coming for the luncheon.

Then on Friday afternoon, she and her sister Hattie, who came in from Fort Lauderdale, began the preparation in earnest. The two worked in their mother's modest- sized kitchen to turn $500 worth of groceries into enough dressing, collard greens, corn bread, macaroni and cheese, spareribs, banana pudding, string beans, potato salad and candied yams to feed 70 people. The refrigerator gave out, and their uncle loaned them his.

"If it wasn't for my mom, I wouldn't even have attempted this," said Greaves, the main cook. As granddaughter Darlene Parrish kept the buffet line moving and orderly, relatives and friends filed through the kitchen. They filled up their plates, grabbed a soft drink out of a big galvanized tub of ice and then headed back out into the yard to eat, visit and celebrate. The youngest great- and great-great-grandkids had fun playing with toy dinosaurs, playing tag or just horsing around with their cousins. Teenagers tended to retreat into their family cars and trucks to turn up their music and stay away from the grown-ups. The rest of the family hugged, laughed and talked and just generally reacquainted themselves with old friends and family.

Among the friends present were the Welch family -- Parker Welch and his family; Toni Welch Amick and her husband, Phil; and John Welch. Isabell Evans worked as a housekeeper for their parents for more than 25 years.

"We're part of Isabell's family and she's part of ours," said Toni Amick.

"She's a wonderful person," echoed her brother, Parker. "She's like a second mother to me."

Isabell Evans stayed quiet most of the day -- alternately smiling at all the children and grandkids running past and dozing quietly in her chair. She brightened up as Happy Birthday was sung by her many descendants and her friends.

She made no speeches but did say, "It's a wonderful day with all my friends!"

"What about family?" daughter Lula Evans inquired.

"They're friends, too!"

Grandson Ricky Evans summed it all up: "It is good to see family when it's not a funeral. It's good for us to get together for a joyous occasion."

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