While I was overseas, I had occasion to drop down into the U.S. and attend a party of a lifetime. My aunt Shirley turned 90 this week, and the remarkable celebration of that event happened last Saturday.
The party was themed Roaring Twenties. Although Aunt Shirley’s personal memories of the 20’s would have been thin on the ground (she was born in 1924), the choice was perfect. It reminded us all of the era when Shirley was born and gave us a sense of the great length of her life, and of the enormity of what has happened in the world over this time. It seems like a thousand years ago that our universe experienced flappers, gangsters, prohibitionists and molls, and yet here they were at the party—and all within Shirley’s lifetime.
There were slouch-brim hats and long strings of pearls available at the door for those who hadn’t done a lot of costume preparation but wanted to get into the spirit of things. The tables were decorated 20’s style, and scattered with print-outs of advertising, house sales and Model T’s Fords. There was a well-appointed photo-booth, and all the food (right down to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches) was styled from the era.
Remember the lyrics from High Society?
What friends, what broads, what frocks
What furs, what rocks
I’ve never seen such gaiety
Could you pick a livelier era to have as the period theme for your party?
So—Aunt Shirley arrived at the “courthouse” at 2:00 in the afternoon, hustled in by a couple of youthful Keystone Cops, to answer to a number of charges relating to being an excessively good mother, grandmother, mother-in-law, aunt, friend, etc. It was clear from the start that the prosecution had a cut-and-dried case, and as numerous people spoke, the evidence mounted up strongly.
Although the affair was swamped with relatives, and underlined the importance of family to this tribe, many of Shirley’s friends were there—lifelong friends, people from her retirement village, and mates from her charity activities. Clearly, everyone was keen to convey to Shirley the message that she means a great deal to them and to the world.
As Shirley addressed the group at the party’s end, nearly speechless with the acknowledgement and generosity, she said, “My cup runneth over.”
The thing is: everyone’s cup ranneth over. We were all touched and inspired by the love that was flooding the room.
Thinking back, there are a few things about Aunt Shirley’s party that stand out in my mind.
First of all, rarely have I attended such a creative and well-planned event. For months now, a sizeable team of offspring, grandchildren and in-laws have been designing and preparing for the party. There was a clear objective: demonstrating their love and having the matriarch get how appreciated she is. I can imagine their first meeting: “Let’s have this be fun,” they all said. “And let’s have it be really creative. Let’s have it bring out the best in us and the best in everyone who comes in contact with it!”
I don’t know if “the devil is in the detail” (where did that expression come from, anyway?) but it’s obvious that CARING is in the details. There were water bottles labelled with Shirley’s own nutritional information, branded and bejewelled take-away bags, sweets from the era, party bags for the kids, crusts trimmed off white bread sandwiches, jazz, and Prohibition-style punch spiked with champagne. This was a team that that had unearthed every photo that had ever been taken of Shirley, researched every friend and scoured the clan for stories. They had googled the era thoroughly, and had no doubt watched The Great Gatsby any number of times, leaving no stone unturned in their quest for an experience that had you say, over and over, “Ohhhhhhh! That’s so perfect!”
The message is clear: if you’re going to successfully acknowledge someone, plan it well, do it right and have fun in the process.
Another thing that stands out for me is how astonishingly well and happy it is possible to be at age 90. Aunt Shirley and her two surviving sisters (note the five carefree young women in the photo behind them, taken some 75 years ago) were the life of the party and lasted out the day with unflagging energy, attention and goodwill. They are all three a tribute to what living well can do. They survived the Great Depression, raising children, major moves, the death of beloved spouses and offspring with their spirits and their sense of humour intact. All of us there were moved by the example they set for vibrant old age.
Something else I learned: how wise it is to acknowledge the people you love while they’re alive to appreciate it. I’m always aware at memorial services that the person who would most appreciate these things is not available to absorb them. Acknowledge NOW. Give thanks now. Speak warmly now. Surely in this lies a life without regret.
And here is yet another thing that stood out for me: the miracle that a hundred people who are prepared to submerge themselves in generosity can create. Ours is not a storybook hummingbirds-and-rainbows family; there are plenty of skeletons dangling in the closets. But for a few hours we all gave up the mistakes we’ve made and the offenses we’ve committed against family–and just loved up a woman who has been precious to all of us. A hundred people with an absolute resolve to have someone get that she is admired, respected and deeply loved can create a phenomenon of good will.
Well, as you might predict, Aunt Shirley survived the trial. She was found guilty of all charges but released on her own recognisance as long as she continues to demonstrate good behaviour. Having known her to do nothing else in all of my lifetime, I’m quite confident that she’ll stay within the terms of her release.
For me, I’m happy to be part of a world that has such parties in it. Any event with love, generosity and fun as core imperatives will take us closer to a life well-lived. And even if, as the old High Society song says, “It’s in the stars that next year we collide with Mars,” meantime I suggest we live it up as we did last Saturday afternoon.
The Charleston, anyone?