The day before yesterday, my siblings and I hosted a party to celebrate my Mother’s ninetieth birthday. We rented the back room of a local restaurant and invited some family and friends. About 60 people showed up to share in the experience, delighting in Mom’s eager participation of wearing a silver tiara sporting the number 90 in purple across its width, and being queen for the day. And oh, what a queen she was, leading the entire group in a rousing rendition of You Are My Sunshine, while playing her harmonica accompanied by her 76 year-old baby sister, who had been asked to bring hers, as well. We do know how to have fun.
My cousins, Mom’s brother Joe’s children, proudly carried in a tree they had made from white plastic tubes for branches, with ninety one dollar bills tied with colorful ribbons to it. Mom, who is usually a bit on the shy side, seemed to expand in the spotlight, sharing in the teasing and laughter that accompanies such festivities.
My sister, the ultimate arranger, had brought along a digital frame and turned it on for a slide show of family photos dating back over 120 years of our shared history. Small groups of guests would gather around the table, where it sat, trying to guess who was who in the photos. My cousin Fred proudly turned to me to say that he had been named after our grandfather, who was thirteen, at the time of one family portrait. And I, in turn, explained the ease with which I had converted well over three hundred photographs onto a flash disc for this current perusal.
Cameras abounded as Mom opened gifts and cards of well wishes amidst extensive banter about the ‘favorite’ daughter, while my two sisters and I helped her organize and write down what came from who so she’d have a list for thank you cards. When it came time to blow out the candles (only one large one, to insure against burning the place down), Mom was helped by five or six of her great-grandchildren. The cake was strawberry (one of Mom’s favorites), and lovingly baked and decorated with deep purple roses (again Mom’s favorite color) by my niece Patti, who just happens to be an expert in that arena.
The food was plentiful and extremely good, the service unobtrusive, but swift and friendly. And people lingered long beyond the time we had reserved for the reception. There was a great deal of laughter as individuals drifted around the room to talk, reminisce, and catch up with others they hadn’t seen, sometimes in years. And my sisters and I were terribly grateful that none of us had to stay and clean up the mess.
It was a small party, especially when you realize that my grandmother had nine children and 156 grandchildren. I called my Mother yesterday morning and she was still bubbling with giggles and laughter at the memories we had made the day before. Memories I have distilled here and in the pages of my journal.
Distillation is a process by which a substance is broken down, it’s components separated to make another, different substance, like moonshine made with a ‘still’. And that is what we do with memories even as we are making them. I am certain that there are as many versions of that birthday party as there were guests, each one capturing some of the components that I, myself, have written here, but many different ones as well. Kimberly, my niece’s almost two year-old daughter, would definitely have a much different perspective than any of the adults in that room, if she remembers at all, other than through the photographs that were taken as she maneuvered her way through the stalks of adults who stood around speaking and laughing. My Mother will remember certain faces, a flash of gifted silver jewelry, a particularly funny anecdote someone told her, etc.
The photographs are a different kind of still. They capture one moment in the life of the individuals who are caught on film, yet separated by the photographic process. Someone recently said to me that the past casts a far dimmer light than that of today. That is true except for those of us who take the time to distill a few of those moments, breaking them done into separate components, making a different kind of substance from all of them.
A record that is far better than a photograph because it captures more than one stilled moment. Our words give that moment a taste, a feel, a smell, along with the sound of laughter. Our words give it life in the way that a photograph never could, and our memories might not have noticed, or have lost in the passage of time. To borrow from my own verbiage, those words shed a brighter reflection of moonshine on the shadows that might be all that remains for many of our guests. But they do something even more important.
When my own grandchildren are adults, and hopefully curious about where they came from, they might find particular meaning, or a bit of delight, in knowing that their great-grandmother entertained a roomful of well wishers, by playing her harmonica at her ninetieth birthday party. “The very best one,” she says, she has ever had.