Our lives are a succession of events, many barely noticed, others remaining as dim memories, but we all have milestones that serve as markers along our life’s pathway. Historically, we may remember the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon, the assassination of President Kennedy, the horror of 9/11. All provide anchors to a time and place. But, on a personal level, certain occasions can leap to mind as easily as pressing the on-button for TV.
Birthdays come along every year, but some require extra attention. Young people eagerly anticipate reaching twenty-first birthdays as their passage to adulthood. Who doesn’t recall their own? But for me, the special birthdays began when I reached forty. My husband, Ralph, and our two children, both young teenagers, conspired to surprise me with a party—in our own home. Without my suspecting a thing, they invited the guests, purchased and prepared food, and planned for me to be at a neighbor’s for a birthday drink while friends arrived at our house, bearing gifts. Our son, Steve, had the assignment of lighting the fires in our two fireplaces, which he did—forgetting to open the dampers. When I returned to the house, I smelled the smoke even before I opened the door. When I heard two dozen waiting guests, shouting “surprise!” my first thought was “thank goodness I cleaned the house today!” I couldn’t find words to tell my family how touched I was they’d gone to such lengths to mark the occasion. The smoke in the air dissipated quickly, but the memory of that 40th birthday remains forever.
Since my birth coincided with Thanksgiving, my husband and I planned a long weekend in New York to mark my 50th birthday. On the night of the holiday I was thrilled to see the Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall. The Rockettes had been a favorite of mine during my teenage years when I took tap lessons and danced with a group called “The Danny Sheehan Rockettes.” And I still had the next day’s tour of NYC and an evening at the theater to look forward to. But I missed Steve, now living in Denver, and our daughter, Laurie, in Minneapolis. “I wish they could be here with us,” I said to my husband, annoyed to feel tears in my eyes. I reached in my wallet and pulled out their photos to place on the table as we enjoyed the after-theater supper.
The following evening, as I was dressing for dinner, someone knocked on the hotel room door. I cautiously looked through the peephole. My mouth fell open. I threw open the door and there stood our children, ready to join us for the evening. Ralph had found a ninety-nine dollar round trip fare for each of them and arranged for them to fly into New York City for twenty-four hours. That was the best surprise of my life.
A business trip to Boston coincided with our 25th wedding anniversary. Friends who had recently moved there met us at the airport and took us directly to the theater to see an unforgettable performance by Shirley MacLaine. The next day a dozen red roses arrived at our hotel, along with greetings from a couple who remain friends to this day. “What a lovely anniversary,” I said to my husband. “We’re so lucky to know such nice people…. “
He interrupted with, “…and I’m so lucky to have you.”
We decided not to wait until our 50th Anniversary to have a party. Neither of our parents or grandparents had lived long enough to celebrate a half-century together. “Who knows if we’ll still both be around in ten years,” I said. “Let’s celebrate our fortieth, just in case.” So we planned a three-day wedding party reunion with twenty-one guests. All of our attendants, ushers, and their spouses, as well as several long-time friends, came to Milwaukee in June 1997, some from as far away as California. “Do you notice how much we look like our parents did forty years ago?” I asked.
The event couldn’t have been any better, as the videos and photo albums attest. We were gratified to have my father, eighty-nine-years old and the only one of our parents still living, fly from Florida to be with us. One evening he remarked, “I wish I were seventy again and could dance with all of these good-looking women.”
Ten years later, when we actually did reach our 50th Anniversary, we chose to bring all the family together at our daughter’s home in Minnesota. We combined it with the celebration of the high school graduation of our oldest grandchild, Annie. We used the occasion to gather our son and daughter and their spouses and our three grandchildren for a family portrait. “This is much better than a party,” Ralph said. “Our kids and grandkids are our best friends and the ones we really want to be with.” I agreed with him completely.
The year we both turned seventy-five, we celebrated Ralph’s big day with the family gathered once again, this time at Steve and Patti’s in Wisconsin. Each one of us, including the three grandchildren—now seventeen, twenty, and twenty-two—wrote a love letter to Ralph and read it to him while we gathered on the outdoor deck, enjoying the late August afternoon. With his eyes filled with unshed tears he said, “Now I know what it must be like to be inducted into the hall of fame.”
We had returned to Florida when my seventy-fifth came around, so my love letters arrived in the mail. “Dad’s celebration was special enough for both of us,” I assured them. And it was.
When our daughter turned fifty-years-old, it seemed impossible. Where did those years go? She planned a big party in her new home, with her new love. “Mom and Dad, I sure wish you could come from Florida and be here for my big night,” she said. We told her we would be with her in spirit, but Minnesota was too cold in March for us to be there.
What fun it was the day of the party to walk in, along with her brother, Steve, and ask, “What time does the party start?”
Laurie was arranging flowers at her kitchen counter. For a moment she couldn’t move, then characteristically broke into tears and said, “Mom and Dad, thank you, thank you. I’m so happy you’re here.”
Three years later, when Steve was about to reach the same milestone, he told, Patti, “I don’t want a party. We’ve been to a dozen fiftieth celebrations this year, and I’m done with them. I’d really like to go to Florida and see Mom and Dad. But I guess, with both kids in college this year, we shouldn’t go.”
That’s all Patti needed to hear. A week later she handed him their airline tickets and said, “We’re going to Florida for five days and celebrate your birthday with your parents!”
When Laurie heard of the plans, she made some of her own. “Jim and I will arrive early on Thursday. We’ll have one day when we can all be together before he and Patti have to leave. He will be so surprised!”
And surprised he was when after an hour on the tennis court he walked to the Tiki Bar for lunch— and there sat Laurie and Jim, with a large 50th balloon floating above the table. “Did you think I’d let you turn fifty and not be around to see it?” she teased. They hugged each other tightly while Ralph and I basked in the joy of having the family together for another memorable occasion.
One more of life’s markers etched in our minds and on our hearts.