‘PANIC PANIC’ is the subject line to Mum’s email.
Her 80th birthday party is nigh. The pressure is on.
‘Call me when you can,’ she texts me, ‘I need to calm down.’
As a child, I would say:
‘You’ve got to do it ploply!’ embodying a mini-me moment of my mother.
To ensure the standards of post-war British etiquette, Mum is throwing her own party, a real ‘knees up’ (British for dance party).
Party Planner Ormiston sends the family (her staff) an instructional dance video of the Lambeth Walk as required study, along with directions on which brand of sherry is sweet (Harvey’s Bristol Cream), dry (Tio Pepi), medium (the other two), and an agenda listing tasks and times for our various roles and responsibilities before, during, and after the great event.
Set in the old Saanich Schoolhouse at the Heritage Acres Museum, white table cloths display candles floating in jars of water surrounded by greenery and guests names printed on gold-trimmed name cards. A bouquet of helium balloons in one corner and the seating chart in the other, the school’s nostalgic character and country chic charm is a creative change from the normal senior building common room and church hall venues that dominate the birthday celebrations of our elders.
Mum has loved every minute of planning this party, but at first, the stakes feel high.
As guests arrive, they are met with a glass of their preferred sherry while heated hor d’heurves pass on trays, and finger sandwiches with crusts cut off await them at their assigned seats.
The room is complete with octogenarians, mostly women, and us: a handful of Mum’s all-Canadian Gen X/Y and Millennial descendants, and, her elderly ex-husband, whose decreasing mobility holds him hostage to a chair for the afternoon.
Have I mentioned the music?
Coffee, tea and plates of macaroons and other Dutch Bakery delights take their places at tables as the 50’s rock’n’roll band returns for their second set, this time with back up singers wearing red lipstick, and a binder full of old songs to welcome audience requests.
And then, there is dancing. And I’m not kidding. It is all out dancing. Every able body in the house is twisting, bouncing, and shaking their bootie to Peggy Sue, That’ll Be The Day, and even The Hokey Pokey.
The Lambeth Walk is a successful hilarity and I watch as a married couple on the verge of 90 dance cheek to cheek to the Last Waltz.
But the moment tears stream down my cheeks is the moment Mum, a few sherries into the afternoon, is swept up in a song and sashays the length of the room rising up on tip toes as her arms pass upwards from second to fifth position, a move she must have learnt as a little girl in ballet. Her destination is my father, whose eyes are lit up like wild fire watching the live band play songs of his youth while open hearts dance around him.
‘Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you,’ Mum serenades to him, ‘Let me hear you whisper, that you love me too’. Her arms wide open as she performs.
‘Keep the love light glowing, in your eyes so true’ sings Dad meeting Mum’s gaze and enthusiasm, ‘Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you.’
Yes, that is the moment I cry.
For the champagne toast, I give a speech.
Though instructed to keep it short, I use the time to reflect on the woman who has most influenced my life, and as a beneficiary of a mountain range of her love, I share some of what I’ve learnt from her teachings:
Do a good job
Spend money to explore, not splurge
Never stop making friends
Forgive and try again
And most importantly: Help
I talk about how Mum’s drive to help people has propelled her through a career and lifetime as a nurse, midwife, medical receptionist, foster parent, live-in caregiver to the elderly in homes and castles abroad, volunteer for the local Birth Control Clinic, and later at a Liberian Refugee Camp in Ghana, where she turned 70.
I talk about how Joan helps people in her past and present roles as wife or ex-wife, mother, daughter, cousin, friend to a boarding school mate in England in need of surgery or a stranger recently diagnosed with cancer or mourning the loss of a loved one, who then becomes a new and dear friend.
I say Mum shines like Carl Jung’s archetype of the Mother with her capacity for the immense expression of unconditional love, devotion and caring.
We raise our glasses and toast to her infinite kindness and generosity, and on behalf of our family, both living and dead, I thank her for all she has done and does, especially the parts that go unseen, unacknowledged, or forgotten. I tell her our lives are forever blessed by her love and devotion.
Happy 80th birthday Joan! And thank you Mum. I love you.