Beverly's 75th Birthday Party
Saturday 31st January 2015
Last night, Nath made a wonderful open fire for us and us girls sat and talked till midnight. These late nights are so unusual for me, but sleeping late is easy as its quiet and warm and the bed is firm, and nobody stirs! I realise I am waking up around 6 am Australia time when I wake about 11 am here, so perhaps my body clock is keeping its natural rhythm.
The Day of the Birthday! Oh My what a day!
I woke about 11 am - getting caught up with my jet lag is certainly a happening thing, and as Nath was at a mens church meeting, Yvonne and I had a late breakfast - she broke her fast, and made herself waffles and butter and maple syrup and crispy bacon, cooked in the oven. I have to say American bacon is to die for, and many probably do - it looks processed somehow. As I was making the meat dish yesterday I noticed how the fat just pulls off, its soft and very pink - and does not have rind on it, it lays perfectly symmetrical and flat, and is cooked a long time in the oven to make it crisp, and it tastes perfectly delicious, eeeeeek.
I had a shower, did my hair and painfully banged my knee hard on the side of the bath. I saw stars, and could see the bruise beginning, a worrying thought "This was a moment for my knee ...." No time for ice - although its waist high outside! - so I packed my suitcase, as we are not certain whether Dickie will agree to stay over with Billy and Lorna - if he does, I will return home with Nath and Yvonne - if not I will go home with Dickie and Bev to Flushing. I organised my multi layers of clothing, I brought black and black and black, so everything matches - and packed my multi coloured African inspired floaty top in my back pack and carried the precious mask. I bought this mask about a year ago in a thrift shop for a few dollars, I was somehow drawn to it, I wasn't going to a masked ball nor a fancy dress, but I had to have it. A large, lavish, Mardi Gras feathered creation in deep navy and black, and when I took it home, Gerald raised his eyebrows and silently said "Whaaaat?" I placed it in the upstairs wardrobe. My instincts paid off, as they always do - for this is the PERFECT opportunity to wear it! I carried it taped in cardboard in the bottom of my suitcase, and it arrived in perfect order, Nath carrying it gently to the car and placing it in the 'trunk' (boot). We collect Annette along the way, at 73, her husband is 15 years older than her - and she looks a glamorous fifty! - he has been in a nursing home for some while, and Nath visits him regularly. She was a teacher, and twenty years ago when Joshua was here he went with her to 'class' and spoke of his life - he was 18 at the time, and her 15 year old female students apparently went mad for Josh, the Handsome Australian. He left to go to the bathroom, and Annette says they were swooning, composing themselves just as he walked in the door.
I love the connectedness of this community of friends and family I am now blessed to be a part of, and welcomed into. There must be hundreds, perhaps thousands, who have known each other 30 and 40 years or more, who know each other and their families and their friends families - all the good stuff, all the not so good stuff, and what I am struck by is their compassion, their lack of judgement, their ability to walk in another's shoes, their relationship to God, which filters through all their conversations, their ease with each other, and their willingness to include me in each and every one of their interactions, to make me a part of their lives. They all afford me the greatest respect, and I am called “Miss Sandra” - which for some reason makes me very emotional, it touches something deep in my heart, I feel so privileged and honoured to be treated in such a way.
We get lost a couple of times, and there are a few short words between Nath and Yvonne. Annette slaps her thigh and laughs out loud, clearly this is normal procedure. We drive through a small, charming village of smart shops with an almost Shakespearian atmosphere, snow piled up to the door handles, but we have made a wrong turning, and head back the way we came. Now we are in the right area and a few minutes later, are driving through forests of huge trees laden down with icicles and heavy with snow, lights twinkling, and its beauty makes my heart ache. We turn into a grand sweep of road, where absolutely enormous luxurious homes, which look to be worth serious piles of money, are lit up like ocean liners, golden light pouring from every window, both up and down, in every house in the street. Clearly nobody worries about wasting energy here.
We have trouble locating the house number, but finally there it is, on the high end of the cul de sac, and it looks like an Abbey, a vast two story building, surrounded by acres of deep white snow, lights blazing. Tony - Nath and Yvonne's son - arrives in a large black SUV and made the error of driving up the driveway which had not been snowploughed, and its taken him 15 minutes to get back out. He is a big man, and takes my arm as I am wearing leather soled shoes which immediately slip under me, his arms are strong and I am reassured to know he ‘has me’ - we take baby steps into the garage and into the warmth of the laundry. The house is abuzz with people and activity. In the commercial size kitchen, five women work over benches, delicious aromas fill the space which is laden with boxes and bags, and platters the size of doormats piled with food, women are cooking, mixing, chopping, and are yelling instructions. There are people coming in the front door, and the laundry door, there are people arranging boxes and boxes of long stemmed roses and babies breath in an army of bud vases, each one inscribed with "Happy 75th Birthday Beverly!" People are decorating the solarium with flowers, crystal glasses, and its a vision of lilac, lavender and dove grey, with chairs for 55 people to sit down and eat, lamps are being rewired for mood lighting, Tony is setting up his sound system in the lounge, there are two babies in walkers, scooting about the floor, regularly being fed, changed, and passed from person to person, men and women equally at home with the bubs - and Jared, who is 18 and seems particularly skilled in the baby department, is shushing and soothing the baby to sleep on his chest. I have the honour of wrapping Bev's gifts from her children, two exquisitely thoughtful gifts, a crystal block inscribed with a photo of her and Dickie and their children, which glows like a lamp, as well as a key ring, which does the same thing. There are gifts stacking up and a mountain of cards. Yvonne has told me, "Beverly has trained her girls well. They will do what is right, and she knows that, so whilst she may not be expecting a big party, she knows there will be a wonderful night of food and family - the rest is a bonus." I like that. I wish I had had a daughter to train, as Joshua is not aware or even on the court in this game, and I feel a pang, and wonder why that is - again. He certainly had the training. I meet Dorothy in the "powder room" - she is in her eighties, elegantly dressed in a long red suit, and trying to wrap a scarf, African style, around her head. I ask f I can help, and I tell her I am from Africa. She stares at me in amazement, then says "Go right ahead!" and I am wrapping this long scarf around this regal woman's head, and wishing it was my mother. I meet so many women here tonight, who are so elegant, so graceful, so beautiful and really quite elderly - whose skin is supple and have not a wrinkle, some of whom do not colour their black hair, who shine with joy and health, who look twenty or even thirty years younger than they really are. As every person arrives, the chorus of 'How ya doin'?' echoes, lots of laughter and back slapping, bear hugs and kisses - this place is a Love Fest, and I love the way I feel here, the love that is poured out for each other, and for me, a newcomer.
A huge man walks up to me, arms outstretched, and I realise it is Billy - my eyes well up, this man nearly died a year ago from a stroke, just six weeks after his wedding to Lorna. He holds me so close, so tight, for so long, and I feel his emotion too. He says, "Miss Sandra, thank you SO MUCH for coming all this way for our Mother, we are so grateful", his eyes are full of tears, and he doesn't let go of my hand. This is his home, his wife Lorna is an Investment Banker, in Mergers and Acquisitions, he tells me 'she has done very well' - indeed she has, this is just one of her homes. He gives me a guided tour, four bedrooms, each have an ensuite bathroom, and their particular bedroom is at least the size of a tennis court, with a bed at one end, and an army of files lining the wall, her working resources. Off this bedroom is a bathroom the size of a squash court, with two separate walled toilets, separate showers, and a bath the size of our spa on the back deck. There is another door which leads to a walk in robe, the excess of which I have never seen in a home. Its like the ladies clothing department in a small store, much bigger even than Priscilla's - perhaps the width of our house. There is not an inch on the rails to hang another piece of clothing. There are boxes and bags all over the floor, filled with clothing, and dozens and dozens of pairs of shoes and boots, coats and jackets hanging on another rail in the middle of the room.
Time is running out, Bev and Dickie will arrive in the limousine Billy and Lorna have sent for them at 7.30 pm - people have been at work for hours, and there is lots more to do. I don't see how its ever going to get done. There are instructions being delivered as to how we will greet Bev and Dickie, some conflicting - we will fill in index cards with a few clues as to how we met each other, and she will guess. Or we will all stand on the horseshoe shaped, “Gone Wth the Wind” style staircase and shout surprise! Or some of us may wear a mask, and remove them one by one. Suddenly, they are here, and there is a flurry of activity, people arranging themselves on the stairs, and I hide in the laundry. No, I think, I should be UP the stairs, on the landing - waiting till they call me, when I can make a Big Entry, so I grab my mask and rush up the stairs.
Tensions mount, people quieten down and from my vantage point overlooking the garden, peeking around the corner of the bedroom, I can see the grandkids walk to the palatial front door, and through the window, conveniently placed for just such an event, I see Bev and Dickie alight the stairs leading to it. I hide. The door opens and 55 people shout "Surprise!" I cannot see her face as I am hidden, but all of a sudden its pandemonium, and people are shouting and laughing and singing “Happy Birthday To Ya!” - my heart is racing with excitement, I don't want to hijack the party, but I am anticipating her surprise and her pleasure. This staircase, horse shoe shaped which leads up from the foyer - is ornate wrought iron and the stair treads are a shining teak - one going up and one going down - and then, there is a 'back' section, which leads to the family room, and from here I can see Deborah, giving me the "Come down" sign. Then Tony, the Music Man, (Nath and Yvonne's son) is announcing "And here's one more surprise !! - someone who has come a long, long, looooooooooong way - from the other side of the world ....!" And I step out on to the landing, with my Mardi Gras black and navy feathered extravaganza mask hiding my face, channelling Bette Miller, Queen of the Grand Entrance - being careful not to fall - its a long, long staircase - and with my arms outstretched, I place one carefully choreographed showgirl foot after the other. I am my mother’s daughter. I see Dickie, with his dark, dark skin and white, white hair immediately. It takes me a while to find Beverly in the swirling, singing crowd down there, she looks upwards intently, clearly puzzled, and I see a small shake of her head. And then her face splits somewhat uncertainly into a grin, and in her New York accent I love so much, says "Saaaaaaaaandra?? Is it Saaaaaaaaandra?" I stop my performance, and start to properly walk down the stairs, but I don't want to fall flat on my face, so I remove the mask with a theatrical flourish, and sashay downwards, back in my showgirl role. Beverly is walking slowly up towards me, in total disbelief, shaking her head and her arms are reaching for me, a dozen cameras are clicking, I feel tears running down my face and then we are hugging and kissing, both crying like babies. It is 17 years since we saw each other, she is repeating "I can't believe it, I can't believe it .... Saaaaaaaandra, its YOU, Saaaaaaaaaaandra! Oh my, oh my oh my - my knees are buckling!" I feel they are, but already in this family, a strong pair of male arms are already reaching to support her. My heart is about to burst with joy, I am so happy that I overcame all the obstacles and challenges and discomfort to get here, and that my darling husband made this all possible for Beverly and I, her happiness is palpable, and I bless him under my breath.
I am conscious there are so many people who also love Beverly dearly, and need to embrace her too, so we reluctantly disengage our arms, and I move on to hug the family members standing closest to me - Billy, the proud oldest son - and now a patriarch - and his beautiful daughter Danielle and her daughter Ariel, I cuddle her, smelling her baby hair and sweet breath, and I feel so lucky to be here.
There are people everywhere! Singing to the music playing, some are dancing, all are celebrating and hugging. I am in a giant Love Fest. The punch is being served, a concoction of rum, coconut, and juice and it is lilac, so matches the colour scheme. There are tables filled with snacks and people are tucking in, the doorbell is still ringing and people are still arriving, everybody is welcomed, everybody is special, everybody is hugging, babies are being passed around, friends are light heartedly mocking each other and making inside jokes, calling out names in a pretend stern manner. Oh, I love this feeling and I love being here. I’m in a movie. There are handsome, beautifully dressed men dancing and swaying sensually to the music, there are beautifully dressed women giving them a wink and a mock 'Come on' - or is it? Then, a glorioiusly curved woman in red, walks into the middle of the floor and chimes in with the chorus "Babbeeeeeeeeee ....... babbbbbeeeeeeeee ...... babeeeeeeeee." swinging her hips and breasts, if I was a man, I would rush her upstairs and ravish her. Huge platters of food are being offered, yet surprisingly, there is very little emphasis on alcohol. Nobody even opened a bottle, or served a drink, until the couple arrived. Many of them are drinking 'soda', or water. How different is THAT to Australia?
The dancing is happening in the kitchen and carries through to the dining area to the lounge to the foyer - and everybody dances with everybody, irregardless of age. The songs are all Johnny Mathis, The Supremes, Louis Armstrong, James Brown, Chubby Checker, and someone shouts to Tony, "Hey Tony! Saaaaaaaandra like Elvis!" - and within a minute, the floor is full of people dancing with me to ‘Jailhouse Rock’. Songs that I remember vaguely from Yvonne's 50th birthday party twenty years ago are played, and we are all line dancing, young and old men and women, and I - normally ‘the dancer’ in any gathering - am fumbling with the steps, I haven’t a clue how to do this. A handsome, elegantly dressed man, Pootch, who is a musician, seizes my arm, and masterfully 'takes control' of me, and suddenly, I am dancing effortlessly and in synch, along with them. I fall in love with the suave Pootch, instantly.
We are guided to the glass conservatory, dinner is about to be served. "Miss Sandra? - you are at the table with Mom and Dad" - and I am guided gently, my cushion brought, my water and wine glass filled, asked what I would like to eat, and my plate is taken away and delivered with exactly what I asked for. I am a VIP. The food is enough for a small African country. The pre dinner snacks were platters of fresh fruit, sausage rolls, cheese, salamis, salmon, chicken wings, dips, 'crackers', olives and crisps and nuts. The meal is a huge ham, bbq spare ribs, chickens, turkey, several different salads, pasta bakes, rice dishes, and so many more platters I cannot recall. It’s absolutely mouth wateringly delicious.
After dinner, dancing recommences, whilst the clearing up happens. There are daughters, and nieces and friends and grand daughters just taking care of business, it happens almost by magic, but Deborah is the Ring Master, she has The Plan in her head, and she is issuing instructions and making requests. We are asked to sit in a circle in the lounge, and there are games with passing gifts, on the words "right" "left" and "across" which coincide with stories which have been written by friends about Beverly - such a clever and entertaining game. Then the gifts are opened, I sit alongside Beverly like a bridesmaid, clearly in a privileged position, helping her read cards and open gifts - she is showered with scarves, jewellery, gift vouchers, and cash. She is visibly moved by the long strand of malachite beads I give her - they once belonged to my mother and that connection alone is of great import to Bev, she knew my mother, she loved my mother, the significance of this gift. I tell her I have no daughters, but she has! - and these beads can make lots of ear rings, for them and their daughters and their daughters, and I know my Mom would love this idea. Beverly says later in her speech how privileged she feels to have these beads, "Sandra's Mom and Daddy were the kind of people who would get up and dance when someone whistled a tune, they gave me one of their old leather suitcases when we were leaving Australia, as we had no more room - and in that suitcase was a beautiful crocheted rug she had made. That's the kind of folks they were. That's the kind of folks Sandra and Gerald and Joshua IS." I also give Beverly the ring Colin Hills gave me, a pale lilac stone, is it amethyst? and a matching pair of earrings I have had since I was married. She puts them on immediately, and wears them during the days after.
Deborah makes a moving speech to her Mom, and presents her with a large block of crystal, etched with pictures of the family, and a matching key ring. She weeps during her speech and her husband Fred comes to stand protectively alongside of her. Billy stands up and fills the room with his carefully enunciated speaking, which he has learned since his stroke exactly one year ago, he is celebrating his "birth day" - and raises his palms heavenwards, weeping, offers "I praise you Lord, I thank you Lord, for giving me a second chance at life, I am so grateful for your glory and your goodness. You never let me down, Lord. I praise you Lord, I thank you Lord, for my Mama, my Daddy, my children and grandchild, and all my family and friends, and for bringing Miss Saaaaandra all the way from Australia for my Mom. I praise you Lord for the miracles our family has been blessed with this year, that we know your love and healing in our lives. I thank you Lord for the food and the music and the dancing and the love here tonight".
Oh my God. The tears are pouring down my face, people are holding hands and pressing their foreheads together, murmuring their own gratitude to God, praising his blessings. This would never happen in our world at home. I am so humbled and moved by the simplicity of this gratitude and simple statement of love. Our world does not welcome nor mention God - even when I say Grace before a meal, our guests are often uncomfortable with the word “God”, even our son. This prayer of gratitude and love carries me and lifts me, and I wrap the feeling around me like a blanket.
His speech honours his Mom, and the lives of their family. There is a intimate knowing of each other, an understanding, they have each others back. Each of Bev and Dickie's children have 'taken on' an elder member of the family, to 'look after'. Billy looks after Bev's sister, stricken in hospital still, four years after a stroke, unable to speak - Billy more than anyone, has an understanding of that, and he is now her executor, as her own son has all but abandoned her, moving to another state, and out of communication. He, as Adrienne and Deborah - visit 'their' person, ensure they have their official documents sorted, help them pay their bills, do some shopping, post letters, call them up several times a week to see if things are OK, drop by with a meal or flowers. Now that is FAMILY to me, and I have a longing in my heart for this, and an ache that our son is completely unlike this. I have sent Joshua photos and messages from New York, with zero response. He did send one message for Beverly, which I asked him to send before the party so I could share it - it came after the party, and is very beautiful, but I know how much she would have loved that message read out in front of all her friends. And not one more comment from him to me.
I make a speech, I speak of how unlikely it is that we met in Singapore, a white woman from Africa living in Australia and a black woman from the United States, that our friendship has spanned three decades, largely by letters, phone calls, and email. I thank her for accepting our son as 'their own' during his ‘gap year’ in the USA, for their love and generosity, I thank her for all she has taught me, and the love she gave my parents and my husband. I find it hard to speak for the emotion in my voice, but I breathe, and speak what is in my heart.
Bev's speech is a beauty, full of love and acknowledgements. She stands there, radiant, the Queen of Queens, I think. Dickie tries to interrupt and wants to add certain comments, but Deb grabs his arm, and says quietly "Daddy, not now. Its Mom's turn." He falls silent, but when she is done, he speaks loudly and with great love for her and his family and friends.
I feel wrapped in love and so very privileged to be here.
The dancing continues, but now my knee which I banged so painfully on the bath earlier in the day has swollen - all that Electric Slide earlier! - and i sit down as Yvonne brings me ice for it. But Nath and Tony still come and dance with me, I just remain seated. What gentlemen these are! Its a night to remember, and finally at 4 am we leave with Deborah, laden down with my luggage, left over food, bottles of wine, jackets, scarves and gloves and crunch out to the car - its nearly two hours home, and jet lag and emotion have taken their toll, my knee hurts, and I am fading. But still I cannot sleep on the drive, as others do, and scan the countryside, which turns into the city, as Deborah, who worked till 7 pm last night, and till noon on the day of the party, then rallied the team and produced this amazing event, capably drives us home. What a woman!
Bev and I make up my bed, Dickie trundles up and down the stairs, humping cases and boxes and all the gifts, and finally, I climb into bed after 6 am on Sunday, and wake around 1 pm, as the apartment begins to stir.
There will be Gospel Service at ten for me tomorrow!