When my father died in 2000 friends and family packed the Unitarian Church of Princeton for his memorial service. In a driving snowstorm. On Super Bowl Sunday. My husband’s best friend, Eduardo, belied his machismo Colombian roots and bawled through the whole service. At the end he said to me, “I kept thinking, when I die, will people say such nice things about me?”
Late in the summer this year I realized my mother would be turning 70 on September 28. I got on the horn with my sister, Tonia, who lives five hours away in Trumansburg, New York, and who, in her own words, is “not an event person.” To her, having milk in the fridge for breakfast demonstrates superior planning skills. I, on the other hand, am an event person. Ten years of working in PR (phase 1 of my career) will do that to you. I’m the kind of person who likes big weddings. Excellent food. Party favors. Waiters serving coffee and clearing from the left.
What I said to Tonia was this: “Why should we wait until Mom dies for everyone to say how great she is? Why don’t we do it while she’s still alive, so she can hear it? And enjoy it? It will make her happy. Let’s do it. Now.” My sister agreed in concept. However, when it came to execution I knew who’d be burning the midnight oil. Me.
As charming as it initially sounded I immediately dismissed the idea of a giant party in my backyard. Too much stress. The weather factor. Our new puppy. The lack of a presentable bathroom downstairs. Too many house projects in progress. My mom at this point was visiting with my sister, who proceeded to worm out some key bits of information from her. (We had already decided against a surprise. No grown woman should have to walk into a room unprepared for the consequences.) My mother said she did not want a large party, just close family and friends.
Bingo, it hit me. I had thrown a fabulous 40th birthday party for my husband seven years ago at a restaurant in New York, in a private dining room for 14 that opened onto the restaurant’s kitchen. It was a great success.
My mother (and father) grew up in New York. We’re a New York kind of family. It seemed to make sense until we started looking at the numbers. At $125 to $150 a head, my sister and I balked. Neither of us is made of money. Then my mother revealed she wanted to stay local, and she wanted to have a brunch (“so people don’t have to drive home late”).
Two years ago I took my mother to Rat’s Restaurant at Grounds for Sculpture for Mother’s Day brunch. It was edible rapture. We both ate non-stop until the waiter came and informed us our two hours were up, another party was taking our table. After several mimosas, we were in no mood to end our good time so we simply grabbed our dessert plates and repaired to the patio outside the restaurant. So Rat’s it was for mom’s 70th birthday brunch, and the guests could stroll on the grounds and look at the sculpture after we ate. Even my brother-in-law approved: “Grounds for Sculpture?” he said. “That’s what heaven would look like if God had money.”
I locked in a date, October 1, with catering manager Chris Carrell, for the Dance Pavilion, and locked down a guest list of about 30 (hint: at age 70, the birthday girl likes to have a say in the invitation list). Then I kicked into turbo event mode for the remaining four weeks: invitations (Target, of course), flowers (I copied a just-unusual-enough arrangement off weddingchannel.com), and party favors (mini-cupcakes from the Bent Spoon).
I did want one surprise for my mom. I contacted all the guests and asked them to mail me photos of her through the years. I had Ellen at age 10, Ellen’s high school graduation picture, Ellen in Turkey, Venice, France, and London, even her and my father’s 1960 wedding announcement, which had a photo of the two of them and the words written in my father’s careful calligraphic hand. My husband put them all into a looping slide show on PhotoShop (which we finished at 1 a.m. the night before the party), which we planned to project onto the 60-inch flat screen in the Dance Pavilion (a great perq with that room).
Now all I needed was a perfect sunny day. I woke up the morning of Sunday, October 1, to pouring rain. The puppy won’t pee outside in the rain so the day started off badly. I got on my favorite weather website, which confidently announced thunderstorms all day. I was disappointed but vowed not to let it ruin my spirits. We got to Rat’s early (aahhh, waiters serving coffee…), and just as the guests began to arrive at 11 a.m. a little miracle occurred. The rain stopped, the clouds dispersed completely, and the sun came out — and stayed out for the whole day. I was in shock during the entire brunch because I just couldn’t believe it, the weather, I mean. How could this happen?
The answer didn’t dawn on me until I sat back after dessert and listened to several people stand up, one at a time, and tell wonderful stories about my mother, as she held court and beamed. And I realized that my father had only one way of giving my mother a gift that day to show her how much he loved her, in life and beyond. I remain convinced that my father singlehandedly had a say in the weather that day. It goes against every practical bone in my body but I honestly believe it. A couple weeks ago, it came up in a conversation with one of the writers I work with that I’m an atheist (my father was also an atheist). And the writer said matter-of-factly, “Well, you know, atheists are the most spiritual people.”