I wasn’t going to come tonight. I don’t usually attend birthday parties for folks I don’t know. But then, it’s not every day you get to sing “Happy Birthday” to a brand new ninety-nine-year-old.
She is in good shape, she doesn’t talk much. Sometimes she is clear, other times not. But her eyes sparkle like they’re sixty years younger. Her name is Irene.
She grips my hand and smiles. She is like looking at American History. “Oh, it’s good to see you, Sam,” she tells me.
I explain that my name’s not Sam.
She rubs my shoulder. “Don’t be fussy.”
If you can’t beat them, join them, I say.
Earlier, her sons and nephews picked her up from the assisted living home. It was the first time she’d ridden in a car since Easter Sunday.
Her boys moved a high-back recliner into the kitchen.
Irene sits in the same kitchen she raised her family in. She sits with women who prepare supper. Women like her grew up in kitchens.
She sits, watching her redheaded daughter and granddaughters prepare potato salad.
She speaks. Maybe she’s offering words of advice. Nobody is sure because she’s not using complete sentences.
“Pick’em taters, Sam,” she says to me.
“Pick’em, I say.”
“I’m a pickin’ ma’am.”
Her son smokes the pork. We stand beside a grill and sip. He talks.
He says, “My mama’s strong. I remember when Daddy died, she was going through medical problems of her own at the time. We didn’t think she’d last much longer.”
She certainly showed them. That was forty years ago.
“Mama’s tough,” he said. “Not in-your-face tough, but quiet-tough. Remember once, she chased me for a half-mile up the road, when I’s fourteen, just to give me a whippin’.”
When the patio table is set, we sing “Happy Birthday.” It sounds like any rendition you’ve ever heard. Off-key, and sincere.
Instead of singing to Irene, it’s “Happy birthday dear Mee Maw.”
For supper, I am sandwiched between Irene, and her great, great grandaughter, Mary—a nine-year-old. And even though Mary is as big as a millisecond, she eats more pulled pork than me.
Someone brings a cake with a black-and-white photo printed on the icing. Fancy.
It’s a photograph of a woman, standing in front of a rounded car. Next to her: a man. High-waisted trousers, pomade hair.
Irene can’t have any cake because of blood sugar, but she inspects the photo before the cake gets cut.
“That’s me,” she says. “Look at me.”
Nobody says anything. They let her remember. Her two eyes say it all.
At the end of the night, they help Irene into a car. We wave goodbye.
“Bye, Sam,” she says.
The family sends me with Ziplocks of pulled pork.
I crawl into my truck and drive down a dirt driveway. I’m thinking about white-haired elders, and how this world wouldn’t be what it is without their quiet toughness.
The last thing I pass before I hit the highway is an old mailbox at the end of the drive.
Above the address: two names spelled in gold letters.
Irene and Sam.