The Birthday Queen

My mother-in-law is turning 80 today. She’s wearing lipstick, eye shadow, Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew bath powder, and two hearing aids that cost more than an aircraft carrier.

It’s a big day. A fish fry. There are cheap party decorations on the old pier, overlooking the Choctawhatchee Bay. The water is calm tonight. We have a local term for this calmness. Some of us might say the bay water is currently “slicker than owl snot.”

Sailors and commercial truckers often substitute the word “snot.”

Everyone here is using their outdoor voices because the people attending this party are social distancing, sitting 25 feet apart.

It’s a tiny, select gathering of immediate family members, not many. This party was supposed to be a humdinger, but COVID-19 stepped in and slowed the whole universe down.

In fact, my wife almost didn’t throw this party at all since my mother-in-law has some health issues. But here we are, keeping 3,203 feet away from each other, using gobs of hand sanitizer after we swat mosquitoes.

I have a conversation with the birthday girl from afar. I am holding a beer. My mother-in-law and I are talking about how Aunt Flossie goes grocery shopping during a pandemic.

“FLOSSIE DOES ALL HER SHOPPING ON SENIORS DAY!” says my mother-in-law, using a volume loud enough to rattle the windows of a 747 overhead. “SHE WEARS A MASK AND RUBS THAT STUFF ALL OVER HER HANDS!”

She is definitely using an outdoor voice. Also, I think her hearing aids are turned off.

It’s funny. When I was a kid, everyone’s parents were big on indoor voices. “Use your indoor voice!” was the gentle instruction offered to me by the parents of my friends. Apparently, I was always using an outdoor voice, and thereby driving many local parents to take up heavy drinking just to deal with me.

But I couldn’t help it. I came from a loud family. My father was deaf in his right ear. He talked loud and so did my uncles. They had spent a lifetime working around heavy equipment, too.

So nobody in my life was quiet. This is why my mother made all my father’s friends sit on the front porch whenever they came to visit. She didn’t want all that loudness in the house, scaring the dogs.

Eventually, I learned how to use an indoor voice. And this is what most well-adjusted American adults do. But ever since this pandemic began, people have started using outdoor voices again. It goes against everything I’ve been taught.

But that’s what we’re all doing at this party. We are standing in different postal zip codes, shouting.

When supper is ready, everyone sits and eats fried fish. The blessing has to be screamed. My voice breaks on the “AMEN!” I won’t lie, this is bizarre.

“HOW’S YOUR FISH?” my wife hollers to her mother.

My elderly mother-in-law, eating with both hands, sitting 20 feet away, says, “YES, HE JUST GOT MARRIED!”



And so it goes.

I’m not complaining, but I certainly do miss the days before social distancing. For crying out loud, it has been a million years since I’ve felt relaxed at the grocery store.

Over the past months, it’s been like a science-fiction movie at our house. Whenever we bring groceries home, we spread them on the porch and treat them like kryptonite. My wife wears gloves and washes every box, jar, package, and tin can with Clorox while I wave a crucifix over each item and speak in Latin.

It’s difficult to comprehend just how different our world has become. This new way of doing things has become so normal now that the idea of going back to the old way feels like a pipe dream.

Fortunately, everyone at this party still remembers the way things used to be. People are having no problems smiling, laughing, and making merry like they used to. Fried triple tail does that to people.

My wife’s brother fried the fish, and I for one am a big fan. I remember when there used to be fish fries at the VFW every Friday night. I used to go with my friend. We’d listen to a cowboy band of elderly men in ten-gallon hats play to a crowd of blue-hairs with bad hips. Each old man in the band would play his respective instrument through an amplifier so that it sounded like a nuclear air strike. All-you-can-eat fish for 5 bucks. It was great.

And those are the kinds of things I’m being reminded of right now. The old days when people used to get together and do stuff. Back when parties were commonplace, without fear.

The night starts winding to a close. As birthday parties go, it’s been pretty sedate, almost boring. A cake is brought out. There are candles glowing. The sun setting over the bay behind us looks like a Monet.

Everyone sings “Happy Birthday.”

I smile at my elderly mother-in-law of almost 18 years. She is white-haired. Her face is shining. Lots of her friends and family aren’t here tonight for safety’s sake. But everyone is singing. The tiny group of us, standing far apart, singing for the belle of the evening. With our outdoor voices.

When we finish our song, my mother-in-law flashes a confused look at us. She adjusts her hearing aid, and addresses the group. “I’M SORRY, WERE YOU ALL SAYING SOMETHING TO ME? MY HEARING AIDS WERE OFF.”

Happy 80th Birthday, Mother Mary.


  1. Sandi. - May 25, 2020 7:31 am

    Happy belated birthday to your dear mother-in-law, Sean! Age 80 is a huge milestone. Mary is blessed to have a son-on-law like you who truly cares about her.

  2. Toni - May 25, 2020 7:46 am

    Thank you Sean – and bless you and your beautiful friends and families and pets. I loved every word and laughed a lot. Those terrific belly laughs, where we have to put down our smartphone and guffaw loudly.

    In my small regional city in a small state of Australia, it is winter, and today was a beautiful sunny day after a cold morning. People were starting to enjoy a slight loosening up of our restrictions. What bliss to buy a hot chocolate and gluten free lemon curd tartlet to eat outside the cafe in the sun.

    But your party for Mother Mary and friends was even more delicious and enjoyable to this reader.

  3. Cynthia Harmon - May 25, 2020 11:02 am

    A Happy Birthday to your Mother Mary! 80 seems to be a great age. I’m glad y’all decided to have a little party rather than cancel all together. The fish fry is so yummy! I remember them myself from my childhood. I hope Mother Mary’s eighth decade is the her best!

  4. Christine Washburn - May 25, 2020 12:19 pm

    Happy 80th year Mother Mary🎈🎈and many more.🎈🎈

  5. Sandy - May 25, 2020 1:13 pm

    Good Morning, Sean !!! Oh my goodness, I can’t stop laughing about the Birthday Queen !!!! I am from the Panhandle and so enjoy reading about your “adventures”. Have your book and am reading it for the second time !!! It’s GREAT and Thank You. Happy Memorial Day to you and your family !!

  6. Leigh Rankin - May 25, 2020 1:20 pm

    Triple tail? Lucky people!

  7. Berryman Mary M - May 25, 2020 1:22 pm

    Happy Birthday to Mother Mary! Sean you set such and example for all of us the way you honor your mother in law and also others of the super senior generation. Bless you for that!

  8. Tammy S. - May 25, 2020 1:28 pm

    Happy 80th Birthday to your Mother-in-law, Ms. Mary!! Sounds like a lovely, loudly fun, evening celebrating with great food, family & friends. Perfect!
    Also, Happy & safe Memorial’s Day to you all.

  9. Helen - May 25, 2020 1:40 pm

    Happy Birthday Mother Mary. What a milestone 80!!!
    We have this in common today is mine always. I’m turning 65. Love May birthday 🎁 people

  10. George B - May 25, 2020 2:37 pm

    Even the CDC says getting covid from touching any object, like groceries, is extremely low. Just put your groceries away like normal.

  11. Anne Arthur - May 25, 2020 3:49 pm

    Happy birthday to your mom-in-law … shouting with my outdoor voice!

  12. Small Town Southern Girl - May 25, 2020 4:20 pm

    Happy Birthday to Mother Mary🎈🎉🙂😎🎂🎁

  13. Jim Thomssen - May 25, 2020 7:29 pm

    Thank goodness it’s not just us treating the groceries like kryptonite! Keep on keeping on Sean. And say Happy Birthday to your Motber in Law.

  14. MAM - May 25, 2020 7:32 pm

    Reminds me of when I took my Mom to her 60th college reunion. Everybody was at least 80 (except for their kids). When the Gospel Choir started singing at the banquet in their loud, but lovely voices, Mom and I got the giggles, because she and everyone else in the room had their fingers in their ears turning down their hearing aids.

  15. Ron Thomas - May 25, 2020 7:39 pm

    Happy Birthday, Mrs. Mary.

  16. Linda Moon - May 25, 2020 7:51 pm

    I’m late in posting because a gingerhead like you kept me on the front porch for a long time today. I’m his “Uma'”. He was very much like you when you each were only 12 years old, Sean. So, we talked and talked, some of it about being 12 long ago. The other once-gingerhead joined the two of us eventually. We are not quiet, either, with our laughter and talking! The older gingerhead and his twin had a lovely 80th birthday party in January before the universe closed, so I’m SUPER-HAPPY that Jamie threw the party for her Mother Mary!!

  17. Nancy - May 25, 2020 8:21 pm

    Years ago my ex-husband and I had spent weeks battling severe sinus infections. When we finally had enough we decided to find a warm place for the weekend. We found a cheap flight and hotel in Nassau and off we went. As soon as the plane started to rise all that sinus gunk made its way to our ears. We arrived in Nassau deaf as proverbial doornails. When I checked us in at the hotel I had to explain to the desk clerk that I was temporarily deaf. She loudly asked if she could book any excursions for us. I looked at the ex and asked, equally loudly, if he was interested in any excursions. He loudly replied ” I don’t know, I’ve never eaten sturgeon.” I could hear all the laughter through my gunk clogged ears.

  18. Ann - May 25, 2020 11:10 pm

    What a very special time for your MIL…. I was chuckling throughout, then remembered I will be 80 the end of this year and I wear hearing aids and…..huh??…well, I tell our kids it’s ok to laugh at what I thought I heard…then clue me in!!
    You are a special, loving SIL…🍰

  19. Nancy M - May 26, 2020 4:51 am

    Happy Birthday, Miz Mary!!

  20. Curtis Lee Zeitelhack - May 26, 2020 11:20 am

    It sounds like your mother-in-law is a gem. I had one very much like her named Rose. I miss her. Take care of your gem and keep her as long as you can.


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