By Lydia LaFleur
Plans to celebrate my birthday were simple enough, inkeeping I thought with the number 88; it wasn’t as if I was going to be 90 when I would be expecting family to put on a bash! I did like the sound of 88, however, and it’s formation into four circles was pleasing to my eye. January 16, and since it fell on a Friday, a day that most family members worked and my daughter Ingrid and son-in-law Peter had to travel in from New Jersey, I suggested that dinner out on Sunday would be more convenient. Granddaughter Sarah’s fiancee Chris with his James Beard Award Winning website “First We Feast” was called upon once again to select the restaurant. Sarah, bless her loving heart, still wanted to take me out to dinner Friday, because she said no one should eat alone on her birthday. I reassured her that grandson Nicholas was visiting for the weekend and would be making a pasta dish for my birthday dinner which he did, and it was delicious. We polished off the last bottle of the Bordeaux wines that my son Chris had sent after my hospital stay in September, and enjoyed the meal immensely. Afterwards, I opened the presents my children had sent me. And they were exactly what I wanted. I figured I’d spare them the trouble of racking their brains as to what to get their 88 year old mother who already had everything. So a couple of weeks prior I had emailed that providing they didn’t feel they had done enough for me already this past year, for my birthday I’d love a firm, goose down filled pillow, a light bedspread that is predominantly pink or rose, and a twin set of 400 count cotton pink or rose colored sheets with two pillowcases, because I wanted to spruce up the small pink colored bedroom next to the bathroom; I had forsaken my purple colored bedroom a year ago ever since having fallen twice in the bathroom in the middle of the night, scarring my forehead both times. My children sent me exactly what I’d asked for. The pillow was firm but fluffy, made in the USA, but with 75% minimum goose down from China, making me wonder what was the remaining 25% I’d be sleeping on. The bedspread a Laura Ashley, with pink and rose colored flowers and pale green leaves on a white background – lovely! Ingrid informed me that the sheets and pillow cases would be coming once they finished growing the cotton in India. And indeed they did arrive two weeks later by international mail directly from an address in India.
On Sunday I had two obligations before going out to dinner with my family – at 2:00 to take some presents to a neighbor who had been our theater company’s lawyer pro bono for years and was now bedridden, and at 4:00 to go downstairs to our Recreation Center for a group photo of our theater company’s members. Unfortunately, I overslept, not leaving enough time to shower and wash and curl my hair but hoped to fit that in after the photo shoot. No way was I going to my 88th birthday dinner looking partially balding with my stringy thin hair. And it was to rain all day; I felt depressed. Just then I got a call not to bring the presents to the lawyer after all, because his wife had fallen the night before and broken her arm. Now I know it’s hard to square such a calamity with my guardian angel coming to my rescue, but this incident did give me the time to take that shower and wash and curl my hair, so that by 4:00 I was ready for the picture op and for the restaurant. Since the latter wouldn’t be for a couple more hours, for now I put on the casual outfit I had been wearing the past two days, a lavender turtleneck and maroon colored pants, but at the last minute I did don a pair of lavender colored earrings, my favorite ring and a purple headband. One of the members of our theater group called to say she’d come to pick me up, and when I called to say I’d be fifteen minutes late, she said she’d wait for me. Why would she do that? When I told my grandson I was going downstairs for photo taking, he too said he’d come down with me. I wondered, did they think I was too frail to go down on the elevator by myself? Something was going on. Maybe The Morningside Players knew of my birthday and were having some refreshments for us at the photo op. That would be nice.
What I didn’t know and what my half Japanese granddaughter Sarah knew is that 88 is considered a lucky number in Japan, that the character for 88 resembles the character for rice, which symbolizes health and wealth, and hence 88 is a very important birthday. So when I innocently opened the door of the Recreation Center, there to greet me was a sea of people calling out Happy Birthday — there were my daughter and family, including three of my grandchildren, one of whom had traveled from Boston, my children’s half brother and family including in laws from Japan, members of my writing workshop and theater company and many other close and dear friends. And of all ages, from Koko who is not yet two to Margaret who is 103, in a wheelchair but still keen of mind. Only my son Chris, daughter-in-law Keiko and granddaughter Emma, currently performing in a musical in Tokyo, were missing, but they would be coming in a month or so. I was so surprised, surprised more than I had ever been in my life, my mouth open in disbelief for so long one of the guests thought maybe I’d have a heart attack. On the contrary, I was delighted beyond words! All these people had come to celebrate me, me! My next thought, run upstairs and change into something more fitting, but I didn’t. The guests knew from my casual attire that this party was indeed a complete surprise to me! And my hair was clean and curly.
The room was decorated with purple and lavender colored streamers, balloons and table cloths covered with food, champagne and beverages. There was Frank Minaya, photographer par excellence, recording all the merriment, and I later learned my friends Doug and George were also busy when they mailed me a disk with 79 photos, many of which with my mouth open in disbelief! I had a wonderful time talking to all my guests; someone put a glass of wine in my hands, but they were shaking too much from the excitement. There were trays of creative sandwiches which Ingrid had brought from a caterer in New Jersey, but I bypassed all food so I wouldn’t have to cope with a runny nose and chocolate issuing from the corners of my mouth while trying to engage in conversation, another two indignities of old age Later, alone in my apartment, I would enjoy a feast of cheese and grapes, sandwiches and two cakes, savoring every bite – and, of course, accompanied by a glass of champagne!
Then came the lighting of the candles led by my daughter. Thank goodness, only two candles atop sparkly large figure 88s in a chocolate mousse cake decorated with Happy 88th Birthday Lydia. Two other cakes nearby, a chocolate layer and a lemon that looked luscious to me and obviously to the guests also, seeing as I never did get a bite. Next my granddaughter Sarah gave a speech which was so beautiful and moved me so that I can’t resist including it here.
“Welcome to Lydia’s birthday party. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Sarah and I am one of Lydia’s four grandchildren along with Nick and Helen, and my little sister Emma, who lives in Tokyo.
Our family isn’t one to do speeches, but it only seemed appropriate to make one today in honor of my grandmother. 88 is a lucky number in Japan, where my sister and I grew up. The character for 88 resembles the character for rice, which, along with being Japan’s single most important food, also symbolizes health and wealth. On her 88th birthday, my grandmother is both healthy and wealthy, surrounded by so many loved ones like yourselves. I’m sure my grandmother would say that she is merely lucky, but getting 45 people to show up on a rainy Sunday afternoon on a holiday weekend has nothing to do with luck, and everything to do with the kind of person she is.
You see, my grandmother is charming. She has mastered the art of being the attractive and elegant senior citizen so well that she might as well be the poster child for AARP. She wields her powers wherever she goes, whether at the neighborhood market or at the New York City Ballet. Everywhere we go, people tell her she’s beautiful. They unabashedly ask her about her skincare regimen and whether she used to be an actress. Over the years I’ve come to feel like her handler, holding her bag and coat as she takes in the compliments. My grandmother will modestly reply, ”Oh me? I’m so old, all I’ve got left is my face,” and there you go. They’re all putty in her hands. Granny Lydia, I am onto you and your ways.
My grandmother, my fiancee Chris and I usually dine at Pisticci’s, the neighborhood restaurant, twice a month. When I walk in and ask for a table, I am typically told there is a one hour wait. When my grandmother goes and talks to the hostess, we are usually seated immediately at a quiet corner table. This has happened on so many occasions that Chris and I now no longer bother talking to the hostess. And her VIP status doesn’t end there: Pamela, the singer at Pisticci’s, will regularly push Chris and me aside to talk to my grandmother when she sees us walk in the door. She’ll ask my grandmother if she has any special requests for the night, and will proceed to dedicate a few songs to her. “This song is for Lydia.” That is how every meal at Pisticci’s begins. Turns out knowing a Morningside Heights celebrity has its perks.
Beneath her sunny disposition, my grandmother is actually quite complicated, and perhaps that’s what makes her my favorite person. You see, she is actually far from being a typical grandmother, and over the years she’s shared a lot with me about her life that most grandmothers would never share with their grandchildren. It’s her honesty that then compels you to be honest back with her. From my anxieties at work to details of my romantic life, I have shared more with my grandmother than I have with some of my closest friends. Rather than dismissing my problems as young or trivial, she’ll recall a memory from her past when she felt similarly, and it’s in those moments where I have, over the years, felt saved in some way because I know she has gone through something similar and emerged so triumphant.
I look at her life and think that is exactly who I want to be when I’m 88. To have so many friends, so many interests, to have the energy and curiosity to start a blog at the age of 87, and then to regularly have experiences that are worth chronicling in that blog. She is indeed the poster child of growing old. I feel so lucky to be able to celebrate this special day with you. I love you Granny Lydia. Happy Birthday.”
I have sometimes wondered what my family would say about me at my funeral? Sarah’s speech was like an elixir! I don’t need to hear anything more. I have made a copy of the speech so that when I feel I haven’t lived up to par (well, I never did make it to Broadway!) I can read it over and over again to be reassured of how wonderful I am! What I don’t need to remind myself of is that I have the best family and friends in the world! As for 88 being a lucky number, I sure hope it works in the USA as well as in Japan.