It was a big, fun bash. About 50 friends and family members arrived via plane, train and automobile to my brother and sister-in-law’s beautiful Long Island backyard. My dad had just turned 90, a milestone deserving something way beyond a Hallmark card and a postage stamp.
One thing my father and mother have always taught us: Show up if you can. Walking into your 90th birthday party with a big smile and a bunch of one-liners is the ultimate way of showing up.
After fretting for weeks about what the weather would do that day, I was thankful. The skies put on a variety show, but nothing that forced us indoors. Warm, bright sun, puffy white clouds, overcast, a bout of Kansas-force winds, two tiny raindrops, more cameo appearances from the sun, then calm night skies. We were all able to spend the whole afternoon and night outside at the place where so many happy family parties occur.
By example, our dad has taught us to appreciate every day. To keep our eyes wide open, cheer on others, crack a few jokes. To grasp our courage. He’s lived through so much, yet I think when most people spend time with him, the main takeaway is what a funny, clever, pleasant, creative, observant French-American dude he is.
The oldest of four children, he grew up in a small village in the Champagne region of France. If you do the math, history books will lead you to conclude his childhood innocence was likely interrupted by an evil army, and it was. For a while his family even became WWII migrants. They had to leave their town on a harrowing journey and live for a spell in a dusty, abandoned farmhouse that had no electricity or plumbing.
Despite experiencing the horrors of war, my tender-aged father and his family survived. My dad grew up, finished school, served in the French army and eventually immigrated to America. He became a citizen and served in the U.S. Army. When he was a soldier, he met my mom by chance at a movie theater in New York City. As he always says with his sparkling blue eyes and sweet grin, “I married a Brooklyn girl!”
So to recap, just like in a movie, my dad literally sailed past the Statue of Liberty with nothing but a suitcase and hope. He showed up to make a life in America. He and my mom had two boys and me. For decades he commuted about an hour each way to and from work. He planted a lush vegetable garden in the backyard, played the accordion, read the paper cover to cover every day, and kept us in stitches with his stories, public “silly walks” and made-up words. We all went to college, as did his six grandchildren.
My dad and his Brooklyn Girl always made sure we traveled and appreciated nature’s offerings, along with humanity’s victories. “Look at that lavender field! Let’s visit this cathedral!”
We took road trips along the East Coast, and many aimless rental car swirls through France and neighboring countries. We were pretty much “Europe on $10 a day” folks — my dad worked for an airline which made it all possible. We’d find shady roadside spots on the way to Provence and picnic on jambon and baguettes. Though we didn’t know it at the time, in many ways we were gazillionaires.
But back to the outdoor party. When we were ready to sing the birthday song, the wind had kicked up. We decided to bring out the cake. As we sang, the single candle remained lit behind our cupped palms. Once it was time for my dad to make a wish, we removed our hands. The flame held on despite it all. Before the gales could get to it, he blew out the candle with his own breath.
I hope my dad wished for a 100th birthday party. I have a hunch he’ll show up.
Reach Denise Snodell at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DeniseSnodell