Wednesday, July 10
“I’ll clean up, if you have things you want to finish up out here,” I say to Elmer, who is mopping up the last bites of the steak I barbecued for supper. “I wouldn’t mind a hand bringing things back into the house, though.”
“Sure, I’d appreciate that,” he comments, relief etched on his face, like I’ve thrown him a lifeline.
Elmer’s intensity around the yard exceeds even his usual passion. What gives? True, Dominique, her boyfriend, Andy, and Julian are coming home for the weekend, but so what? The yard looks fine the way it is. Yes, the shed would look better with a new coat of paint, but no matter if that’s not done today. Or even this summer. We can mark my birthday anway.
Somehow, though, it does seem to matter. By 9:00 p.m., he is still out there. What is going on? Absorbed in the meal plan for the weekend, and the attendant shopping list, I dismiss the thought. Lots to do—it’s already Wednesday.
Thursday, July 11
Best to get moving. I text Dominique to check on arrival time. Saturday morning, it seems. “ Glad to know,” I message back. “Helps with organizing the days.”
A few minutes, later, my phone buzzes. “Hi, speaking of organizing, don’t plan any meals from supper on Saturday on, we have it taken care of.” Wow. Amazing. But odd. Could it be that . . .
Another buzz. “As I think you’ve already guessed, we’re planning on having some family and a few neighbors over Sunday for supper to celebrate. ” I am incredulous. That explains the yard frenzy. Okay. Good thing the bedrooms are ready at least. It would be a good idea to go through the bathrooms, vacuum, dust off a few cobwebs, too.
“The kids might enjoy cinnamon rolls,” Elmer suggests later, as I run over the meal plan with him, to placate me and keep me busy, I suspect. ”But don’t make anything else. Oh, and Daniel is coming on Friday.” Daniel is coming from Calgary? I am overjoyed. Haven’t seen him since February. The pieces are starting to fit together. Elmer has planned a celebration. Given that he lives by the philosphy that More is more, I am afraid to contemplate the scale of the proceedings. “No more questions,” he admonishes. I consider myself told.
What to do except go with the flow? Seems like I will be informed on a need-to-know basis. Letting go will be hard for me, though. Whenever we have a backyard party, I am the one organizing the food and the guest list. Still, I want to behave well to honor all the preparations my family seems to have in place. And so it begins, I see, the graceful release of control, and the responsibility to make things easy for my family.
Saturday, July 13
The children have arrived; my meagre food contribution awaits in the freezer; the house is as clean as it ever gets. I have nothing to do. Unprecedented. People are coming over tomorrow, and I am visiting, like the party’s already started. I guess it has.
After supper at the Waverley Hotel, we head to Rainbow Hall where Elmer’s band, Country Sunshine, is playing at a dance. My sister and her husband are to join us. When I see my nephew and his aunt there as well, the scope of the gathering the family has planned overwhelms me.
Sunday, July 14
Indeed, Sunday morning, the view of the back yard confirms my premonitions. The yard has sprouted two extra patio tables, and chairs bloom under the trees like replicated beanstalks. Behind the planter in the middle of the yard, Elmer has hidden an emergency stash of chairs. The neighbors’ yards must be empty! At the back of the yard, in front of the fence, he has erected a gazebo that protects speakers, a mike stand, and some instruments. Julian is testing a microphone. We will have live music, too. I can’t imagine how long my dear ones have been planning this celebration.
At three o’clock, the guests begin to arrive. The guest list goes way beyond family and neighbors. Friends from disparate avenues of my life have driven several hours to be here. Oh, my. My niece has come, my birthday twin, with her son. Other nephews and nieces have brought their families. I am wondering how I will manage to visit with everyone to honor the compliment they have paid me by coming so far. Daniel frames the gathering so people will know what is happening. Appetizers appear, and, later, a catered meal. Now I understand why Elmer dissuaded me from preparing pulled pork. I try to eek out a few moments just to watch, to admire the accomplishment I see in my children. As they insert sixty tall candles on the birthday cake, and distribute three butane lighters, I realize they have filed away the lessons from the near conflagration some twenty years earlier, when I lit eighty candles on my father’s birthday cake.
My heavens, there’s a program. My sister and her husband sing a song they have written. The kids involve the guests in a trivia game. They know me so well: my passion for the Riders, my love of the novel Pride and Prejudice, my obsession with correct grammar, my tastes in film, my signature teaching strategies. Kaylie and her father sing a few songs. Then the band starts up with polkas, waltzes, and Latin-American tunes: Elmer on accordion, Julian on trumpet, Daniel on bass guitar, nephew Corey on bongos, celebrated musician and lifetime friend, Len Gadica, on accordion. Connie, Joanne, and Dianne, our very own “Supremes,” add vocals. People polka and jive on the deck and on the grass. Janet volunteers to be the official photographer of Yvette’s 60th birthday party. The fun continues late into the night. No one up the street or across the back lane complains.
Monday, July 15
I am so grateful for this celebration, whose intrinsic value supersedes the individual. My decade birthday was just the catalyst. The gathering brought all these people together for a joyous occasion. It created the conditions for relationships to be renewed or forged: between a great-aunt and great-uncle and the next generation; between friends of mine who had never before met; between our children and the neighbors who watched them grow up and whom they don’t see very often any more; between our children and friends of ours whom they had never met, but who know them from conversations and the New Year letters; between former neighbors who have moved away and those of us still on the block. The celebration was a reminder to create occasions to mark the milestones in our lives.
Today, on my actual birthday, we celebrate another milestone, a funeral. Elmer’s cousin passed away on July 8, and was buried this day, July 15, his birthday, too. He had always tracked the Beutel Family July 15 Birthday Club, which included him, my niece, myself, and another cousin’s husband. How serendipitous that he would be buried on that day as well. This is the second time I have attended a funeral on my birthday, both in the Beutel family. Really, we don’t want a July 15 Funeral Club.
The juxtaposition of two remarkable celebrations, both surprises for the guests of honor, underlines for me the role of celebration in our lives. At a significant moment, a heterogeneous group of people comes together to commemorate a memorable event in the life of someone to whom all present are somehow connected. Whether the celebration highlights a particular highlight in life or brings closure to the entire journey, it allows for introspection, fun, reflection, relationship, and respect. It happens thanks to the hard work and generosity of many people. Most important, it brings out the best in people, and allows them to integrate into their own lives the rich fruits of the experience.