Yesterday was the surprise party for my Aunt Joan 90th birthday, though her actual birthday isn't until Tuesday. It went very well, wonderfully organized for months by her daughter, my cousin Susie, but the logistics were dicey because she’s still very dynamic, and it required maneuvering her to do things uncommon for her because she likes to be in control and without her guessing she was being maneuvered.
I've always said that if I’m ever in a war, I want her in my foxhole – even today. She's still that vibrant. I occasionally get phone calls from her at 10:30 at night...but that's in Los Angeles. She lives back in Chicago, so it's 12:30 in the morning. She's usually working on some project at that hour, "And I don't want to go to bed until I get it finished." Her husband has long-since been sleeping, but she's working away. And it's not a little project for herself, but for some organization she's working with. She's also the head of food committee at the independent living residence where they are -- she's wanted to quit that, but the managers keep asking her to stay because she's so good at it. She went back to school in late-middle age to get her Masters degree (at the beloved Northwestern) and then ran a family services social program there. She's quite the dynamo -- so maneuvering her around without her guessing was no easy task.
Part of the plan was to get her to the curb outside her residence and have her daughter (my cousin) call to say she was running 20 minutes late -- and not have her decide to go back upstairs to wait. Instead, a few of us had set up the idea of visiting a room across the street where an earlier party had taken place that I hadn't been in town for and wanted to see, because the room and view were supposed to be so nice. That's where our party was taken place.
There were some hiccups along the way, but we tapdanced though them and got her across the street, into the other building and going up the elevator. And it all worked – but came apart with 50 feet to go.
That close to the promised land, she saw a server in the doorway, and thought someone else was having a party there. And she wouldn't go in. In fact, she stopped dead in her tracks. I said I thought it would be okay, and would check. But she didn't want me to do that, and when I kept heading towards the door to "check," she got very blunt about it. She saw the coat rack and knew therefore that there was indeed a party. I tried to noodge her on, but you don't noodge Aunt Joan. "There's an unwritten rule at the residence," she said forcefully, "that when someone else is having a party, you do not intrude in any way." And the more I said it should be fine, the more I could see her not only shutting down, but starting to get angry. And took a few more steps closer, and it looked like she was about to implode, insistent that I stop. "I live here," she said through clenched teeth, "you don't. I deal with these people all the time. Stop."
What I realized was a double problem: that not only did I have to get her in, but if she imploded too much she wouldn’t enjoy the surprise. And we were on the verge of that. She had that Aunt Joan Look. So I quickly decided that I had to blow the secret. I walked back to her, leaned in close in a very personal, quiet way, and said, “There is a party. And it’s for you. It’s a surprise.”
She was bewildered for a moment and said that it couldn’t be because she’d just gotten a call from her daughter who was 20 minutes away.
“No,” I said, “she’s here. In the room. that was part of our ruse.” When I moved her forward a little bit and she saw an easel at the doorway with pictures of her, that's when it finally clicked in that this was real. However, she was still slightly uncertain about it all. But walking through the door, even with the surprise being blown, that turned out to act as a sort of set up, and once inside, she was overwhelmed to see how many people were there, filling up the place, and kept saying, “Oh, my. Oh, my. Oh, my. Oh, my!!”
So, it worked out. And she had a wonderful time. And was all smiles at the end, appreciative of the ruse.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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