The phone rang. That made twenty-two calls from my mother-in-law Virginia that afternoon. I knew because my phone counts how many times a particular number dials my house on a given day. My house phone is the only phone number Virginia remembers. No matter who she wants to call, she dials what was once her only child’s number. It doesn’t matter that he died in 2008.
“Elaine?” Her raspy voice quivers with confusion. She didn’t expect to hear my voice. “Hi, Virginia. Who did you want to call?”
“Benny. I want him to pick me up and take me home.” Benny, her second husband, died twenty-five years ago. Home is Connecticut where she hasn’t lived for forty years. Sometimes she wants one of her two living sisters, but usually she wants to talk to someone who is dead.
Virginia turns one hundred on January 24, 2016. Last week, I mentioned the upcoming party.
“I’m not 100,” she said with a dismissive twist of her Italian hand.
“What year were you born?” I asked.
“1916,” she answered without hesitating.
“So this is 2016 and that makes you 100.” She frowned and looked the other day. Reason doesn’t convince her—or most of us.
My sons, daughter-in-law, and I had a family party when they were home before Christmas. I went to Virginia’s apartment that morning to get the grocery list her health aides made for me.
“You know what I want?” Virginia asked. I was surprised since she rarely asks for anything except dead people or home.
“No, what do you want?”
“I want a sfogliatella .”
“A sfogliatella? I remember those,” I said. Sfoglitella (sfo-ia-tel-la) is a shell-shaped flaky pastry with ricotta cheese filling and a touch of citron. Not too sweet. They’re from Naples, Italy where Virginia’s family originated.
“You bought those at an Italian bakery in Connecticut and brought them when you visited. Vic loved them, too. I’ve never seen them in Ithaca.”
“Are we in Ithaca?”
“Oh, all right,” she said with an exasperated sigh.
Just in case, I asked at Wegmans Grocery. The baker at the counter hadn’t heard of them, but insisted I talk to the head of the bakery department.
“Have you ever heard of a sfogliatella?” I asked.
“Hmmm… We have some of those frozen. We’ll put them in the oven and you can pick them up in 45 minutes.” Along with Virginia’s request for pizza, salad, chocolate cake, and ice cream (Neopolitan, of course), I took her six pastries. She ate them all in two days.
“You only live to be 100 once,” everyone reminded me. Her health aides and McGraw House staff wanted to celebrate this unusual achievement for a resident. I bowed to social pressure for a second party.
“We’re having a birthday party for you here at McGraw House, Virginia.”
“I don’t want a birthday party.” I’ve known Virginia nearly fifty years. I assure you she loves a party.
“But other people want to celebrate your life, Virginia.”
“How old am I?”
“No, I am not.”
“What year were you born?”
“1916.” I do the math.
“No, I am not…”
I ordered a “Happy 100 Years” cake and bought party plates, napkins, and red paper cups. I made a food list including a box of Clementines. Italians love fruit. I hired Virginia’s kind health aide Dawn to dress her, fluff her hair, and help her during the party. I planned to be hostess and take photographs.
There was just one thing left to do. I needed to have a talk with the voice in my head who keeps asking, “Wasn’t there something else you wanted to do with your life?”
Next week, I’ll let you know how the birthday party went. Has anyone in your family turned one hundred? Were they well enough to enjoy the celebration? Do you have other good birthday party stories to tell?
My relationship with Virginia has been complicated from the first time her son brought me home to meet her in 1967. For other stories about Virginia and me, see Mother-in-Law Blues: Lessons in ‘Don’t Bite the Hook and Learning to Forgive.