Surprise parties are kind of a big deal in my family. It feels like we're throwing one every couple of years, and the tradition goes back as far as I can remember. There was a surprise party to celebrate Grandma Betsy and Paw-Paw's 40th wedding anniversary; one to celebrate my 6th birthday, for which the whole family gathered in Galena, Illinois, where we frequently took family vacations during my childhood; we threw a motorcycle-themed surprise party for my uncle Doug when he turned 46, not long before he would tragically pass away from esophageal cancer; when he was still sick, he traveled to White Hall and the whole family stood outside on Grandma and Paw-Paw's deck and waited until they finally saw us standing out there -- I'll never forget the way Grandma's jaw dropped in shock!

More recently, we surprised Grandma on her 80th birthday (which, in retrospect, may not have been the best idea; I don't endorse surprise parties for the elderly), and my aunt Lisa, uncle Dick, and their kids have been engaged in a round-robin of surprise birthday parties. Tonight, we added to that proud, family tradition by throwing a surprise party to mark Mom's 60th birthday, and I have to say, we got her good.

Totally surprised -- and touched.
My aunt Brenda got in touch with me months ago to start planning a party for Mom; she wanted to do something to celebrate the person in our family who is always selflessly doing things for others, yet is seldom the center of attention herself. The family wanted to have a surprise party downstate, and in order to do so without raising suspicion, they had settled upon Memorial Day weekend, when the entire extended family usually gathers to tidy up Grandma's yard. I put it in our calendar, and the subterfuge began.

Calls flew back and forth between me and my aunt, on everything from timing to cake selection, though the vast majority of the plotting, scheming, and decision making occurred between my aunts Lisa and Brenda. Mom, of course, was curious why we weren't coming down to White Hall for Memorial Day, especially considering the fact that we didn't have any other plans. I scheduled a picnic with my friends for Monday just so I could tell her we had something going on (after 27 years of motherhood, she can always tell when I'm lying, so it had to be something that was grounded in fact), even though it would mean rushing back from downstate. 

Mom's Kermit cake suffered a mishap, as the unbalanced frog topper started sliding off the cake before the party started. My aunts and cousins hurriedly tried to prop him up with the cattails and leaves that had previously been interspersed over the surface of the cake, which held the whole thing together long enough for her to arrive, but it definitely diminished the overall aesthetic impact of the piece.
My aunts and cousin concocted an elaborate ruse to guide Mom into going to the restaurant where they were having the party: my aunt was babysitting one of her grand kids for the day, and the restaurant was on the way to her daughter's house so she could return him to his mother. Thankfully, the idea that she might be the subject of a surprise party was so far from Mom's mind, that she disregarded many potential tip-offs to what was afoot:
  • The large volume of cars in the parking lot didn't seem odd to her, and she didn't recognize the vehicles of her relatives. For our part, Justin and I had driven my distinctive, periwinkle Volkswagen Beetle an indirect way down to the party venue, to avoid driving through White Hall and the adjacent Roodhouse, where Mom might spot us, and had parted at my great-aunt's house and carpooled with her to the restaurant.
  • The restaurant sat us right in front of two large windows, which Mom didn't think to look through.
  • When they walked into the restaurant, my mom gave the hostess the name of the reservation, and the hostess said, "Party of eight? We have a party of thirty eight," and my Mom just wrote her off as being flighty.
When she came in the room, she was still so unsuspecting that she didn't even look in the direction of the huge gathering of people on the opposite side of the room. Her focus was on a table set for eight, the size of her original group, that the waitress was mysteriously not guiding her to. Finally, we had to haphazardly yell, "Surprise!" to get her attention, and even then, it took a few seconds for her to realize that the party was for her.

One of the biggest, and most genuine smiles I've ever seen from Mom.
Mom teared up, and exclaimed, "We don't do this kind of thing for me!" Not only was she completely taken by surprise, she was very touched. It was great to see so many people show up for Mom, and to see how many lives she has touched. She is very loved, not just by me, but by a community of people, and I'm happy that we were all able to gather to celebrate her -- she deserves it! Happy 60th Birthday, Mom!

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