The Cost of Attending a 100th Birthday Party

Photo credit: Gunnar Bothner-By, CC BY 2.0.

On December 30, my great-aunt’s son called to tell me they were having a party in Toronto in mid-January. It was my great-aunt’s 100th birthday. Would I be attending?

“I thought you were going to have a party in the summer,” I said, bewildered. I had wanted to come: Toronto is lovely in the warm months, and I could build a summer holiday around it.

“Oh, that was the plan until about six months ago, but we changed it,” he said.

“I don’t think I can fly in for this,” I said. But after we hung up the phone, I started to consider it.

On the one hand, my great-aunt continues to be awesome. Born at home in rural Manitoba, she grew up on a farm, digging Seneca root to earn the money to buy her First Communion dress. “The Spanish Flu wasn’t that bad in the country,” she assures me. Proud to be a working girl, she enjoyed her single years as a store clerk at Eaton’s department store in the bustling metropolis of Winnipeg. It was a job she returned to after her son had grown, because she loved the excitement, helping customers, and the gorgeous lingerie and sleepwear sold in her department. She still talks about the budget-conscious customer she helped turn a nightgown into a wedding gown, and the imported, wool-tartan dressing gowns that she insisted the buyer order, only to see them sell out within days. Her paychecks took her and her husband on vacations around the world. Last summer, we were watching a documentary about Dieppe when I realized my great-aunt would have been a 20-something then, old enough to know what Canadians thought of the war: “What was Dieppe like?” I asked. Except she wasn’t wearing her hearing aid, so she didn’t hear me. It’s true, her health has declined a little since her mid-90s, when she used to call a taxi to get her hair done at the beauty parlor.

However, I generally don’t believe in traveling to attend people’s milestone events. I’m delighted for friends who get married, but weddings are large affairs with many guests. The bride and groom are busy with greeting multiple out-of-town relatives and friends who have flown in for the wedding weekend, and they usually aren’t free to spend quality time with everyone. Likewise, for a birthday celebration where guests were flying in from Europe and staying at my great-aunt’s house, the birthday girl was going to be flush with visitors all in the same week. What I’m saying is, if I’m flying somewhere to see a person, I’d really like to spend a good amount of time with them.

When I make my annual visit to see my great-aunt in the summers, it’s just her, her caregivers, and the next-door neighbour who is like her surrogate daughter. We have relaxed, leisurely days to linger over lunch, sit in the garden, watch bluejays circle the bird bath, and leaf through the latest copy of Vogue together. “What is a style blogger?” she asked last summer (her internet skills are so-so). Then we call Wheel-Trans to get a taxi to the shopping mall so she can be wheeled around to her favorite stores.

My friends have been saying: “But she could die at any moment!” Yes, she could. For the past decade, I have consciously tried to value the time that I can spend with my great-aunt on yearly visits. I take a photo of the two of us each summer, aware this may be our last photo together. As I hug her goodbye, gently circling her sloping, rounded back at the end of each visit, I think: “Well, this could be the last time I see her. She might not be here when I get back.” And then every summer, there she is, and we leaf through a new issue of Vogue together.

“This is like when my family wanted me to fly in for my grandfather’s 80th birthday,” my friend R. said.

“Did you go? Why not?” I asked.

“I was worried that I hadn’t saved enough money that year,” said R.

“Did you regret it?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Other people are very quick to spend your vacation days and money for you,” I said. Whether or not I flew to Toronto for my great-aunt’s birthday, I was going to be unhappy with either choice that I made.

It’s also hard to shrug off the idea that relatives are always making judgments, whatever you do. Will you come again in six months? Why do you always come to Toronto instead of going somewhere fun? Are you going to come again in the summer? Why don’t you save more money? When will you visit again? The questions never feel fair, and my answers only sound surly: Because I’m not made of money. Because I don’t have unlimited vacation time. Because I used a week’s vacation and most of my 2018 travel budget to go to Toronto for an unexpected trip in January.

But when life gives you crabapples, you cut out the rotten parts and make applesauce spiked with sugar and the cinnamon stashed in the back of the cupboard.

I decided to fly in for the birthday because I was, in some way, attending as a representative of this branch of the family. If she were still alive, my mother (the niece of my great-aunt) would have loved to be there. Luckily, my work is slow in January, making it possible to take time away from my desk. While the cheapest way to attend the 100th birthday party would have been to fly in and stay overnight on the floor in the living room of my great-aunt’s house (the bedrooms were full), I decided to extend my travel by several days, stay with a friend, and make the trip more of a holiday, using my 2018 vacation budget. I was also hoping to see my great-aunt for another day or two on my trip, although I knew she was busy with other guests. 

On the day of the party, my great-aunt was enthroned in the living room, greeting the 30 guests who had arrived for the much-anticipated birthday. The house was filled with flowers and chocolates, while the dining room table was set with the teacups collected over her lifetime, starting with King George’s 1939 tour of Canada. Her son read out letters from politicians and dignitaries congratulating my great-aunt on a long, fruitful life, with the best saved for last: a message from Queen Elizabeth. My great-aunt sipped champagne, savoring the day she’d been looking forward to for years. To honor her Norwegian heritage, I wore a cardigan originally given to my mother, many years ago. My great-aunt peered at the pewter reindeer buttons: “Is that the sweater I bought in Bergen for your mother?” Yes, I confirmed. We lined up to take photos with my great-aunt, while relatives logged in from overseas to watch the party on Facebook. For my great-aunt, it was meaningful to look out at a roomful of relatives, neighbors, and old family friends, who had gathered to watch her blow out the candles on the cake: the numbers 1, 0, and 0, plus 13 individual candles running up the sides of the sheet cake. “Why are there 13 candles?” she asked. It was all that could fit on the cake.

My visit didn’t feel like enough time spent with her. Maybe it never will.

The costs of attending a 100th birthday party:

Card featuring a pink, rhinestoned cake design: $11

Photos to tuck inside card: $2

Fruitcake baked from great-aunt’s family recipe: $10

Plane ticket to Toronto: $327

Spending money to extend visit for four days in Toronto: $342

Total: $692

Susan Peters is an editor and writer in Winnipeg, Canada. She has written for the Globe and Mail, Walrus and Macleans. She’s on Twitter at @susan_peters.


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