What a day. It was May 2014 and my mother, Florence had made it to 100. There was never very much doubt that she would.
Three years before in 2011 , Florence at 97 years of age sold up and left the house where she had lived for over 60 years. She moved into a small two bedroom flat in sheltered accommodation, which I’ll call the Court. She was on the third floor with a nice view of the sky and trees out of the window and a lift nearby the flat to make it downstairs. Though from when she moved in at 97 she didn’t leave her flat unless she had someone with her. This was a decision she had made when she arrived and she stuck to it.
Everyone was a bit worried. Could Florence make the change, could she still live alone? She had had a few falls and fractures in her last years in the old place and she had lots of bits of wire holding bones in her arms together. Plus, she was sometimes wobbly on her feet. She used a walking stick and needed to lean on somebodys arm when out and about. She usually used a walking frame in her flat, though sometimes then, she didn’t bother with it.
She did manage the changes. She settled down remarkably quickly, with much help from the wonderful people around her. Her wobbliness disappeared and she loved being there. She made a new friend called Betty who lived downstairs. Betty would come and pick her up and accompany her in the lift when she ventured downstairs for lunch or tea or an event taking place in the communal area. Florence was happier than she’d been for a long time. She said that she felt safer and warmer too.
We had celebrated a few earlier Florence birthdays in quite a big way before – starting with her 90th. Which was really fun. By 91 or 92 we had got into the swing of it but we didn’t really make a big fuss at each birthday, until she reached 99. 99 was the next really big one we organised. We were suddenly in awe of our aging mother who was actually looking as if she might make 100. Many people I know profess that ‘age doesn’t matter’ or ‘age is just a number’ and I am trying to stick with that too as I get older. But these cliches went out of the window for me and my family when Florence reached 99. When it’s a darn big number, the awesomeness of it all seems to become greater every year.
Alan Bennett once said “ when you live to be 90 in England and can still eat a boiled egg, they think you deserve a Nobel Prize”. We, Florence’s family, are absolutely guilty of those thoughts, though we did wait until 99 to truly get going and then 100 – well that was something else.
The 100th birthday telegram from the Queen arrived by a special delivery postman on the morning of her birthday. It had to be delivered to her by hand. The telegrams don’t just come automatically you have to apply for them, which my sister had done, sending a form in to Buckingham Palace some weeks before the big day. Florence was thrilled when she opened the envelope and my sister said she was quite overcome, we all were really, even the non royalists amongst us. She wasn’t quite so thrilled with the very nice card she got from the Department of Work and Pensions signed by Ian Duncan-Smith, ‘not even a fiver in it’ she said to me later.
Science Direct (a leading medical research journal) suggests that Centenarians are a special population, ‘they are persons who have escaped major common diseases and have reached the extreme limits of the human life span’. They are also apparently, among the fastest growing segment of the population. Though you don’t see many of them. They had never had a centenarian living at the Court before so excitement was high.
There had been a lot of organisation leading up to the 100th birthday. We had arranged the party in the communal area opening up the double doors between the dining room and the lounge.
It was a beautiful sunny day and there were tables and chairs and a bench or two set up outside as well. We had hired a harpist to play music in the background through the afternoon. Florence had been born and brought up in North Wales and she loved harp music.
Family and friends came from far and wide. They included nephews, nieces and friends of Florence of many years. Some travelled a long way to get to the event. A few were not a lot younger than her. They came along with all the generations of the family for the tea and chats. Then all the people who lived and worked in the Court were invited and joined the party for the cutting of the cake and speeches. My brother had prepared a presentation with lots of photos of family and friends past and present and kept everybody laughing. The cake was gorgeous and was made by the sister-in-law of one of the duty managers. The feast was prepared by family, friends and the local supermarket and wine and beer flowed. Everyone was dressed up in their finery. Florence was in a new blue dress with pearl earrings and necklace and a warm blue stole in case it got chilly. The four great granddaughters all had new dresses made by their great auntie. They made flower presentations to Florence and Betty, falling over each other to ensure each one of them held a bit of the bunch. It was a fabulous party and most importantly the birthday girl loved it!