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Surprise, surprise!

February 2, 2014

Yesterday we gave my mum a surprise 70th birthday party. The biggest surprise is that she wasn’t 70. A sprightly 69-year-old, I decided to surprise her a year early.

We have a pretty large extended family. Five brothers and sisters produced between them 13 offspring, who in turn (with no contribution from me) have since multiplied into 15 (and counting) third generation sproglets, significantly adding to the total number of babies in my Facebook feed, and helping keep several stationery shops in the greater Leicestershire area in business.

When you have this many people all sharing a tiny bit of genetic code, it’s very rare for them to be in the same place, together at the same time. Mum mused a while ago that it would be nice if we all got together, and decided she should do something for her 70th birthday. Well, that seemed like an awfully long way off, so I decided to bring the idea forward a year early, and set about ringing and emailing the cousins, aunties and uncles I hadn’t seen in decades, as well as friends near and far. To my surprise (although I shouldn’t have been really) every single person said yes. My excel spreadsheet grew and grew, until I had clocked up more guests than Mum had years. It soon became clear this party wouldn’t be held on the boat!

A nice hotel, menu and wine chosen, the only remaining job was to not let the secret slip. For six months. It’s been hell.

I’m usually quite good at secrets, keeping mum (so to speak) not generally being a problem. But for someone not given to remembering names and dates of birth, I was a veritable mastermind on the various doings of the Harrison clan (through regular and sneaky contact on Skype and email). So I would often be halfway through telling my mum something I would clearly otherwise not know, to her look of increasing incredulity. “I um, saw it on Facebook”, I’d say lamely.

The worst bit was thinking of what to say we were doing for her birthday. Ordinarily it might have been lunch at a pub, or dinner in Cambridge, but somehow we had to make it seem normal and logical that we’d chosen a hotel 40 miles away. And that her sister was going to be there. And that the hotel had insisted on us coming at 2.15 (no earlier!) for our afternoon tea. It all got rather wearing.

Most of the day before was spent anxiously checking my spreadsheet for the millionth time to ensure I hadn’t forgotten anyone. Disaster nearly occurred the previous evening when I realised Mum’s next door neighbours were somehow missing from my final acceptance list – a not altogether unsurprising turn of events given that I’d never invited them.

But that was the only hitch to an otherwise master-minded plan. Given the time of year, we could quite easily have been six feet deep in snow and unable to get to the venue, and given my relatively unexplored baking talents the boat could well have ended up wall to wall in 70% chocolate ganache during my attempts at a birthday cake.

My only real worry was how she would react on the day, expecting a table of 15, and instead being faced with 75 relatives and friends, most likely yelling at her as soon as she entered the room. My fears were groundless. Admittedly her first words were “Oh no, you haven’t”, but then a big smile emerged as – oh yes, we had – people flocked around her. She was in her element, chatting away to sixth cousins five times removed, reminiscing about who had married whom and in what dress whilst playing Jenga with small children and deftly balancing scone and fizz on the head of a grand-niece. Pure class.

The husband occupied his time loitering around the buffet table, and cursing the fact we didn’t have time to write a cheat sheet, with names and faces, so that he didn’t have to reach blindly for a suitable name – Harriet! Mary! Juliet! – every time a female relative approached.

Amazingly, we avoided the plethora of smutty jokes that I thought would surround the day, given my mum’s age. One relative, who shall remain nameless for the sake of his reputation, said he had the date earmarked in his diary as ‘1 Feb: 69 with Auntie Mo’. I just hope he wasn’t disappointed.

The day was concluded beautifully by my rather sozzled little brother, who, so inspired by this gathering of nearest and dearest, and trying to think of the next time we might all do it again, suggested that he might get married soon, in order for that to happen. A wise uncle counselled that he might like to find a girlfriend first.

Mum is still dumbfounded as to how we managed to organise it all, in particular how I managed to contact all the friends and relatives. I have advised her to change her email password to something less guessable.

To anybody who is reading this who helped make the day so special – a heartfelt thanks. And to my lovely mum, I promise not to spring any surprises on you this time next year when you actually turn 70. Honest. X

 

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