I am usually thrown into a consumerism coma the minute I enter a Costco or Sam’s Club. The clatter of jumbo shopping cart wheels and vendor calls proffering some miraculous new processed food makes me claustrophobic. But it’s the fluorescent lighting that throws my internal clock off balance – I feel like I’ve missed a flight, slept through several time zones and woken in an underground world where the sun has been distilled into the chemical components of illumination. I make no good decisions under these conditions, so I usually tune out, nod and agree with whatever fabulous bargain my shopping partner discovers. I let others do all the mental math of dividing super-sized deals into comparisons with normal grocery quantities. But I couldn’t zone out this time. I was the reason my aunt brought me to Costco in Aloha, Oregon in mid-December – I had decided that we needed to throw my grandmother a 90th birthday party. Since she lives in a senior community, catering the party ourselves was out of the question. Auntie R’s Costco membership card to the rescue.
I think my aunt was stunned when I piped up with an idea for the decorative lettering on the massive sheet cake we were ordering. Without hesitation, I filled out the line on the form for the “personal message.” A day later we picked up a flowered, frosted, manhole-cover sized cake that read: “Nellie at 90. Still giving ‘em hell.”
There’s a madness to my method. In her day, Nellie Fox Edward was hell on heels – the only woman in the world of Oregon labor unions and almost the only woman lobbying in the state capital in Salem. She ran for state Labor Commissioner once. Apparently my 12-year-old self, wearing a sandwich-board sign reading “vote for my Granny,” wasn’t cute enough to sway the outcome. But granny took the defeat in stride, put in a few more years of two-martini lunches with union organizers, and almost got herself nominated for Secretary of Labor under Jimmy Carter. He even flew her out to DC for the interviews. There is not a woman alive who hates Ronald Reagan more than Nellie Fox Edwards. Death did not excuse him from robbing Carter of a second term.
Still, my aunt wondered if the cake’s lettering would resonate with a crowd of retirement home residents. Or even with granny – her cognition is struggling to keep up with her legacy, or as she puts it, “my forgetter works real good.” Truthfully, I wasn’t thinking of her retirement home neighbors; I was thinking of the invite list. Granny and I had been working on it for months and she insisted on sending invites to several governors and a handful of senators and representatives as well. Privately I thought she’d be disappointed – it had been decades since she left the capitol — but I sent them anyway and three days later the first RSVP arrived. Former Governor Ted Kulongoski wanted to know what he should bring. So did Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici – planning to return to Oregon in time for the party as long as the House passed the budget agreement.
I called granny a week before the party to ask if she was getting excited. She sounded sad and I asked her why. “I just wish you were coming,” she told me. When I reminded her that I was the one organizing her party she brightened up and told me I made her day. There is an upside to a good forgetter – lots of nice surprises.
Party day arrived and granny pulled out all the memory stops. She remembered names and shared histories and got teary-eyed thumbing through a photo album an AARP colleague prepared in her honor. She ate two slices of cake and left bright red lipstick smears on the cheeks of Governor Kulongoski. She made sure Congresswoman Bonamici signed her guest book and leave her phone number. She snapped her fingers every time she wanted Gary to take another photo of her hugging someone. There were family members there who’d driven six hours to celebrate her birthday and she clucked over each of them too, though not quite as much as the celebrity politicians.
The next morning, I waited until 10am to give her a call. “I wanted to let you sleep in Granny,” I told her. “You must be exhausted after all that excitement.”
“Oh I was up at seven,” she replied, “writing a nasty letter to Governor Kitzhaber for not showing up.”
Apparently one governor wasn’t enough for the woman who demanded all politicians pay attention to organized labor, women’s rights and medical coverage for the mentally ill. It turns out her forgetter wasn’t working as well as we all thought it was. She fought hard her whole life and expects the people she supported, especially men, to give her the respect and attention due. As the sitting governor of Oregon was about to find out – the cake was spot on.