Her face lit up as bright as a Christmas tree as she opened her first gift. Eyes a twinkly winter green behind her thick glasses, cheeks rosy as holly.
“Oh, I love Fannie Mae!” she exclaimed, uttering each word slowly and with great effort. Her diabetes be damned, she clutched the box of mint meltaways in her arthritic hands with the strength of someone who wasn’t weeks away from her one-hundredth trip around the sun.
A couple days ago, my late grandmother’s best friend—we’ll call her Florence—turned one-hundred years old. My mom and I drove up north to celebrate early with her a few weeks ago, surprising her with a couple framed photos of her and my grandma and a box of her favorite chocolates.
“I can’t believe it,” she said, shaking her head from her comfy blue chair. “One hundred…” She was wistful, in awe of her accomplishment.
“You look great,” I said to her, as she gave us a tour of her apartment, her walker guiding her every step. And I meant it. She could pass for seventy.
She didn’t hesitate with her reply: “I know!” Her tone indicated I’d just stated the obvious: The sky is blue. Well, of course it is.
Florence had spent a lot of time at my grandma’s house, the two of them chatting at the big wooden dining room table for hours over coffee and cakes. I could feel my grandma’s spirit as my mom and I spent the afternoon with her old friend.
We’d taken Florence out to lunch to a diner to celebrate her celebratory milestone. I’d decided on lemon ricotta pancakes topped with fresh strawberries, my mom chose a classic eggs, toast, and waffle medley, and after we asked the waitress for “one more minute please” three times, Florence finally settled on tomato soup and a ham and cheese sandwich. To start, we ordered their famous bacon slathered in maple syrup and black pepper for the table. Thick and sticky with a zesty kick of heat, my mom and I opted to cut our slices of bacon on a side plate. The arthritis prevented her from gripping a knife, but Florence wasn’t going to let that stop her from enjoying such a messy treat—she picked up a strip with her hands and bit right in, going through quite a few napkins afterward.
The thing about turning one-hundred is that your pace slows down dramatically. My mom and I cleaned our plates and each had a bathroom break all before Florence even finished her soup. Her sandwich, still sitting untouched on the plate, was surely getting cold.
“Do you want me to ask the waitress for a container?” I asked her, pointing to the buttery slices of Texas toast, cheese melted down the sides. The diner was a few minutes from closing.
Florence made a face. “A container?!” Her voice was so quiet that I had to lean almost all the way across the table to hear her.
I spoke slowly and louder than usual. “You can take it back home and enjoy it later?”
I’d insulted her. “I’m gonna eat it, dear.”
I admit, I was skeptical. Could this fragile nearly-one-hundred-year-old woman really finish a hearty sandwich after a bowl of soup and heart attack bacon? Turns out, she could. It took another hour, but she did it.
Which brought us to presents. Back at her apartment, she opened up her box of Fannie Mae first, grabbing a piece of chocolate and passing the box to us so we could enjoy it with her. Then, the photos of her and my grandma. Time stopped as Florence pulled out the first photo, holding it gently in her veiny hands, staring at the image of her and her old best friend as if to mentally transport herself back to that moment in time. My mom and I stayed silent as the minutes passed, Florence not breaking her gaze with the picture.
After finding the right place to display the photos and her 100th birthday card, I started to get the departure ball rolling. “Thanks for having us, Florence. We’ve got to be going soon.”
“We’ve got a long drive ahead of us,” my mom added.
“Okay, but you need to have cake first.” It wasn’t an offer; it was a fact. A polite demand. It’s not a proper birthday celebration until everyone has cake. My mom gave me a look that said, “We can’t argue with her on this.”
My mom retrieved the kringle we'd brought with us. Earlier, I'd stashed it in the fridge nestled between a six pack of Starbucks mocha frappuccino’s and a case of Coke Zero. Florence’s diabetes was clearly not a big concern for her.
Sitting back down in the living room with our paper plates of sweets, my mom and I on the blue couch and Florence on her blue chair that was so upright it looked like it was going to eject her from her seat, my grandma’s old friend, my mom, and I all celebrated a life well lived. After one-hundred years, the power of enjoying a simple slice of cake—kringle technically, but that’s a relative of coffee cake—was still bringing people together with nothing more than the sweet flavors of almond slices, icing, and a little reminiscing.
Laura Botten is a voice actor and producer who is currently working on her first book Spaghetti Friendship: A Reunion in Rome. Get a FREE "Taste of Italy" when you sign up for her monthly newsletter here.