The perils of growing old

My great grandma Ruth Abernethy was a great example of aging gracefully. But she died eight weeks before her 100th birthday, and I blame my redneck relatives.

For her 95th birthday, we had a big party down at the Baptist Church where she attended every week. The place was packed with friends, family members and well wishers. I sat next to her because she wanted to hold my daughter, who was three months old.

And then that moment came, the moment everyone expects at a birthday party. That moment when someone comes in carrying the birthday cake. We all look forward to it. My cousin brought it in and the whole room burst out singing. I took my daughter out of Grandma’s arms so she could devote her attention to the cake. That’s why I was looking directly into Grandma’s face when I saw her eyes go wide. That beautiful, angelic face was now lit by the flames rising from 95 candles.

I’m not kidding. They put 95 candles on a round cake. It must have taken some time to light them because the center candles were nubs. The reflected heat from the wicks and the circular shape of the cake caused a heat vortex to form. Each flame was two or three inches long, and instead of pointing straight up, they curved slightly, a shape reminiscent of a fiery tornado.

She leaned forward and tried to blow some out. She huffed, and she puffed, and four candles went out. I was about to applaud her progress when I watched the candles relight themselves from the surrounding heat. They just flickered back into life, on that inferno cake.

I was about to help when my cousin grabbed the cake and carried off to the kitchen. No one could grab the candles because of the heat, so my cousin but the whole thing in the sink and turned on the water. That put the candles out.

Now, under normal circumstances, this would have ruined the cake. But in this case, the melted candles created a protective seal for the dessert. We had to pick large sheets of wax off our birthday treats, but the cake underneath had been preserved from the dunking.

Everyone knew that we threw a big party for my great-grandma every five years, and that’s why I blame my cousins for her death. I wasn’t there, but when I think about her passing at 99 years and 10 months, I picture her shaking her head and mumbling, “100 candles. I know they’re going to put 100 candles on the cake this time.”


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