My youngest son, Walter (a sixth-grader at the West Tisbury School), had an exciting spring ahead of him with his 13th birthday on April 3 (falling on a Friday, which is very exciting in the sleepover party-world) and his long-awaited bar mitzvah scheduled for May 2 — an event which had much preparation.
I sent out “Save the Dates” long ago for both events, and everyone was quite excited for the double celebration. At the time, there were hints of a major health crisis in other parts of the world, but for a long time that seemed “over there.”
In early March, the president of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center called me to say that they were going to be canceling some upcoming events due to COVID-19 uneasiness, and he wasn’t yet sure if they were going to have to cancel the Community Passover Seder scheduled for April 9, which was just three weeks before Walter’s bar mitzvah. The writing was on the wall.
The coronavirus pandemic hit home on Martha’s Vineyard on Friday, March 13, with the cancelation of “The Lion King Jr.” production at the West Tisbury School (which Walter was in), followed by the school closures Islandwide. On March 16, I received a text from my high school friend, Melissa Bildner (who was also planning a bar mitzvah for her son Joseph on May 9), “Looks like the decision has been made for us … we need to reschedule the bar mitzvahs … the CDC recommends canceling events with 50 or more people for eight weeks across the United States.”
“Social distancing” became the new normal, as did terms like “shelter in place.”
Then came reality that life as we know it was temporarily on hold and that all events, any events, had to be canceled.
It was truly devastating and seemed unfair, but my son took both cancelations like a champ. He is a very good boy. Certainly we both knew that there was no choice and this is what had to be done to help “flatten the curve.”
New parties take shape
I was lucky to have already been familiar with the online meeting room app, Zoom, as I took part in many weekly Zoom meetings for more than a year now at my marketing job with Martha’s Vineyard Bank. I told Walter he would have a “virtual birthday party,” and I asked the moms of the invited children to all attend online with their own dessert and candles, and that they could all sing and blow out candles together.
The week before Walter’s birthday, my sister, Gail Szakacs, called me from Connecticut and was all excited about a “Birthday Train” of about 20-plus cars she saw that had signs and honked their horns and all stopped in front of one house to celebrate a birthday.
I thought, “Could I do that here? Would anyone come?”
A day or so later I took to email and sent out invitations to friends and teachers to “Walter’s Surprise Birthday Car Parade” at 5 pm on Friday, April 3. Almost immediately, I got positive response after positive response …
Ellen Biskis: “Yes, we like the idea!! We’ll be there!”
Violet Cabot: “I would love to do this! It’s a great idea!”
Ann Russell: “I’ll be there!”
Molly Purves: “We would love to come!”
Lori Sue Herman: “I’ll be there! Brilliant!”
Stacia Broderick: “Sounds like a great idea! We will be there!”
Amy Crawford: “So much fun! I’ll bring Molly!”
It was so fantastic to know almost immediately the party was a “go.”
I then had the idea to take it up a notch and see if I could get a police car to join with some lights and a siren. I contacted the former West Tisbury Police Chief Dan Rossi to see if he could help get a police car in Walter’s birthday parade. Chief Rossi kindly said he would contact the current West Tisbury Police Chief Matt Mincone. Within an hour I had heard from Chief Mincone, who graciously said, “I’ve got two cruisers, the ambulance, and three fire vehicles that volunteered to do the drive-by at 5, does that sound like a plan?”
I was absolutely overwhelmed with his (and all the first responders) kindness, and I thanked him very much.
“It’s about trying to spread a smile, we are all pleased to do it,” Chief Mincone said.
Walter was also surprised by Sheriff Bob Ogden and his wife, Jeanne, in the sheriff’s car with blue flashing lights. Sheriff Ogden even gave Walter a commemorative Dukes County Sheriff’s coin and personally wished him a happy birthday “from the sheriff.”
Between friends, teachers, and first responders there were about 40 vehicles there. It was fun and great to see everyone and laugh a little in this unprecedented time of quarantine and social isolation. We had children standing out of sunroofs, many colorful birthday signs taped to cars, moms shaking maracas out of windows, lots of honking horns, well wishes shouted aloud, and Walter’s 5th grade teacher from the Chilmark School even tossed out a bouquet of flowers to him.
It was only about a 7-minute party, but it was pure joy with smiles all around. Walter was overwhelmed that so many people cared enough to take time out of their day to celebrate him.
The next day I received many nice emails about the birthday parade.
Our family friend Elaine Miller, who had been part of the parade with her husband, Howard, wrote, “Edie you did it. We were at the beginning of the parade but we could see Walter’s face light up and I can just imagine how happy he was when he saw the fire trucks and the police cars. I know you will have another birthday party for him, but for his entire lifetime this one will always be with him.”
My friend Amy Crawford wrote on Facebook, “So glad to have been part of the celebration!” I responded that it was, “A birthday party of the times” — to which she said, “Yes it was.”
And Walter’s friend and reading teacher, Barbara Reynolds, wrote, “As a historian, Walter will be a part of history. It doesn’t feel good now, but the stories he will tell. Happy Birthday Walter.”
One of the dads, Taurus Biskis, said it best as he was driving away: “See you on the other side!”
Yes, I certainly hope that we all get to see each other and hug one another again very soon. Thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone who joined the parade to celebrate my son, Walter, on his very special 13th birthday. We will both remember your kindness forever. Sending out love to all.