The turnout was a lot bigger than they were expecting — 61 cars turned up Wednesday night on Lamont Circle in Cortlandville.
This wasn’t a wedding, but a birthday celebration. Such is life amid a pandemic: Friends drove by and honked and waved and shouted congratulations to birthday girl Eilene West, who turned 90.
“This is incredible,” West said. “What a birthday. I just can’t get over it.”
Her 80th was pretty good, too, she said. That one she celebrated at her friend Paulette Fry’s house, back when you could hug other people and breathe the same air.
But after parking their cars Wednesday night, her masked friends spread across her lawn, keeping their distance from her and each other, as they sang “Happy Birthday.”
Most, like West herself, are members of the United Presbyterian Church choir. Fry, the church organist, helped organize the surprise party.
“We call her the grand dame just because she’s been there so long,” Fry said. “When she was younger, she used to sing a lot of solos with the choir. So she’s kind of our mascot.”
Eilene’s son Gordon originally planned a party on his own, until he learned Fry also had one in the works. They joined forces, and the Wednesday night procession and masked and socially distanced choir was the result.
“She’s a long-time member of the church so a lot of her friends are through the church,” Gordon said.
A church member since 1965, Eilene came to Cortland from Boston with her young family in 1965.
Her husband was a recruiter for the U.S. Navy.
Eilene joined the church, and the choir, and quickly got to know everybody. This was the unmistakable impression her party gave – not only did she know everybody, but everybody knows her.
She also worked in the cafeterias of schools in the Cortland Enlarged City School District, so that’s one way she knows a lot of people.
“She was very popular with a lot of students and a lot of teachers,” Gordon said.
Then there’s Eilene herself. She likes to socialize, and even at 90, she gets around on her feet without much trouble, and still drives.
She also was quick to pick up on smart remarks from the peanut gallery.
“I heard that,” she said to one wisecrack. “I haven’t lost my hearing.”
Choir member Carol Foster said she has known Eilene for more than 30 years.
How did she hear about the party?
“We’ve been hearing about her 90th birthday all year long,” she said.
“From Eilene!” she said. “Eilene is not subtle at all. She’s a character. She’s probably going to outlive all of us.”
That’s an observation backed up by Paulette Fry, who noted that Eilene, in pre-pandemic days, worked out four mornings a week at the YWCA.
Last year, Eilene fell down some stairs. For someone at her age, a fall like that could be fatal.
But not for Eilene. She was back to normal in no time.
“She didn’t break a thing,” Fry said. “It’s a real tribute to the Y’s exercise classes, I think.”