A young woman chased an errant balloon in a parking lot in the wind. An unmarked car, red and blue lights flashing in the back window, was parked nearby. A priest surveyed the scene. No, it was not the set of an abstract film, but something in the works for a 95th birthday surprise.
Mary Whelan, born one year and one day before Queen Elizabeth, surveyed her front yard kingdom from her lawn chair throne, a tiara on her head and boasting a sash, which read, “It’s my birthday.” A giant inflatable birthday cake bobbed behind her in the breeze. Queen Mary heard rumor of a promised parade, which was taking shape at that very moment in a nearby church parking lot.
With the priest, also chaplain of the Warwick Police and Fire Departments, leading the way, the stream of cars slowly snaked down West Shore Road, and onto a side street when the honking began. The cars in front pulled to the curb as more vehicles, festooned with happy birthday wishes, cruised down the center of the road, stopping in front of the house with green shutters with shamrocks.
Triplets Eileen, Meghan, and Elizabeth Whalen, Mary’s granddaughters, wearing pointed party hats, poked their heads out of their car’s sunroof, hatchback, and window. One steadied a five-foot cardboard candle on top of the car, while another held a life-size standee of Sesame Street character, Big Bird. Their father, Rick, produced a giant teddy bear flag from the trunk of another car.
“Happy birthday, Nana!”
“I can’t wait to hug you!”
“Oh, wonderful!” Mary clasped her hands in delight.
Another one of Mary’s ten grandchildren, Kelly Whelan, said in her excitement, “I almost forgot my sign!”
“Father Bob is here!” a voice called out while maintaining social distance.
“You’re kidding!” Mary responded in surprise, before addressing Father Marciano: “Put your mask on,” for today’s celebrations of milestones now include the wearing a medical mask and greeting the guest of honor from the inside of a car.
“What a family!” Mary exclaimed, before quickly adding, “Where’s your mask?” to another well-wisher.
Spontaneously, the group began to sing happy birthday as Mary dabbed her eyes under her sunglasses. Someone asked Father Marciano to offer a blessing, as those gathered bowed their heads and made the sign of the cross. Father offered a blessing for Mary, for whom “family, hard work, and faith,” have always been paramount, along with a prayer of thanksgiving for the gift of 95 years of Mary.
Father Marciano turned to address Mary personally, eyeing her home with the green shamrock shutters, “I’m going to have to get you a new flag,” he said jokingly. “Yours is faded. It looks like an Irish flag!”
While Irish Catholic homes display pictures of President Kennedy or the Pope, Mary’s kitchen has a photo of Father Marciano, her son Jim’s classmate, who’s considered one of the family. “Father Marciano has been a guiding force in our lives,” Mary’s grandson Ryan Whalen shared. Father was asked to officiate for three upcoming Whelan grandchildren’s weddings, all of which have been put on hold during these days of Covid-19 restrictions.
Mary‘s surprise gathering was the brainstorm of Mary’s three sons, George, Rick, and Jim Whelan, and daughter Cheryl Cotter. Their father, George J. Whelan, passed away in 1976 at age 51. Mary raised her four children while working as the director of the Rhode Island Housing Authority, a post she held for 28 years. During this time Rick and Jim both attended medical school.
Mary continues to serve on the Board of Directors of Bridgemark Addiction Recovery Services in Warwick, a nonprofit addiction treatment facility for men.
“She’s inspirational!” Ryan said of his grandmother, whom he calls Nana. She worked as the first chairwoman in Rhode Island for the Democratic Party in 1968 for Robert Kennedy‘s campaign.
Although he never met his grandfather, Ryan loves to hear her stories of him. George J. Whelan, served as city councilman for 22 years. A memorial at the entrance to Warwick City Park is dedicated to his memory.
Like grandmothers are known to do, Nana spoiled her grandchildren. Ryan remembers the ‘one cookie rule’ at Nana’s house. However, broken pieces didn’t count, so it always added up to more than just one. Like many grandmothers, too, Nana has a sweet tooth.
Mary’s daughter, Cheryl, suddenly appeared with a homemade yellow frosted cake with 9 and 5 candles—lemon, of course, Mary’s favorite. Mary cupped her cheeks in her hands as the crowd burst into another rousing rendition of the birthday song.
As Rick followed Cheryl with the cake into their childhood home, he carried the giant birthday candle and the tall Big Bird into the house. Jim observed of his brother, “It’s not done until it’s ‘overdone’!”
It was a picture perfect postcard day for a birthday. “Luck of the Irish,” someone explained.
The next day, on her actual birthday, Mary reflected on her birthday parade over a slice of lemon cake. “I couldn’t believe it! All my family and friends were there. I dreamt about it last night. It was beautiful.”
Mary, who grew up in Providence, has lived in her home for 68 years. She and her husband George were married for 29 years. When he passed away, their four children were aged 17 to 24.
“I had a wonderful husband,” she said. “He’s been gone 48 years.” She paused before adding, “If you can say you have four kids that go to church, and they’re all good, you are very lucky!” Her daughter Cheryl retired from the teaching profession. Her son George recently retired as Director of the Rhode Island Contractors’ Registration and Licensing Board. Jim and Rick are both doctors.
The celebration continues. Cheryl and her husband Kevin have been collecting birthday wishes in the form of photographs all week long, from all around the world. Friends in Australia and Mary’s cousins in Ireland and France have sent photos for a digital photo frame, for an ongoing slideshow of all the faces Mary loves the most.
“Life has been very good to me.” Mary said. “I really feel blessed.” Lucky indeed!