At first my mother said no when I brought it up. A party for her 90th birthday? "Oh, come on. It's just another year. I don't need to have a party," she said.
"Well, maybe we need to have one," I answered. "Shouldn't we be celebrating? And besides, your grandchildren want to do this."
That worked, as I knew it would. It helps that Lucy Plavchak loves her grandchildren without question. And she enjoys a good party, so she gave in and drew up a guest list, one that kept growing.
Her family and many friends wanted to celebrate her life and our good luck at still having her here with us. Mom is our matriarch, the last surviving member of her family and my father's. She's in relatively good health despite a few falls that resulted in some hospital stays the past few years. Mom still drives, goes to appointments alone, and keeps active with her card clubs, AARP meetings, reunions and lunches with her high school friends. She lives with my brother and his family and makes her homemade sauce, meatballs and chili for his Clairton bar and restaurant.
I know that genes play a major role in longevity, but my mother's family can't boast that track record. Beyond watching her health carefully, other factors may have had something to do with her working into her 80s and reaching her ninth decade in such good shape.
Mom learned early to be tough. Her Italian immigrant parents settled in Clairton and struggled during the Depression. They were evicted from their home and then moved with their six children to a number of apartments.
Then her father died suddenly when she was 16, so Mom worked as a waitress to help out. Probably her best-paying job as a young woman was at the Clairton Works' Pipe Shop as a Rosie the Riveter-type during World War II, where she and the others endured the taunts and snubs -- even the sabotage -- of the men there who didn't want the women around.
My earliest memories of her are moving around our small row house with a baby perched on one hip and always working -- cooking, washing all those diapers, ironing, baking and cleaning. It was just what you did then when you had four children in five years.
As the family disciplinarian she kept us in line as we grew up, not always an easy task. Once we reached our teens and our dad retired from the mill after a heart attack, Mom started to work outside of the home. She has told me it was easier.
She found her niche when she and my brother took over a Clairton restaurant and expanded it into a catering business in the late '70s and early '80s. It capitalized on her amazing cooking and baking talents, and their meals graced the tables of many weddings (including mine), graduations and parties. Her nut rolls are legendary.
Food and taking care of others have been a constant in her life. Anyone short on cash before payday could still get a good lunch or breakfast at her place. She learned to drive when I did and took family members, friends and neighbors to doctor's appointments and chemotherapy treatments. She brought her good food to them when they were ill and sat beside their hospital beds; more than once, Mom was there when they breathed their last breaths.
Our Slovak/Italian family members had more than their share of disputes, and for the most part, they resolved their differences. Most often that came about after sharing a meal or at least a cup of coffee. Her home was open every Sunday morning for coffee, gossip and conversation with her brothers and favorite niece. Now a group of us -- almost all widows -- continue that tradition, meeting for breakfast. We resolve problems, laugh, and give and take advice.
As for me, what I've learned from Mom -- beyond how to make her delicious spaghetti sauce -- is that I need to be strong and independent. Don't forget to take care of others, especially family, and you'll get through hard times. And there will be those hard times.
I relied on her support early in my marriage when she watched my children so I could work full time and not worry. And then six years ago, when my husband died suddenly, once again Mom took care of me. She had worked for my husband, John, in his dental office, scheduling patients and bringing him a lunch every day, and she offered advice as we prepared it for sale. And Mom knew what I faced; she had become a widow at nearly the same age as me. We pushed through those early dark days together.
Seventy people came to her party last week, and she was in her glory greeting them, posing for photographs and laughing at all the stories and shared memories.
I'll be lucky to have that many people wanting to celebrate my life when I reach 90. It's my honor to be known still around Clairton and beyond as Lucy's daughter and to write this as part of my birthday present to her. Love you, Mom. I can't thank you enough.
Helen Fallon is a professor at Point Park University's School of Communication, director of the university's honors program and a part-time copy editor at the Post-Gazette (email@example.com). First Published October 18, 2013 8:00 PM