97 candles are too many. Why? First, at 97 it is rare to have enough puff to blow them all out. Second, the heat would probably melt all the icing on the cake. Third, the blaze might end up causing a fire in the nursing home. So, instead of 97, we just had three on Mum’s birthday cake. Why three? I’m not really sure. Was it a countdown to her imminent centenary? Was it symbolic of past, present and future? Actually I think it was just because three are easy to blow out and not as mean looking as two! Anyway, no matter how many candles she had on her cake, Mum has achieved an amazing feat in reaching 97 years of age.
She has lived through the division of Ireland into North and South, World War 2, The Troubles in Northern Ireland, countless governments and political upheavals; she has lived in the countryside, city and provincial town… I often think about the huge changes she must have seen in almost a century and a while ago I asked her to tell me about some of those. At first she couldn’t think of anything, but then she said: “The computer – the way you can find everything out on it.” Her second choice was travel: “People can go all over the world so easily now,” she said. I suppose both these changes (and many others she didn’t name) have really come about in the second half of her life – long after my sisters and I were born. I too would say the computer is one of the biggest changes in my lifetime (especially Skype and Google!) and travel has certainly made the world much smaller in recent years. But greater than the physical changes Mum identified are social changes – like the role of women. Mum never had the opportunity to have a career, since she left school at 13 years of age to work on the family farm. She would have liked to train as a nurse but the family had no sons, so she became a farm worker. Two generations later, this would be a lot less likely to happen in our society. So much for the big changes in a century; but what about the things that haven’t really changed? People have not changed fundamentally: we still have capacity for good and evil; we still need each other to live happy and fulfilled lives. The emphasis on family closeness, love and responsibility that we experienced throughout our childhood continues into our younger generations. Mum is still interested in what we are all doing – children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, friends and relations. On her 97th birthday Mum received many cards, greetings and visitors – ample evidence of her unchanging commitment to people and selfless interest in the lives of others. And underneath all this, I hardly need to say, lies Mum’s quiet but strong faith in Jesus who does not change. If God spares her for another year, the candle issue will test us yet again: 98 is divisible by 2, by 7, by 14 and by 49… maybe three is the simplest solution, after all.