Oldest living North Dakotan shares her childhood birthday memories
Do you remember your seventh birthday party? Iris Westman has seen 105 years pass since hers, but she shared with me in great detail her memories of the first birthday party she remembers, her seventh birthday.
Iris — the oldest living North Dakotan — is my great-great aunt, a sister to my late great-grandfather. More than a relative, she was my childhood pen pal and grew into a mentor and a lifelong influence of kindness, generosity and grace.
I visited with Iris outside her nursing home entrance on her 112th birthday, Aug. 28, 2017. She told me how she never knew about birthday parties until she heard kids discuss them when she started school in town. Her birthday, in the middle of harvest, had never been celebrated. She asked her mother for a birthday party.
On Aug. 28, 1912, the Miller boys came over — she remembers Gordon and Leroy for sure, but Wilford may have been too young to join them and Violet Miller hadn't been born yet. Iris chuckled as she recollected how many neighbors' daughters were named after flowers; she was Iris, the Carlsons had Lily and eventually the Millers had Violet.
"Just the Moens didn't follow the trend! Their daughter was Beulah!" Iris said.
Her oldest brother, Roland, didn't attend her seventh birthday party. Then 12 years old, he liked to be in the field for harvest. "He wasn't actually harvesting yet, but he liked to hang out with the men," Iris explained.
Their brothers Sidney and Odin, who was my great-grandpa and my youngest nephew's namesake, were home to celebrate.
The Miller boys suggested they take off their socks and shoes and walk in the mud created by a light rain shower. Iris first received permission from her mother while the boys starting taking off their shoes and socks.
Iris squished her toes in the soft mud. The boys then suggested a mud fight. Iris smiled at me and said, in her former teacher voice, "But we did not do that."
They cleaned off their feet before going inside the house to eat Iris's homemade birthday cake, a chocolate cake with chocolate icing.
"That cake was completely against my mother's principles. I wanted chocolate cake with chocolate icing, and so she did it. But she always made it clear chocolate cake should have caramel or white icing. Yellow or white cake should have chocolate icing," Iris said.
As the mother of young girls 105 years later, I understand the desire Iris's mother, Mathilda, had to please her daughter. I think, also, of how she still would have been mourning her other two daughters, Ina and Eva, who had died within the same year just a few years prior to Iris's seventh birthday. I imagine baking the chosen chocolate birthday cake for her only living daughter was a purposeful pause in the middle of harvest, even if the cake itself was against her baking principles.
The cake was served with Jell-O instead of ice cream, Iris explained.
"The Millers had an ice house, so we ate ice cream when we went to their house," she told me. "But we didn't have one."
After the cake and Jell-O, the Miller boys went home.
"I suppose if I would have gone to country school and not to town I may have not learned about birthday parties until I was much older, but that chocolate cake with chocolate icing I will never forget," she said.
Iris became our family's first college graduate 21 years after her seventh birthday party, earning a bachelor's degree in education from the University of North Dakota in 1928 before embarking on a public school teaching career in North Dakota and Minnesota. She spent two summers at the University of Minnesota to earn a library science certification, then became a librarian in Worthington, Minn., retiring in 1972.
I don't know if I will have Iris's longevity or if I will be able to share my childhood birthday party memories ever in such detail. From Iris's example and wisdom, I have a passion for education. I work to be a kinder, more generous person.
And I always eat chocolate cake with chocolate icing on it and think of her.