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Tuesday, September 23, 2014, 1:43 a.m.
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Partying for family patriarch

By Tammy Keith

This article was published June 15, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

It got here before we knew it.

I don’t feel worthy enough — or caffeinated, or well-rested enough — to write this, but here goes.

The patriarch of the Keith family turned 90, and we came together to celebrate and honor him.

Months ago, the planning started for my father-in-law’s festivities, with my husband’s oldest sister, Catherine (Katie to some of us) leading the parade, as usual. She’s the motivator, encourager and eternally optimistic one of the bunch.

Now, if you don’t know Joe, you might have the wrong mental image. If you think of 90 as a wizened little old man, erase that picture.

This is a 6-foot man who doesn’t have much gray (OK, so he doesn’t have much hair, but what he has isn’t all gray), and on his birthday, he drove to the golf course to not only play 18 holes of golf, but also to beat his two sons and a grandson like a drum, as my husband put it.

Our first round of celebration was last Sunday, when we gathered in Malvern at the early-1900s family home his parents lived in and which had made its way back into the family a few years ago.

In addition to us Conwegians, the relatives came from Maine, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Nevada. We hadn’t seen some of them in years, our lives too busy and too spread across the country.

We caught up over barbecue, baked beans and the chocolate cake I want as part of my last meal. My father-in-law sat at the table where we sat years ago with his mother, who lived in the house until she was 98. We took family pictures, laughed and listened as my father-in-law got emotional as he told the story of the Honor Flight he took a couple of years ago.

We gave him golf shirts, more golf shirts and golf shorts. What do you give a man who has everything he wants or needs? Eggplant, apparently. He was probably most pleased by his younger daughter’s promise to give him the first two from her garden.

On his actual birthday, we gathered at the Malvern Country Club with members of the club; the Malvern Lions Club, where he’s been a member for about 61 years; and the First United Methodist Church, where he’s been a member forever and for years and years kicked off the Christmas season by singing a solo version of “O Holy Night.”

He’s helped make that community better by being in it, and people wanted to acknowledge that.

As we ate, one member of the church came up and said, jokingly, to my husband, “Your dad deserves this — he’s had to sit next to me in the choir for 30 years. It’s not a pleasant experience.”

A slide show, which my sister-in-law Sonja and one of her daughters spent hours putting together, played as we talked. Pictures of Joe as a child, teenager, groom, father, grandfather and great-grandfather and our history as a family flashed by on the wall.

My husband had months to plan, so, of course, he got up without any idea of what he was going to say to welcome the guests. He introduced family members, down to the newest member of the family, Aria, whom, he said, was being passed around the room like a “loaf of bread” by her grandmother Jane.

The whole room sang “Happy Birthday” to Joe, (including Joe, who sang “Happy birthday to me”). He clasped his hands together and held them over his head like a prizefighter. He stood and told his friends and family that he couldn’t say much without getting choked up, but, “I love you all,” he said.

We are a family, not a Hallmark movie, but for this night, we came together and forgot our problems.

After the leftover cake was boxed, the birthday signs were taken down and rounds were made to say our goodbyes, we went our separate ways — back to crazy, hectic life. We have work and wedding plans, doctor’s appointments and deadlines.

I hope I have said it before, but in case I haven’t, I want to say thank you, Joe, for your calm, wise and steady guidance in our family. Thank you for marrying Dorothy and starting this wonderful family (especially that last son of yours).

As my husband told the audience after he thanked them for coming, “We’ll do this again in 10 years.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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