ALVO- Frances Taylor figured she'd have her first birthday party at Mel's Mini-Mart, right around the corner from her tiny white trailer in Alvo.
She hadn't planned on having a party at all, not when she was going to be 80 years old for heaven's sake, but then she got that card in the mail.
The card from Bette.
Bette, who she'd only met twice in her whole life. Bette, who had eyes for her brother back in the '40s - before he died in that terrible explosion on the plane.
But that's another story, says Frances, who never married or had kids, or any occasion to host a party for herself.
Until Bette sent her that birthday card with a $5 bill and some instructions tucked inside.
Treat yourself and your friends to some coffee or tea, she wrote.
Oh, bother, Frances thought. A party at her age?
Where would she go?
Who would she ask?
"Then I got to thinking, well, I don't drink coffee or tea, but our little store in Alvo does have 25-cent ice cream cones. I guess I could have ice cream, and I could invite some people who had helped me out."
And that's another story, Frances says.
The story of the people who had helped her out.
Frances is a retired science teacher with fine white hair that falls past her chin. She wears rugged shoes and practical pants and recycles pretty near everything.
She lives in the white trailer she bought in 1958 - the kind that looks like a faded postcard from the days of Ozzie and Harriett, when two-lane highways carried happy families across America.
It's been parked in a big lot on Main Street in Alvo since 1988, and Frances has planted the yard with hundreds of irises - historic varieties dug from the beds her parents grew back in Kansas.
Frances is an independent woman. She's different from most, she says. She knows that. She speaks her mind, does her own repairs, feels that women are -what should she say?- a bit fickle, and so she prefers the company of men.
She was trying to fix a broken hinge on her sofa bed when it collapsed on her a year and a half ago. It trapped her for 17 hours.
That's when people started helping her.
They drove her to Lincoln for doctors' appointments. They mowed her lawn. They helped dig up and divide her irises. They pulled weeds. They brought groceries.
They might like a party.
"I decided, well, this is what I'll do. I'll invite these people to have some ice cream with me at Mel's," Frances explains.
Blanche Root runs Mel's Mini-Mart. The store was once a family room and bedroom at the back of her house, but 17 years ago Blanche and her husband, Mel, turned the rooms into a small grocery store.
Mel is gone now and Blanche runs the store. It's a homey place with a pot of coffee on every morning and seating for four at a table covered with a red-checked cloth. She serves ice cream out of a tan Montgomery Ward freezer. And cones are just a quarter.
The more Frances thought about all the people who'd helped her, she knew they couldn't squeeze into the space between the discount bin and the microwave at Mel's.
"I got to thinking they may have some children at home who'd like some ice cream and spouses who'd helped just as much. It just grew and grew."
And that's the other story.
How she decided to hold her party at the United Methodist Church, which she attends faithfully, when able, and provides with bouquets of irises in season.
How she told everyone to show up on the last Saturday of March at 2 o'clock.
How Diane Bolin came with four of her children. Then Jackie Lewis and her daughter. Marsha Barrier. Helen Copple. Kay Roundey. Blanche from the mini-mart.
Twelve at least, maybe 15.
Frances brought a fruitcake, a half-gallon of ice cream and cones, elderberry jelly for topping.
Kay brought daffodils.
Helen made a cake and fresh strawberries and extra ice cream.
Jackie brought paper plates and forks.
"Who brought the nuts, I do not know," Frances says.
"They kept bringing things until it was a full-blown party."
Frances passed out typed copies of "Bits of Wisdom From 80 Years of Life," thoughts she gathered as she prepared for her big day.
She read them all.
Work, for the night is coming...
Brighten the corner where you are...
Do not threaten God when you pray...
Everyone sang "Happy Birthday."
The party was over by 3:30.
"It's just been ages since I had as much fun as I did that day."
The party cost Frances $6.
A dollar of her own. And that $5 bill from Bette that started it all.
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