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What’s a Big Birthday without a Big Bash? This Is the Year One Woman Finds Out

Jeannie Ralston isn't bothered that she's hitting 60, just that she's hitting 60 without her usual fanfare. Has the time come to be more discreet about birthdays?

I’ll admit it: I’m what I call a “birthday ham.” I’m one of those women who likes a fuss on–and days before and after–her birthday, someone who comes out and tells people (strangers, store clerks, and the like) that it’s my day of days. It’s all a bit obnoxious I know, but I can’t help it. Never is it more intense than on a big milestone birthday, and that’s just what’s happening this week. I’m turning 60, and God help my poor husband.

Obviously, my birthday blues are nothing compared to the real suffering COVID has caused, but still I’m frustrated that I’m greeting my 60s without a few trumpets and bright lights. I’m not bothered that I’m getting older; just that I’m getting older without sufficient fanfare.

I trace this need for birthday attention and celebration back to my position as the fourth of six children. Being a middle child is bad enough, but a middle child born close to Christmas might as well be part of the wall paper. I remember one year my mother asked if I’d be OK not having a cake since she was making holiday cookies and breads for our neighbors and friends. When I was in college, my birthday always fell during exams so no one was free to party with me. Poor, poor pitiful me.

As an adult, I vowed to change that.

My 30th Birthday: Cover Girl

60th birthday party, Travel & Leisure cover, Nudie Designer
Days of Heaven indeed!!

I didn’t really make a choice about how I celebrated this birthday; good fortune landed in my lap. I had just begun dating a photographer (who would become my husband). When he got an assignment the summer we met to photograph romantic hideaways in the Caribbean for Travel + Leisure magazine, he took me along “for inspiration.”

He shot many photos of me on that heady two-weeks of island hopping, one of them of me in a bikini sitting on a chair in St. Bart’s, looking out toward the horizon. It ended up on the cover, and the magazine came out of the newsstand the day before I turned 30. I didn’t have a big party for that birthday, but who needed one? I holed up with my new boyfriend and drank in the excitement and the world of possibility ahead of us.

Read More: 40 Ways to Celebrate Your Birthday—or Any Other Occasion—Alone

My 40th: Honky Tonk Woman

60th birthday party, Nudie designer
Dancing with my husband and sons.

By the time I turned 40, my husband and I had two sons, ages three and one. We were living out in the Texas Hill Country at the time, and I wanted a party that reflected my relatively new status as a rootin’, tootin’ Texan. I ended up hiring a band to perform in a famed dance hall in the nearby town of Fisher, Texas.

It was freezing that night, and the dance hall had big gaps between the slats. Dancing was the only way to keep warm, so we did that like crazy–under rafters that had been wound with magical, twinkling lights. Even my dear husband, who doesn’t like dancing, joined me on the floor–having taken lessons to surprise me.

Probably the best part of the party was what I wore–a genuine Nudie designer jacket. My husband and I had met working on a story for Life Magazine, me as the writer, he as the photographer. One of the people included in the story was a country music radio star in Fort Worth, who took a real liking to my husband. He ended up giving him one of his Nudie jackets, which appalled me since I didn’t think he, as a journalist, should accept it. He didn’t listen to me, figuring that he, as just the photographer, couldn’t be corrupted. Later, after he was my husband, he gave me the jacket, and I was glad he hadn’t turned it down.

The night of my 40th, the gold lame jacket, heavy with colorful rhinestone patterns, reflected and amplified the lights of the dance hall, It turned me into a disco ball–the shiny, happy center of attention, just as I thought I should be.

My 50th: Mariachi Loca

60th birthday party, Nudie designer

What in the world do you wear to your next party after that outfit? Well, you reprise it, giving it a bit of a twist. By the time I turned 50, we had just returned to Texas after living four years in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I was completely enchanted by all things Mexican; so there was my theme.

I had a pair of real Mariachi pants made in royal blue, which picked up on the blue in the jacket. I found a white shirt that mimicked the ones Mariachis wear (though some friends said it looked like the puffy shirt of Seinfeld fame). The invitation to my party was a gorgeous photo of my jacket with the words, “It’s Jeannie’s 50th, which means only one thing: Time to bring out the party jacket.”

With my Mariachi pants, it was only logical that I get a real Mariachi band to perform. I also hired a taco truck to park outside our house and serve guests. The cake was a delectable Tres Leches, a mega-rich confection I had come to love in Mexico. The party was magnificent–friends and family had come in from all over.

By the end of it, I was exhausted and told my husband, “For my 60th, remind me not to have it at our house.”

“What?” my husband asked. “You’re already planning your 60th?”

And in truth, I was–and would be over the next nine years, storing away places and inspirations for my next big bash.

My 60th: Home Alone

At the beginning of 2020, I was just starting to comb through the ideas I’d been gathering. I was toying with destinations for a weekend away with my best gal pals. One thing I knew for sure is that I would wear the jacket again and adapt it for a new theme. When COVID hit, I figured I’d have to scale back the celebration. Then COVID ebbed and rose and ebbed and rose again.

I briefly thought about renting out a drive-in movie theater and doing something that involved staying in your car. But how fun is that? By late October it became clear that the only sensible thing was to have no party at all.

I’m a little crushed that I won’t meet 60 arm-in-arm with a circle of friends who have traveled with me through the years. Even worse, my husband has to be out of town on my birthday night (though we did go to an outdoor restaurant for dinner this past weekend).

Of course, I’ll get over it. And maybe it’s only fitting that I temper my birthday mania in a time when so many have been suffering and sacrificing greatly. I mean, a good friend’s husband almost died this year from COVID. That’s real anguish. Probably it’s time for me to outgrow the childish, attention-craving origins of this obsession.

So I’ll Zoom with friends and extended family on the big day. My youngest and I will have dinner with a bestie (who has been in my bubble from the beginning) who has surprise desserts for me. I’ll thank God for my family’s health and my (many) extraordinary birthdays that have gotten me to this point. And I’ll wear my glorious jacket.

Read More: That Friend Who Keeps You Young. Who Is It For You?

By Jeannie Ralston


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