You only get one shot at party planning for a 100th birthday and friends of Virginia James were not going to be thwarted by a miserable little virus.
Flanked by Albemarle County Police Officer Paul Quillon’s motorcycle and Officer Katherine Kane’s Dodge Charger, more than two dozen of James’ friends cruised down Hillsdale Drive Tuesday morning to personally pass on greetings.
They drove in single file past James’ RoseWood Village retirement pad, honking the horns of their poster-plastered, balloon-festooned and crepe-papered cars while waving like 6-year-olds at a Santa Claus convention.
“She’s a special lady,” said Julia Sakellarios prior to the parade, as she and her dog Clary stood in the staging area at the Branchlands Boulevard Food Lion.
“We’re in a group together at the [Thomas Jefferson Memorial Universalist Unitarian] Church and she’s written a couple of books of poetry and she’s really something special,” Sakellarios said. “She deserves a party, but we can’t really have one with the virus.”
“She’s just a lovely human being and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a frown on her face. We would have had a grand party for her at the church,” said Sallie Park, who was celebrating her own 85th birthday at James’ parade. “At some point, when we can all get together safely, we’ll have that party.”
With COVID-19 restrictions keeping the party out of both the church and RoseWood Village, organizer JJ Towler said church members sought something special for the centenarian.
“We were going to have a surprise party for her at the church but we obviously couldn’t do that,” Towler said. “We didn’t want to flood her with birthday cards because her eyesight isn’t what it used to be and releasing helium balloons isn’t good for the environment.”
That’s when the drive-by came up.
“How about a parade? We figured we could decorate our cars however we wanted and drive by and honk horns and wave and let her know we care,” Towler said. “Let’s face it, you don’t turn 100 very often and we didn’t want to miss out on this chance to celebrate.”
Emails were sent. Plans were planned. Posters were drawn.
It was on.
Two dozen drivers showed up at the Food Lion parking lot around 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, taping decorations to their vehicles and shooting the breeze until time to line up behind Quillon’s Harley-Davidson.
Meanwhile, just down the road a piece, birthday girl Virginia James sat on the back patio of RoseWood Village, surrounded by posters, streamers, balloons and flags, the traditional trappings of birthday greetings from staff, friends and family.
“When mom turned 90, she had a hot-air balloon ride and the pilot said if she made 100 she could have one free. With the pandemic, she missed that one,” said James’ daughter, Mary Wright.
“We were hoping for about four more balloons and a lawn chair and maybe we could get her about four feet off the ground,” joked her son, John James, as his mom, surrounded by balloons, awaited the event. “But this is great.”
As Quillon’s motorcycle passed by with emergency lights flashing, James’ friends slowly followed, passing her viewing stand while hooting, honking and hollering. All the while James waved and yelled back.
A few cars driving the other way joined in the fun, honking and waving to James.
Finally Kane’s black police Charger, with strobe lights and whooping siren, cruised by and announced the end.
“It was fabulous,” James said after Kane’s car turned the corner. “I’ll remember this birthday for another hundred years, until my 200th!”