One day, just before Elberta Stout's 90th birthday, six birthday cards arrived at the Marion Living Center in Assumption Village, where she lives. She was surprised; she hadn't seen one of the senders in 40 years.
The next day, more cards arrived. And the next day, more, until one day, she was called down to the office to retrieve 50. By the time her July 4th birthday passed, Elberta had collected 170 birthday cards.
The postmarks came from California, Alaska, Florida, Ohio, Texas, Kentucky, Oregon, West Virginia, Nevada and Germany. They came from daughters, a sister, nieces, nephews, cousins, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, in-laws, doctors, friends and friends of friends.
"I was completely surprised," Elberta said from her rose-scented apartment. A potpourri that came with one card perfumes the room. It is tucked beside the almost 200 birthday greetings in a large, stuffed basket.
An idea: Curly-haired, with gray and dark brown hair -- "I never had a drop of dye" -- sitting in a wheelchair, and looking young for 90 in shorts and Easy Spirit tennis shoes, Stout looks overjoyed at the result of her three daughters' birthday idea.
"We didn't want a big party," daughter Kathy Ohlin explained. "We thought it would be too overwhelming. So we thought of a card shower."
"It was a wonderful idea," Elberta agreed. "Kathy came to help me open them the one day. We started at lunch and didn't finish until dinner, there were so many."
Kathy, who lives in Poland, engineered the surprise with her two sisters, Circleville resident Carolyn Weigand and Becky Daft of Lynchburg. The logistics made it interesting. Kathy said, "We started in February or March, putting it together. We brainstormed an address list. Becky composed the letter and e-mailed it to us. We made changes and e-mailed it back. She found pansy stationery --"
"Pansies are my favorite flower," Elberta interrupted.
"-- and had them printed. She signed them all, and sent them to me." Carolyn, who was visiting, sat with Kathy at the kitchen table and signed the 180 letters requesting birthday greetings for Elberta. Carolyn left, taking half home to mail.
Perfection: Shortly after, Kathy's phone rang. "Look at the date," Carolyn's voice said from Circleville. "June 1... 2000!" So they started all over again.
Finally, the letters hit the mailbox. "The best birthday surprise would be a mailbox loaded with birthday wishes from all of you. If you could add a note or photo, it would be a special treat," the letter read in part.
Varied gifts: The recipients took it to heart, alerting others to send cards, and sending black-and-white photos from Elberta's past along with current photos and notes. A basket of flowers arrived; a card from two "little girls" Elberta used to baby-sit included 15 small wrapped gifts ranging from chewing gum to lipstick to "make [her] birthday last." A huge card arrived from Texas, "big enough to hold 90 birthday wishes." A pipe cleaner tree came from the 8-year-old daughter of her daughter's fianc & eacute;.
"It's been exciting," Elberta said.
"We had more fun than the three of us have had a a long time," Kathy said. In the end, they had about a 90 percent reply rate to their letters and to well-placed announcements in the church bulletin and a newspaper.
Elberta, who was born Elberta Knotts in Knox County -- "no doctor, born at home, and loved the country" -- is the middle child, with two sisters older and a sister and brother younger. Only one sister remains alive at 93. Elberta married Stanley Stout in 1936 and worked at Lazarus Department store in downtown Columbus before she had her first baby.
The cards brought back memories "not quite to my childhood," Elberta said. "I want to thank everyone who wrote to me."