Tim Dowling: my dad is 100 and there's something in my eye

© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Getty Images

What do you give a 100-year-old man for his birthday? The answer appears to be: whisky. In the run-up to my father’s centenary, neighbours keep dropping by his house in Connecticut with bottles. If we go out, we find wrapped packages leaning against the front door when we return. By the end of the week there are 30 bottles on the dining room table. I didn’t even know you could buy cards that say “Happy 100th” on them.

© Photograph: Getty Images ‘As an extended family, we find party planning difficult.’

Ironically, whisky is still on the ever-changing list of things to be bought before the birthday party in the boathouse across the road.

“You also need to get a watermelon,” the oldest one says.

“What for?” I say.

“Because Grandpa told us they used to have parties in the boathouse when he was young,” he says. “And they would get a watermelon and grease it, and then fight over it.”

“The Depression sounds fun,” I say.

We look over some enlarged black-and-white prints of my father from the time: a boy in a double-breasted overcoat and knickerbockers, standing in the snow with a shingled house in the background. When I stand in the same spot later that afternoon, I don’t recognise anything, not even from my own childhood. All the houses have been extended and expanded, or razed and replaced. Across the street, the new frame of a bloated mansion is gradually blotting out the sky as more cladding is tacked on. My father and the boathouse are the only original things still standing.

As an extended family, we find party planning difficult. On the way to one giant booze outlet, my brother and I are instructed by text to go to another, where some things are cheaper. We are then redirected to my sister’s house, because she’s got loads of free rum and bourbon just sitting in her basement.

“Our time is also worth money,” my brother says.

On the day of the party, my other sister and I go to pick up ice and other last-minute items, which is how I come to find myself in a supermarket aisle typing: “How do you grease a watermelon” into Google. My sister gets there first.

“Margarine or shortening?” she asks.

The first guest arrives at 5pm, before I’ve got the ice out of the car. My father turns up at 6.15pm in a brand new shirt, hair freshly trimmed by my sister-in-law. We install him on a bench outside, in accordance with Covid protocols, so that guests can come to him. Someone hands him a whisky.

In between errands, my brother and I had briefly conferred over a speech, which we then split down the middle. My brother’s half is about how inspiring my father’s example has been. Mine is essentially about how old he is.

“When he was born,” I say, “Warren Harding was president.” I repeat my father’s claim that a case of childhood chickenpox forced him to miss the first talking picture. “He wasn’t just born before television,” I say. “He was born before radio.”

Emotion catches me by surprise near the end, when I mention that my father worked as a dentist until he was 83 and suggest that some of those present may still have fillings that he put in. About a dozen people raise their hands.

Related: Tim Dowling: it’s my father’s 95th birthday, and he wants a game of tennis

When my dad leaves the party, I go over the road with him to help him up the stairs, not because he’s 100, but because he’s a little drunk.

“I’d like another scotch,” he says, when we’re halfway up. This seems like a terrible idea, but then again, the situation is unprecedented.

“Really?” I say.

“Of course not,” he says. “I was kidding.”

I go back to the party, and don’t see my father again until we all reconvene late the next morning.

“How do you feel?” I ask.

“Terrible,” he says, squinting. My brother reminds him that his eldest son had to help him up the stairs. Then he reminds me my eldest son had to help me up the stairs a few hours later.

“I sort of remember that,” I say.

“A torch was passed last night,” my brother says. The oldest one looks at my brother, and me.

“We never did grease that watermelon,” he says.

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