Eileen Wilkinson was born during the First World War, when the majority of families did not own cars or telephones, and when some rural towns did not yet have electricity.
The Sammamish grandmother of six and great-grandmother of 10 celebrated her 101st birthday in style at the Issaquah Highlands UPS Store on Wednesday morning surrounded by friends, family — and quite a few messages from strangers.
Via the “Grandma Eileen” Facebook page set up by grandson Mike Matthews — which has over 4,500 likes — Wilkinson’s family asked for people around the U.S. to send the centenarian letters and cards for her birthday. After all, this was the main mode of communication when Wilkinson was young.
“They’re [full] sentences. A letter is something you can read over and over — you get how the person feels,” Wilkinson said. With emails and text messages, “you don’t get any emotion.”
As a surprise, Wilkinson’s family set up a mailbox at The UPS Store, and during the past month, over 100 letters from all around the U.S. have poured in (and more are on the way from Germany) to congratulate Wilkinson on her big day.
Wilkinson entered The UPS Store and was blown away to discover the secret mailbox full of letters, along with a cake and balloons from UPS Store staff. Loved ones and UPS Store employees sang “Happy Birthday” to Wilkinson.
“How in the world could this happen to me — an ordinary person?” she said.
With a little help from granddaughter-in-law Heather Matthews — because, as Wilkinson joked, “I didn’t bring my glasses” — she proceeded to read the first letter from a man named Sam who lives in California.
“I don’t know Sam, but thank you Sam,” she said. “Isn’t that nice? You couldn’t expect anything better than that.”
She observed that the letter campaign may have been so successful because “there is so much going on in the world that is so ugly right now, that people want something fun.”
Wilkinson pointed to the dozens of letters and stated, “I really will answer all these — I’ve got the time.”
Mike Matthews, who lives in New York City, sets up a stand with his laptop on the city streets and invites passers-by to take part in Skype conversations with his grandmother. Wilkinson is not shy about giving advice during these conversations, and her witty pieces of wisdom have made her a social media hit on the “Grandma Eileen” Facebook page.
Friends of the family are impressed by Wilkinson’s quick mind, which they said has not diminished with age.
“She’s sharp as a tack; she remembers everything,” said Sammamish resident Melissa Gardner, a friend from Wilkinson’s church. “She doesn’t miss a beat.”
Sammamish resident Kris Millett, another of Wilkinson’s many friends, described how Wilkinson has mentored a whole group of young men in their teens and 20s from the church, giving them advice on manners and dating, and teaching them skills such as painting.
“It’s been powerful,” Millett said.
Millett’s son is a part of the group, and remembers how Wilkinson gave them all flamboyant printed socks. Every time the teens put on their wild socks, Millett said, they think of Wilkinson.
UPS Store spokesperson Tracy Spahr flew up to Washington from San Diego to be present at Wilkinson’s birthday bash.
“It’s such a great milestone that we just wanted to make it a fun party,” she said.
During the party, Wilkinson reflected on her 101 years. She remembers the Model T Ford her family owned in the 1920s, and how, as a young, married mother on the World War II homefront, she helped make sure her neighbors’ blinds were drawn in case of an air raid.
“Everyone has a story to tell. I don’t think any of us have gone through life without a few stories and problems,” Wilkinson observed.
As one might expect, Wilkinson’s century has included both ups and downs, but she said that she has no regrets.
“I wouldn’t change anything because you learn about life as you live it,” she said. “Things come in your life that you have to deal with. Decision-making is very important.”
Her secret to reaching the milestone of 101? Wilkinson said that she has no secret in particular, but noted that a life full of happiness is key to longevity.
“I’ve always lived a good life … I’ve had a good family, good parents,” she said. “I’ve lived a happy life.”
She added with a wry smile, “Friends have very much of an influence in keeping you happy — close friends who know when to keep their mouths shut.”
Wilkinson’s family is keeping the mailbox open for a few more weeks in anticipation of belated birthday messages coming in. To send your own special greetings, address handwritten cards and letters to Eileen Wilkinson, 1567 Highlands Drive NE, Suite 110, #365, Issaquah, WA 98029.