Tea party surprises Johnson Sylvia Johnson, who was surprised with a special "dress up" birthday tea party Oct. 31 at the Austin Whittemore House in Vermillion, is surrounded by her daughters and granddaughters, Lynnette Graber, Sioux Falls, Heather Peterson, St. Paul, MN, Heidi Peterson, Vermillion, Debbie Peterson, Vermillion, and Sandy Odland, Arlington. The birthday party was just like the good old days when the family members played "dress up" with Sylvia, who always took the name Mrs. VanAsterbuilt Sweeny. See the story on page 12. Old dresses, long gloves, stylish hats, pearls and furs came out of storage for a unique birthday celebration on Oct. 31 as friends, neighbors and family of Sylvia Johnson, rural Vermillion, dug into their closets, trunks and cedar chests to dress up as "high society ladies" to surprise her for her 75th birthday.
The special event was held at the Austin Whittemore House in Vermillion.
When Sylvia's daughters, Sandy, Lynnette and Debbie were young, they would play "dress up", have tea parties and invite their mother. Sylvia would dress up, too, and take the pretend name "Mrs. VanAsterbuilt Sweeny," and attend their tea party.
The tea party tradition continued as her grandchildren arrived, the only difference being the furs had a few more bald spots and the hat was a little more moth eaten.
To begin Sylvia's surprise party, a limousine arrived at the farm, carrying her three daughters and two of her granddaughters, Heather and Heidi, dressed for the party.
Because Sylvia was not properly attired, a few extra minutes were taken to dress her for her party. Digging deep into the attic, Sylvia's favorite red, moth-eaten hat was located, a dress and jewels were chosen and bright rouge and lipstick were applied. The transformation to Mrs. VanAsterbuilt Sweeny was complete.
During the limousine trip to Vermillion, snacking on graham crackers frosted with chocolate frosting only peaked Mrs. VanAsterbuilt Sweeny's curiosity. Then, Rodney, her chauffeur, delivered Mrs. VanAsterbuilt Sweeny and her entourage to Deb's Hallmark, downtown Vermillion, to do some serious shopping, where only play money bought everything she wanted to help her remember the day.
To insure that all the guests were at the Austin Whittemore House, Mrs. VanAsterbuilt Sweeny's limousine arrived fashionably late. As her chauffeur held her door open and her sons-in-law and grandsons laid out the bed sheets (pretend for the red carpet), Sylvia stood speechless before her guests — a characteristic very unusual for Mrs. VanAsterbuilt Sweeny.
The silence, however, was soon broken with the muffled sound of gloved hands clapping, laughter and a spontaneous chorus of "Happy Birthday."
Inside the Austin Whittemore House, tables covered in crochet and lace table cloths and decorated with teapots, pearls and gloves set the mood for an elegant luncheon for Mrs. VanAsterbuilt Sweeny and her friends. The house came alive with visiting, laughter and sharing past memories as guests sipped tea and ate croissants.
Some of the clothes and accessories the guests wore came from Civic Council or GoodWill, but the majority of the attire had some connection to the wearer's family — a black wedding dress from the 1800s, Norwegian jewelry from a great aunt, a dress from the 1930s purchased with a first paycheck, a fur piece from a son in Alaska.
As friends, family and neighbors shared in a birthday party for a special friend, they also shared with one another a part of themselves and their heritage. As expressed by many of the guests, "We haven't had an opportunity to do this for years. Today allowed the 'little girl' in each of us to dress up and pretend."
Sylvia's actual birthday is Nov. 12.