Big day for ‘Da Mama’: Community surprises longtime resident on her 90th birthday

Mickey “Da Mama” Schwald beams from the floral throne her granddaughter made for the event. (Photos by David Carlos)

Friends and family of longtime Mountlake Terrace resident Mickey Schwald celebrated her 90th birthday by throwing her a surprise party.

Schwald’s health is compromised by medical issues, so organizers put together a socially distanced party during which people drove by Schwald’s residence to wish her a happy birthday. Attendees at last weekend’s event were also treated to cupcakes.

Laura W.S., who helped with planning the celebration and requested her last name not be used, said that while there was a core group of about six initial organizers that also included members of Schwald’s family, “It was a community effort for sure.”

“We tried to make it as safe as possible for her,” she added.

“Mickey has had several medical scares that she has fought through and surpassed doctors’ expectations for her outcome,” said Shannon Gonsalves, who also helped arrange the event. “She has always wanted a big birthday bash at 90, but COVID changed that. We knew we had to make it big somehow.”

Organizers noted that Schwald, whom many people refer to as “Da Mama,” has long been involved in the community and loves to help out other people. So they wanted to make sure she knew how much the community cared about her. “She definitely takes the role of everyone’s grandmother,” Laura said. “She took care of everyone, kids, grandkids, for so many years and now at 90 years old – or even in her 80s – it’s time for her to sit back and relax and let other people take care of her which is what we do here in this little town.”

While Schwald had previously mentioned that she would like to have people drive-by for her birthday along with cupcakes, organizers decided they would like to surprise her. In addition to setting up an event on the Mountlake Terrace Community Facebook group page, which let people know when and how they could help celebrate the milestone birthday, donations were collected to buy presents.

While Schwald could see who had replied that they planned to attend the event, the gifts and full extent of the group’s plans were kept secret from her in a separate conversation thread.

“Planning it was really fun, thinking about it, anticipating her reaction, thinking about how happy it was going to make her, shopping for it and putting it all together,” said Laura, who said she’s adopted Schwald “as my grandma.”

Schwald’s front yard was festive with decorations including this large sign.

Several people who helped organize the Aug. 21 three-hour event decorated the outside of Schwald’s house, unbeknownst to her, on the morning of the party. A large yard sign wished her a happy birthday, a floral throne was put together by her granddaughter for the occasion, there was a canopy-covered table for the homemade cupcakes and various gifts, and several bouquets of flowers, including an especially large one made from 90 homegrown roses that organizers had put together.

“She used to tend to her flowers like they were her kids, she loves flowers, so we made it a flower theme,” Laura said, “and we represented the community garden in the flower vases that we had.”

Schwald, who was a florist for 25 years and enjoys gardening, noted, “I love flowers and I told them (previously), “Hey give me flowers while I’m living because I can’t smell them when I’m dead.” Nonetheless, Schwald said she was blown away but the sheer amount and beauty of those she received at Saturday’s event. “They are absolutely stunning — gorgeous,” she said.

Schwald said she “had to use my biggest soup kettle as a vase,” for the bouquet of 90 roses “gifted by my dear, dear friends David and Laura Elhai.” (Photo courtesy Mickey Schwald)

The group also used money donated for gifts to purchase a large ficus tree for Schwald, which they knew would be special to her. Schwald previously had a beloved ficus tree in her living room for nearly 40 years, but it had died during an extended hospitalization of hers when no one could care for it. “She talked about how she was so heartbroken that one died and so we thought we could give it to her for her birthday,” Laura said. “Everyone chipped in to buy her this Ficus tree and then we had it sitting out by the gift table. When she noticed it, it was so sweet, she was so happy and also really shocked.”

When the group of family and close friends present brought Schwald outside to show her what had been put together, the extent of their efforts definitely caught her off guard. “She walked out and she had no idea,” Laura said. “She kept saying, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh,’ and she was just so surprised and so happy and she started crying. It was just really amazing to see her so happy and so surprised.”

“This community’s been very, very supportive to me, I’ve lived here 60 years, and they just take care of me,” Schwald said, noting that her reaction upon seeing the large yard sign was, “Holy crap,” and then “I knew something was going on.”

Schwald sat in her floral throne while nearly 25 cars drove by to wish her a happy birthday on Saturday, in addition to those family members and close friends who were gathered at her house for the event. “I would say it was a good 100 people plus that came by to greet me,” Schwald said. “It was one hell of a birthday!”

Schwald, who posed for pictures with family members at Saturday’s party, said, “This is the reward for living a long life: To be surrounded by family.”

Several of her children and extended family members who live in other parts of the U.S. were also able to surprise Schwald by attending the party, and then afterward they held a family dinner. In addition, a family friend Schwald hadn’t seen in decades stopped by, and a handful of city officials also made appearances Saturday afternoon to wish her a happy birthday. Mayor Kyoko Matsumoto Wright said that Schwald “has become a dear friend,” adding “I wanted to be a part of her special day.”

Gonsalves reported her favorite part of the festivities was “Mickey’s reaction and how it made her feel special and celebrated.”

“I’m usually not at a loss for words, but when I shut up and the tears flow I have no control,” Schwald said. “I had tears in my eyes,” at Saturday’s celebration and “my heart overfloweth with love and gratitude to everyone involved in bringing this all about.” She reported that in the days since, she’s been enjoying looking at all the pictures people took and also going back over the numerous birthday cards and wishes she received from people both in person and online. “I’m going through and I’m reliving the event,” she said. “I will savor this for a long, long time.”

Sarah Junkin-Clark made 175 cupcakes to be handed out to people attending the birthday party. Schwald said the following day she shared those that were still left with her “church family.”

Schwald said she’s “been involved in the community in one way or the other all the time I’ve lived here,” including serving as a PTA president, president of the garden club, and on the board of directors for the Mountlake Terrace Community Senior Center. She has also stayed active involved in various roles with her church, volunteering with both the Fraternal Order of Eagles and the American Legion organizations, and as a troop leader for Girl Scouts. In addition, Schwald regularly cans food items throughout the year — she estimates she produces approximately 400-500 cans annually — that she then gives to other people in the community. Plus she is a self-described “facilitator” who helps connect people in need with available help or resources.

Schwald said she’s “nobody special,” but believes that her passion for helping other people stems from her mother and having grown up in a logging camp during the Great Depression. “I do it because I like to do it and I do it because my mother, God rest her soul, told me, ‘Babe, it doesn’t cost much to be nice,’ and it doesn’t. You may be the only nice thing that’s happened to that person that day and you do it because it’s in your heart, you don’t do it for anything you may get back…I do it because it’s the right thing to do – that’s just how I operate.”

She noted feeling blessed that the community has also been very helpful to her throughout the years, especially as her health has declined. “I had a series of severe illnesses, but my community has had my back 100%,” she said, adding “that tells me people really care.”

“It was such fun,” and “blew me away, just totally blew me away – it was something else,” Schwald said of the celebration on Saturday. “I was so surprised, it was a glorious 90th birthday and absolutely incredible.” Her voice welled up with emotion as she added, “I am so grateful to this community because they look after me in every way.”

— By Nathan Blackwell

  1. I’m so happy you received the birthday you certainly deserved. God has been watching over you. I love you.

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