My father-in-law turned 84 last week. We climbed on the roof to celebrate.

Not your typical family birthday activity, but then again, that side of the tree is far from typical.

One Halloween, we swung by with the kids to get candy and wound up helping wash the lunatic family dog. You never know what a visit will bring.

“Oh Lord, let him get to the ladder safely.”

That was my sister-in-law. She was busy praying as various ones mounted the second-story slate roof on the old farmhouse.

I was just thankful we had a long enough ladder that we didn’t have to get the tractor involved. For those not familiar with this bumpkin trick, you place a ladder in a raised tractor bucket and then climb the ladder. If it sounds dangerous, it’s because it is. Basic YouTube video material.

It was mother-in-law’s idea to have the party — “something casual, like an open house.”

Cute idea, except for the fact Petteys don’t “open house.” If you say a party starts at 2, they arrive between 2 and 2:01.

My father-in-law didn’t even know there was a party until people started to arrive. It wasn’t a surprise party, per se. It was a, “I’m not telling you I invited everyone you know to our house to celebrate you because I know you hate the fuss and attention but I am doing it anyway” sort of surprise.

By the time we arrived at 2:30, everyone was standing stiffly in the kitchen. My Aunt Gayle, who has more energy than a swirling dervish on Red Bull, had already whisked away the cold cut tray, pulled out her famous carrot cake, which weighs the rough equivalent of a car tire, and was lighting it on fire before we had our coats off.

Before the cake was polished off, my brother-in-law started getting antsy.

“Well do you want to do it now?” he asked.

“Might as well,” shrugged his son.

I got up to follow them out the door. I didn’t know what was happening but I knew whatever it was, I wanted to be a part of it.

“Well, at least the wood stove isn’t going this time,” remarked another sister-in-law. Last year, Vin almost passed out from the smoke blowing up in his face.”

That’s when I learned about what had apparently become a tradition — cleaning Pa’s chimney on his birthday.

My nephew was already outside, snaking a brush down the top of the chimney. For those fearing we had kids up on the roof, my nephew is a grown man with two boys of his own, who were indeed asking if they could join their father. We had the sense to tell them, no, not this year.

“I can see a chunk sticking out of one side,” Pa called from inside, up through the bottom of the chimney.

The old man was as happy as a lark. Happiest he had been, in fact, all party.

Down on his hands and knees, shoveling shiny black hunks of creosote into the garbage can like it was gold.

“Excellent. That’s excellent!” he called up the shoot.

And I was able to give answer to the age-old question: what do you get the person who has everything?

A clean chimney.

The perfect gift for that special someone.

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Martha Petteys writes a weekly column for The Post-Star. Write to her at petteyshome@gmail.com or visit her on Facebook.


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