Nearly everyone has birthday photos. But few of us have been as methodical about collecting them as Bessie Sullivan, who turns 89 on Aug. 2.
Every year since her first birthday, Sullivan has had the same picture taken on her birthday. In each photo, she’s holding her birthday cake.
“I have a baby one and this old one and all of them in between,” said Sullivan, who was born and raised in Billings.
Her mother, Theresa Houser, took the first black-and-white picture of Sullivan sitting on the porch with the birthday cake. The cake with its single candle rests on a stool. Sullivan holds a doll and is dwarfed by a teddy bear beside her.
By age 2, she was old enough to hold her own cake. At age 3, she’s in the front yard wearing a dress with a white ruffled neckline and holding the cake at a somewhat crooked angle.
By the time Sullivan was married, at 20, the tradition was firmly rooted.
“My mom made the cakes until I got married, then she made them or bought them,” Sullivan said.
In the 1940s, Sullivan got her “Birthday Book,” a photo album she bought at the former Chapple Drug Store in Billings. She stuck each photo in a sleeve and numbered them, with space for two photos on each page. At the time, she thought the album had ample pages.
Last year, she filled the last page.
“I think I’ll just glue this year’s to the back, to the last page,” she said. “Then, if I make it to 90, I’ll just glue that one on the same page. There’s room for two.”
Years ago, Sullivan thought the whole tradition was pretty silly.
“Now I’m happy to have it,” she said. ‘It’s on my coffee table in a little basket of books all year long.”
She regrets not including her children in more of the photos. As she flips through the pages, time seems to whirl by.
“It’s fun to look at the hair,” she said.
In her early years, she had straight hair, cut in a bob with bangs. At age 12, she looks sassy in waved hair with a side part a la the 1920s. A sash cinches the waist of her long dress, which is trimmed in flowers.
Fashions of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s show up clearly. At age 31, she appears for the first time in slacks. The faded colored photo from 1968 shows a sleeveless shift in a wild paisley print. The dress is gathered at the neckline in a rolled collar.
The first color photo shows up on her 42nd birthday, when she’s wearing a blue dress, one of her favorite colors. At age 53, she’s wearing a pantsuit.
She’s not particularly choosy about her outfits for her birthday photos, which are usually quick snapshots at the end of the afternoon.
“I just make sure I’m not wearing the same one I wore six years ago,” she said.
On her 72nd birthday, Sullivan came home from the hospital after quadruple bypass surgery. The photo shows the cake resting on her lap and a heart-shaped polka-dot pillow with the hospital logo.
Many of the cakes were angel food, her favorite.
Many of the photos were taken by her late husband, Natt. In one, she’s posed by a friend’s cabin; in another, she’s standing beside a travel trailer.
“If I’m at a cabin or at a motel, they usually bring me a cupcake or something with a candle on it,” she said.
In one photo, she’s surrounded by card-playing friends. Sullivan started playing bridge in the 1950s with nearby housewives in the neighborhood around the 500 block of Clark Avenue. The bridge group still includes three of those original friends.
For at least a decade, Sullivan has played bingo on Friday nights at St. Pius Church. At Casa Village, she plays bunko with two groups of neighbors.
Friends teasingly describe the Four B’s: Bessie, bingo, bridge and bunko.
Although she’s never missed a birthday photo, last year the camera missed the action shot. After her sister-in-law snapped the photo, Sullivan tilted the cake plate, sending the cake and lighted candles toppling upside-down on to the living room carpet.
“I should have sat down with it and had a picture of that cake on the floor,” she said.
Instead, her niece cleaned up the mess, salvaging enough of the top layer for dessert.
Contact Donna Healy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1292.